M People – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday October 16
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
They may not have released any new material since the end of the Nineties, but M People have never really gone away. For their first full UK tour in eight years, the band are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough second album Elegant Slumming, with a greatest hits set. That said, it was a little strange to hear them repeatedly thanking us for the last twenty years, when they actually formed in 1990 – but, hey, who’s counting?
The evening started with a likeable support set from Tunde Baiyewu of the Lighthouse Family, whose smooth vocals and relaxed, benign manner instantly found favour. Opening with the crowd-pleasing Lifted, Tunde switched between old favourites and brand new material, ending with a rapturously received High.
Accompanied by fellow founder members Shovell on percussion and Paul Heard on keyboards, and backed by a further five musicians and two singers, M People’s Heather Small burst onto the stage in a blaze of gold lurex, as the players launched into One Night In Heaven. Her trademark “pineapple” hairdo is long gone – she wears it straight and long these days – but Heather’s unique vocal style is as recognisable as ever. She has some curious intonations, which are easy to caricature – step forward, Miranda Hart – but they give her voice both character and charm.
You won’t find much anger, heartbreak, or edginess in an M People song ; rage and pain just aren’t their style. Instead, they’re big on self-empowerment; we are forever being encouraged to stand strong, to reach for the skies and to believe in ourselves. These sorts of messages have become common currency in modern pop, but they were less common twenty years ago – so in this respect at least, you could argue that M People were ahead of their time.
In other respects, modern pop has left M People behind. Towards the end of their chart career, the club culture which helped to shape their sound had already moved on, leaving them working a formula that was beginning to tire. Tellingly, the current set list includes all the hits from the first four years, but just three from the final four years.
Among those older hits, the catchy piano-house of Renaissance was an early highlight, and Heather did a beautiful job on the band’s cover of the CeCe Rogers classic, Someday. Following a lengthy mid-set lull, as Heather changed into a silver trouser suit and the remaining players noodled on for rather too long, flagging spirits were revived by a rousing Open Your Heart and a super-extended Sight For Sore Eyes, which showcased Shovell’s percussion skills. And although fellow founder member Mike Pickering was absent on stage, saxophonist Snake Davis deputised in fine style, peppering the songs with fluid solos.
A three-song encore climaxed with the evergreen Moving On Up, whose defiant, I-will-survive sentiments finally gave Heather a chance to bare her teeth and show some scorn (“take it like a man, baby, if that’s what you are”). A delighted crowd showed their love, the players took their bows, and the night finished on an exultant high, giving us all a much-needed twenty-first century shot of vintage Nineties optimism.
Set list: One Night In Heaven, Renaissance, Excited, Angel Street, Colour My Life, Someday, Search For The Hero, Natural Thing, Don’t Look Any Further, Open Your Heart, Sight For Sore Eyes, How Can I Love You More, Just For You, Itchycoo Park, Moving On Up.