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The doors open and we crowd into the dark, unusually foggy O2 Arena. Wedged securely between the older, overly PDA couple on the right and shrieking teenage girls with pink hair on the left, I peer through the ridiculously highly piled hair of the girls in front, waiting for the show to begin.
The first support act Wildflowers were forgettable at best. Utterly generic, they were yet another pseudo pop folk band with an unnecessarily large number of members and instruments that get lost in the general racket. With blonde hair as genuine as her smile, the lead singer attempted to add gravitas to an otherwise shallow performance with anecdotes from her past. Then came Fryars, and with them a delightfully refreshing dose of bluesy electro synth. Ben Garret, all unruly dark hair and white shirt buttoned to the top hunched over the keyboard, laptop to the right. The aforementioned fog is explained as the lights filter through, creating a somewhat alien experience that blinded and captivated the audience in equal measures. Excitement started to build and they finish at a deafening volume.
About 45 minutes of excruciating waiting time later, the excitement died down and our hearing returned somewhat. Nina Simone played and half-hearted cheers went up every time the flashlight of a technician appeared through the remnant mist. Then, finally, when I can no longer feel my legs, the lights fade out: it’s time. First, to much applause, come the band. Guitarist, bassist and drummer settled down for a dramatic drum roll involving all available instruments. Cheers became shrieks as Tom Odell ran out onto the stage, dropped onto the stool in front of his piano with a brief wave and immediately launched into a thundering rendition of ‘Hold Me.’ Lights flashed, everything else was forgotten and the crowd erupted into song. After that came ‘Can’t Pretend’ and ‘Sirens.’ Though he obviously wasn’t at ease with the crowd as there was almost no eye contact and he seemed very focused on the piano and his music, he was in absolute control of the audience and knew it. After a few quiet, opening lines on the piano, he stopped for seconds of heavy, heady silence. Savouring the palpable tension for a few beats, the audience fell apart when he bursts, guitar, bass, drums and all into the rest of the song.
Pausing for a break, he gestured vaguely towards the back of the stage, where his name is spelled out in big, Hollywood-esque letters. It’s the only decoration on what is otherwise a very minimalist stage. ‘So what do we think of this? My manager made me get it…very Elvis.’ As he launched into ‘Another Love,’ one of his quieter ballads, I was struck by the maturity of his voice. At 24, with a debut album released less than a year ago, it is somewhat unexpected. There is a certain seasoned, compelling honesty about his performance. When he sings ‘Sense’ his voice is raw, haunting and soulful.
At one point, a man threw his hat onto the stage. Good naturedly, Tom tried it on before giving it to his guitarist to wear. Amongst other disruptive things, two girls couldn’t stop screeching “It’s my 18th!” in a desperate plea for attention. After ‘Supposed to Be’ ended, someone at the front repeated the chorus overly loudly. I was unpleasantly surprised, finding it both distracting and disrespectful, and Tom couldn’t help but say ‘we’re trying to put on a show over here.’ Other than that, he played some promising new songs from the album he says he’s halfway through writing; one of them is still untitled. Quite a few bluesy covers make it into the mix too. During these, you can see why he does what he does. It started with a love for the piano, and with every playful twist he adds to the melody of a song his undiminished joy is evident as it is infectious.
Sheffield marks the end of a sold-out UK tour, and thus closed with appropriate panache. Tom lingered longer than intended. Loud and sexy, ‘See if I Care’ and a cover of ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ are the highlights of the encore, and everyone left giddy and hungry for more.