5 May 2011: Music Hall of Williamsburg Brooklyn, NY
Plan B, aka Ben Drew, is a Brit Awards winner and Ivor Novello nominee, and his second album—The Defamation of Strickland Banks—debuted at number 1 on the UK charts. He even shared the stage with Elton John at last year’s Electric Proms. Contrast all this information with Drew’s popularity, or lack thereof, in America. Despite having opening slots with Adele on select dates and joining Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae on their Hooligans in Wondaland tour, Drew has received scarce press coverage in the states and his popularity remains underdeveloped. Even if his enviable supporting slots do nothing to change this, there is a small but strong base of supporters seems eager to fund his Armani suits, as evidenced at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday.
Drew is 27 and still developing as an artist, yet his stage show is as engaging and energetic as a soul singer who has been at it for years. Thursday night’s show had the urgency of ignited dynamite, ultimately erupting in the finale of “Stay Too Long”, when a fair amount of roughhousing broke out on stage and off. Although Drew, with his air of intimidation and fine tailoring (complete with an endearingly unbuttonable button on his waist coat) is a captivating performer, his back up crew is largely slouch-free. Two back up singers did synchronized moves to The Defamation‘s more colorful lyrics and a well-suited drummer, bassist and keyboardist kept things swanky and businesslike while two guitarists threw occasional shapes and wrangled participation out of the largely enthusiastic Williamsburg crowd. Whether doing circle dances or moshing, the audience showed Drew a lot of love; at times going a little too far. At one point, Drew leaned down to engage with two girls in the front row, and then quickly recoiled when one threw her arms around his neck. “These girls just tried to rape me!” Drew exclaimed. “She just tried to shove a fuckin’ roofie in my mouth.”
Seeing as Drew is supporting a concept album, one might be under the impression that his live show would consist of a linear reenactment of each song, but not so. Live, The Defamation of Strickland Banks is performed in shuffle mode; that such little awkwardness results is a testament to each song’s endurance. Thus, Drew could open with the album’s second song, “The Writing’s on the Wall” then launch straight into the second to the last song, “Free”, with no head scratching to contend with. Although Drew was in full Strickland Banks mode during each song — most effectively perhaps during “The Recluse”, which saw Drew pushing his guitarists and stealing his bassist’s hat — with the ending of each song his guard dropped and he became an enthusiastic MC trying to provoke the crowd.
A review of this show can not go by without mention of beatboxer Faith SFX, who got minds primed for blowing with his superb skills. Later, he joined Drew for a medley of oldies such as “My Girl” and — miraculously — an intense cover of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”. If the crowd’s collective mind had not already been mangled from SFX’s effortless replication of the Godfather theme and the constant action of Drew and co., then “Kiss from a Rose” surely did them in. As with these mutations of Top 40 hits, Drew altered his own songs throughout the night, giving them dub, punk, and dubstep makeovers. In interviews Drew has expressed interest in turning out whole albums in these styles, and the handle both he and his band had on them in concert proved promising. Just as Drew went from being a rapper chronicling council estate life to playing the part of a corrupted soul singer from debut to follow-up, he should encounter few bumps in creating his next incarnation.
Whatever style the songs come in, their subject matter and excellent composition mean they deserve to be heard. If Drew fails to convert a considerable number of Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, and/or Adele fans, it is ultimately their loss. With eyes set on directing, co-starring with Ray Winstone in a film adaptation of British police series The Sweeney, and the aforementioned explorations into other styles, it’s apparent that Drew’s UK star is at little risk of fading. Fans who have already congregated stateside, meanwhile, can count their lucky ones that they caught Plan B pre-orbit.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.