Union Chapel, Highbury – 20th April 2017
Bringing the rowdy passion of the football terraces to a 19th century Gothic church is an unlikely combination from a rising pop-soul star, but Bedford bluesman Tom Grennan absolutely nails it.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to swear tonight because we’re in a church… but fuck it!”, explains a causally profane Grennan atop a stage not generally accustomed to such expletive-laden performances, before he briefly and blasphemously remonstrates with himself, “But my Gran’s here too, fuck!”.
On a balmy spring night inside Highbury’s iconic Union Chapel, the mischievous musician is on electrifying form. Swaggering roguishly in front of the venue’s enormous backlit pulpit he brims over with an easy confidence and irresistible likeability, throwing out enticements to the audience to “stand up and skank” during up-beat belter Barbed Wire, with a captivated crowd duly obliging, while peppering his speech with laddish profanity that further entrenches Grennan’s cheeky boy-next-door persona. His natural impish charm is accentuated by an uber-trendy short back-and-sides, ostentatious crucifix earring and formidable leopard print shirt, underlining a case to become the his gender’s answer to similarly relatable superstar Adele.
Exuberant cries of encouragement echo from the rafters, with otherwise poignant silences during emotive opener Sweet Hallelujah being punctuated by enthusiastic cheers of “Go on Tom!” and the occasional “We love you, Tommy!”, as though he’d just completed a piece of masterful footballing trickery down the left wing for Luton Town FC.
Having cut short a promising career as a youth footballer to pursue music it must be just reward for an elated Grennan to receive such vociferous praise from a new, if not entirely dissimilar fan base. An outing of his Chase & Status collaboration, All Goes Wrong, on Sky Sport’s blokey weekend wake-up call Soccer AM has, according to first-hand testimony from the audience’s large male contingent, given his music a wider reach and imbued it with an instant accessibility many similar acts would kill for.
In addition to a loyal following and serious sartorial panache, his musical chops are in no doubt. A nod for Hottest Record on Annie Mac’s Radio 1 Show last year was followed up with landmark appearances on the Radio 1 Live Lounge and on BBC Two’s Later… with Jools Holland. After being touted for future success on the shortlist for BBC Music’s Sound of 2017 – an iconic rite-of-passage for all talented up-and-comers – he has set about his task with aplomb, and tonight exhibits his full dynamic range, showcasing the raw, raspy vocals of Paolo Nutini married with the grandstanding bravado of fellow BBC Music darling Jack Garrett and the streetwise edge of rapper-turned-soulman Plan B.
His debut EP Something in the Water is a potent opening salvo (produced by Charlie Hugall of Florence + The Machine and The Maccabees fame) and its rousing choruses and catchy melodies translate perfectly to the live arena thanks to Grennan’s powerful and often haunting vocals. Delirious dancing in the pews accompanies a mesmeric rendition of Prayer, an appropriate gospel-tinted tune that sees the singer turn cheeky pub preacher as he leads his loyal congregation in a soulful, uplifting romp.
Confirmation of his undeniable status as a crowd-pleaser is highlighted through his absence; the short interlude between main set and encore sends the crowd into a frenzied fever pitch which is only becalmed when Grennan emerges once more for a final trio of tunes. He wraps up proceedings with the ever-popular jauntiness of Old Songs, while set closer Something in the Water is accompanied by a dazzling sea of lights courtesy of proudly banished mobile phones from the rapturous masses.
A final sign off is fittingly modest and sacrilegious. “This is fucking sick. I’m well humbled”, he announces, before leaving the stage to a thunderous reception worthy of any Premiership ground. Table-toppers watch out, Tom Grennan’s heading for the big leagues.
Words: Henry Wickham