Plan B

Less grime, more wine - Belfast gives Ben Drew his due for braving the cold

The airports are closed and roads are impassable, yet somehow Plan B has made it to Belfast for a one-off performance at the Mandela Hall. The English rapper – sorry, soul singer (more about the East Londoner’s remarkable reinvention in a moment) – had waited at Heathrow from 11am until 6pm to catch a flight to Northern Ireland, and his appearance is in doubt right up until a few minutes before the doors open. Consequently, he takes the stage without a soundcheck – not that you’d notice. Plan B’s show is as slick as the suits he and his cohorts are squeezed into.

Faith SFX warms up the crowd with 20 minutes of beatboxing that includes the sounds of turntables, synthesiser, trumpet, violin, drums, Lil Wayne songs and characters from Transformers: you name it, he can replicate it with only his gob and a microphone. Remarkable.

Plan B (aka Ben Drew, or indeed Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew) appears with a five-piece band and a pair of shimmering backing vocalists whose last job was probably oohing and ahhing behind Paul Carrack. It’s an incongruous set-up, though indicative of Drew’s newfound cosying up to the mainstream. There’s little trace remaining of the grimy hip-hop that made his name.

Still, the favourable response to new material such as ‘What You Gonna Do’, ‘She Said’ and latest single ‘Love Goes Down’ proves that most people are prepared to move with the 27-year-old maverick. The smooth tracks from the multi-platinum The Defamation of Strickland Banks – the biggest selling album by a UK artist this year – warm up those who have bothered to come out on this wild winter’s night. (Indeed, the beanie hats, scarves, fleeces and down jackets on display give this Northern Bank-sponsored concert the feel of an open-air gig in Iceland.)

Sadly, the less-than-capacity turnout – the balcony is closed, and there is plenty of room to move on the floor – suggests that many of the Northern Bank customers who snapped up free tickets were less prepared to brave the treacherous conditions than Plan B himself. It’s their loss, as this is a rare chance to see a MOBO and Q Award-winning artist in such intimate confines.

The assembled die-hards hang on the falsetto-voiced one’s every croon, going nuts even for a cover of Paolo Nutini’s ‘Coming Up Easy’. The choice of song shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, really. These days, with his sharp attire, polished band and sweet vocal style, Plan B is less the British Eminem, more the male Amy Winehouse – very purposefully so.

Only the set-closing ‘Stay Too Long’, with Drew and co careering around the stage like they’ve just downed their first bottles of MD 20/20, conjures the anarchic spirit of old. Faith SFX, who has rejoined the melee, wears the weary look of a long-suffering sidekick as Drew crashes into him, while one of the guitarists appears desperate to protect his precious instrument from the marauding body-slams. It’s a glorious three minutes of madness, and gives the audience something to chuckle about on the cold journey home.

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