To be fair, it’s not Clare Maguire’s fault. No doubt she didn’t ask to be put on a tour with one of 2010’s most heartening pop success stories, and who knows, maybe she didn’t hand-pick her band, or choose her songs or single out the dress that’s wearing her tonight. She’s got a Cher-sized ‘80s power ballad monster of a voice, for sure, but I’m guessing she didn’t elect to have her whole backline turned down to mobile phone levels either, and it seems nobody’s told her the late-period trip-hop (Crustacean? Mulu? Exactly) aped by show opener ‘Ain’t Nobody’ may not be the best route to travel today.
Clare’s one of the pre-ordained few to have been saddled with the BBC’s Sound of 2011 albatross – not surprising, given that she’s being packaged as an even less ingratiating Welch/Winehouse amalgam – but let’s not kid ourselves there’s anything of interest happening here. She’s got the commanding stage presence of the last Quality Street in the tin – at least twice she limply implores “come on, Brighton…” and then does absolutely nothing to warrant any reaction – and the sparkling personality of an nine-year-old on Britain’s Got Talent. I can almost imagine her parents standing just offstage, fists clenched, willing their little girl to be as transcendental as they insist on repeatedly telling her she is.
There is no need for Clare Maguire to be heard outside a cruise ship, or perhaps an old episode of Wogan, sandwiched between Duncan Norvelle and Keith Harris. Her painful trudge through Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Big Love’ is as bloodless as a building. But on the piss-weak “strength” of ‘Bullet’ (which ironically sounds like Hurts might have written it) and the deeply cynical, irksome remix-in-waiting ‘The Last Dance’ – both of which, incidentally, have lyrics so calculatedly inoffensive they may as well be in Simlish – Clare Maguire will be one of the defining voices of 2011. You have been warned: turn the radio off.
Then it’s lights down, phones up, and Hurts. A year ago Hurts played a sold-out double header at London’s 1,400-capacity Koko with Everything Everything, another of 2010’s pleasantly surprising crossover winners. But tonight they’re in different company altogether, the blog-reading trendies replaced by Actual Real People who squeal and dance and sing along to blimmin’ everything. This suits Hurts just fine, being that singer Theo Hutchcraft and coat-tail-flicking synth tinkler Adam Anderson are basically Gilbert & George’s idea of what Bros should’ve been, Duran Duran styled by Helmut Lang (the duo are joined by four cohorts onstage).
And they come out fighting, the dynamic theatre of album opener ‘Silver Lining’ swooshing into classic electro half-ballad ‘Wonderful Life’. Theo comes across as half classy crooner, half Butlins Redcoat, a persona that affords him free rein to sing earnest lines like “Devotion, save me now/I don’t want to stray from the hallowed ground’ with a straight face, while at other points flinging roses into the crowd and mugging cheerily to the upper tiers. Such is the showmanship, it scarcely matters that A-ha, Erasure and the ever-present Pet Shop Boys should probably have their lawyers on standby if Hurts ever try to pass their schtick off as new.
Crucially, though, Hurts have a handful of deathless tunes that should cement their place in pop history. If tonight serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in Hurts’ nevertheless enjoyable Happiness album – ‘Unspoken’ feels free of nutritional value, and the less said about Adam’s foray into axe-wielding, the better (suffice to say, he looks about as natural as Paul McCartney holding a chicken drumstick) – it also proves the ‘80s maxim that a few tent-poles and a lot of vim are still sometimes all that’s needed to hold up a pop LP.
Had BBC boss Mark Thompson been here tonight to witness ‘Blood, Tears & Gold’ and ‘Stay’ – essentially the same song wearing different coloured frock coats – he’d have instantly recommisssioned Top of the Pops just so Hurts could appear on it. The chugging Pete Wylie bombast of ‘Sunday’ heralds the disco section, and suddenly Theo looks like Tom Hardy dancing to Morrissey at an Edwardian funeral while Adam bashes all fuck out of his ole Joanna. How Hurts manage to avoid turning into the mother of all gauche trifles, I’ve no idea, but they do. Sadly their cover of Kylie’s ‘Confide In Me’ doesn’t work as it should, the woozy narcotic effect of the original drowned out by thunderous drums, but their point is made anyway.
Hurts close with a belting, euphorically received encore of ‘Better Than Love’, a club-friendly anomaly on the album and the inevitable “what was that hit single we had?” moment tonight. ‘Stay’, which precedes it, once again proves that Hurts’ music is precision designed to soundtrack fireworks displays (despite calling to mind Trevor & Simon singing “Sting!” to East 17’s ‘Steam’ on Live & Kicking passim). Flawless, they’re not, but like many high-minded art-pop duos before them, Hurts deliver a live spectacle that does much to convince that they’ll fill an all-killer best-of in seven years’ time. Now for that tricky second album…