Somerset House’s Summer Series began last night with Alex Clare, supported by Chloe Howl. His band opened with stadium-filling instrumentals, all bass and drums. But when Clare himself entered, with ‘Relax my Beloved’, he was more than a match for them. His voice is strong and loving, occasionally exploding into characteristically passionate warbles.
The early part of his set sounds like it’s got a point to make, drum-driven with a painfully sincere, even angry vocal melody. ‘Whispering’ was a highlight, the lyrics ‘Who will care for the fallen?’ rang through with almost revolutionary force. Tom Morello would be proud.
Even his love songs, be it the uncompromising ‘I Love You’, the gorgeously comforting ‘Sanctuary’ or the painfully desperate ‘Caroline’, are passionate rather than subtle. He does not so much tell a story; he declares it.
Clare looks like a man unbelieving of his own success; it has, after all, been hard fought for. His modesty remains as genuine as his song-writing. Indeed, his tribute to Etta James, ‘Damn your Eyes’, is a reminder that Clare is arguably more aware of his influences than his own success.
His band are ever-present, their considerable skill highlighted by a phenomenal instrumental after ‘Up All Night’, but they play with a total understanding that this is the Alex Clare show. The stage is his; the support, albeit outstanding, is theirs.
His occasional acoustic venture, including a cover of Gyptian’s ‘Hold Yuh’ was designed to hold the crowd captive in his unique voice, which it did superbly before releasing them into rapturous applause. ‘Hands are Clever’ and ‘Treading Water’ got the crowd dancing as the set began to heat up on a warm July evening.
Combining such heavy dance beats with the dark lyrics of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ is a difficult combination that few can pull off convincingly. Alex Clare is one of them. As a packed Somerset House exploded into ‘Where is the Heart?’, Clare took on a new confidence. His sudden outward realisation of what he was achieving reached a monstrous climax in the next, and final, number: a now customary rendition of ‘Too Close’.
In many ways, the Microsoft advert which helped launch ‘Too Close’ to number 4 in the UK Singles Chart and a Brit Nomination for Best British Single, has been as much a curse as a blessing. He has been left fighting to avoid the label of ‘one hit wonder’, but on this performance, there is little chance of that. He treated his audience to some new works, crowd-pleasing stormers that hint at a very promising future for this bearded son of Southwark-turned-North Londoner.
Clare’s real appeal lies in his variety, from sensitive acoustic numbers and angry vocal melodies to huge dance hits. He effortlessly bridges the divide between head-banging and foot-tapping. But at the core of everything he does is an unquestionable talent and a relentless desire to perform.
Alex Clare will play the NME/BBC Radio 1 Stage on Friday (Leeds) and Sunday (Reading).