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“Are there any single people here?” Katy B asked. A loud response from the twenty-something audience indicated that yes, there were singles present. They were rewarded with “Easy Please Me”, a lithe R&B/ dance number about the difficulties of finding “a man to please me”. Cue much jiggling from everyone, attached and unattached.
For the following song the singer switched tack. “Are there any couples here?” she asked. There was a weak cry of assent. “Tumbling Down” was dedicated to them – an understated mid-tempo track from her new album. The loved-up minority gazed into each others’ eyes, pledged eternal troth etc. Meanwhile the singles folded their arms and tapped their feet. Couples are so dull!
Katy Brien is at a delicate stage of commitment herself. Her first album, 2011’s Mercury prize-nominated On a Mission, marked the arrival of a bright talent from London’s dance music scene. She had one foot in the underground – pirate radio, raves – and the other in the mainstream, having attended the Brit School talent academy. Now comes the follow-up, Little Red. Has a fickle public’s attention moved on?
She tackled the theme head-on in “Next Thing”, a tale of going restlessly from club to club, always searching for the next thrill. An urgent beat pushed the music along, the backing dancers a blur of motion behind Brien. There were no vocal pyrotechnics but her singing was unforced and authentic, an apt register for diaristic songs about nights out and relationships. “Still” found her illustrating a break-up with regretfully spun-out refrains and fiercer passages of reproach. “Crying for No Reason” shifted from her usual dance mode to a sweeping ballad, sung with fists clenched.
A backing trio (keyboard, drums, guitar) kept the music simple, negotiating a direct route through the branches of dubstep, UK garage and house that lie in Brien’s background. For the finale, “Lights On”, she was joined by Ms Dynamite, the hip-hop/ ragga-pop singer whose career collapsed after winning the Mercury prize in 2002. Her presence, chanting over a fusillade of garage beats, was a reminder of the treacherous gulf between underground and mainstream – a gulf that Katy B continues to bridge.