Sometimes your suspicions can be aroused by an undone bow tie and a vintage microphone. Have you smelled a rat (pack)? Is this a middle-aged slide into mediocrity – pop’s equivalent of the proverbial pipe and slippers? Is it perhaps a cynical marketing manoeuvre to keep pace with an ageing fanbase? Or is something else going on? Something more estimable and with more substance.
This is where Seal finds himself, in the meridian of life. With the dreadlock days of 20-something angst (‘Killer’) in the rear-view mirror, along with the 30-something bliss of ‘Kiss From A Rose’, Seal now treads the surprising new path of swing. Yes, that’s right, swing! Who saw that one coming? Though, is it refined or redundant, we inevitably ask ourselves?
Setting cynicism aside, though, this is actually a genre that Seal was arguably born to get his chops ‘round, and he does have the chops, it has to be said. Beginning with a bang – and with a full band of ten, including woodwind and brass – he launched straight into a big one, ‘Luck Be A Lady’, followed swiftly by ‘I Put A Spell On You’. Then for some Gershwin (‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’) and some Cole Porter for good measure (‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’). There’s no denying it – Seal is built for this stuff. Then came a song that felt just a little too big for the man though, too spacious, too cavernous, even for a voice that famously sounds like it’s reverberating ‘round a canyon (‘My Funny Valentine’). A solitary, sombre trumpet came to his rescue though, and you could easily be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were ensconced at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, amid the crimson velvet and the glow of the tasselled lamps. Of course Sinatra had to feature in the setlist and finish off the first half (‘It Was A Very Good Year’ followed by ‘That’s Life’) before a bold, brave and complete change of scene, as an acoustic guitar was handed to the frontman, which he threw on left-handed.
The double acoustic rendition of ‘Kiss From A Rose’, flanked by flute, seemed to transport the song back centuries, lute-like, to medieval times. Never mind the 90s, this gig was a tardis, traversing time in strange and unexpected ways and, surprisingly, not to its detriment. Some leaden, Johnny Cash-esque guitar then gave way to ‘Whirlpool’ from the debut album of 1991, immediately followed, in album sequence, by ‘Future Love Paradise’. Then a hop, skip and a jump to sophomore territory, with ‘Prayer For The Dying’, before a return to source for the night’s indisputable highlight (‘Killer’). Off the stage now, and standing far down the audience aisle, the plaintive, reverb-laden plea of: “Brother!” resounded in the round. The audience leapt to their feet with the familiar bassline and nightclub throb and those stood next to or near Seal, precariously-balanced on a random chair (something he’d repeat a few times throughout) pawed at him in the glitchy, distorting strobing. This was a far cry from the deceptively sedate, swing beginnings of just an hour earlier and yet somehow managed to be miraculously seamless.
It would be remiss not to mention the sheer physicality of Seal, a six-footer throwing some unmistakeable James Brown shapes. Then came the curveball of ‘Life On The Dancefloor’ from album number seven in both sequence and title – a song that would not have been out of place with Kylie Minogue at the helm. No gold hotpants in sight though, which would have pleased some of the more amorous female fans (and of those there were plenty).
This was a big name, big sound, big band gig, featuring some big hitters, which ended where it all began for Seal, with a one-song encore performance of ‘Crazy’. Then the man with the melancholy voice left the stage with nothing but elation in his wake.