All Saints: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

Party night for the holy rollers

SOPHISTICATION IN pop is a relative term. In the past year we have witnessed the emergence of artists such as Billie and B*witched aimed at a decidedly pre-pubescent fan base. Others like Aqua and Cartoons have made old-fashioned bubblegum music seem like a mythical ancient craft with a series of jingles for the romper-suit set.

All Saints have made a positive effort to distance themselves from such kindergarten contrivances, first with a series of worldly-wise and highly-polished pop singles and now by getting out on to the big, bad rock circuit. So it was surprising at the first of two weekend shows at the Empire on Saturday to see that for all that refinement the audience consisted not of late-teen tastemakers but of preteen wannabes and mums and dads with little ‘uns of nine and ten.

Then again, this was not a show with pretensions of creative intensity. It was an unabashed party night starring four girls with sumptuous looks and a few good tunes in the locker. It began with four dancers lowered from ropes like marionettes, while a DJ worked the decks stage right and a band toiled anonymously. Then Mel, Shaz, Nat and Nic, the belles of the ball, opened with ‘Bootie Call’ and ‘I Know Where It’s At’, and the doubt set in.

So fully-rounded was the sound, so effortlessly lush the harmonies despite their terpsichorean endeavours, that I frequently had to give myself a stern talking-to for imagining I was listening to the records and watching some Top of the Pops-style synchronisation. Anyway, visual appeal and not authenticity of sound is apparently the overriding priority in contemporary pop, and I may have been alone with my beastly suspicions.

Each of the girls took a turn at addressing the audience, or “you guys” as we have come to be known, and the hits and others were dispatched with some aplomb. But the glossy choreography could not conceal a certain hollow centre to the performance. There were several voids while we awaited the next costume change, and during ‘War of Nerves’ it was especially obvious that they need to learn how to maintain the dramatic tension in the spaces between the vocal lines and dance moves.

There was a perky ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’, as performed at the televised Burt Bacharach tribute, and an inevitable Seventies medley, an all-too-familiar padding device used by Eternal, the Spice Girls and others before them. ‘Never Ever’ was saved for the encore, then curiously pulled this way and that in a mixture of styles. To close, an invitation to “see you at the arenas”, a party-hearty ‘Lady Marmalade’, and the Saints went marching out.

© Paul SextonThe Times, 3 May 1999

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