Mick Hucknall: half lounge crooner, half soul revivalist

Mick Hucknall O2 Arena - Justin Ng/Avalon
Mick Hucknall O2 Arena - Justin Ng/Avalon

“We’re alive!” announced Mick Hucknall, as he took to the stage of London’s O2 Arena for a long delayed and rescheduled tour with his soul ensemble Simply Red. Dressed in a black velvet jacket, microphone held at chest height as he gently crooned through opening ballad Home, his huskily sweet voice floated around his six-piece band’s mellifluous groove: “After long, home is a place where I yearn to belong.” The message was clear that, for the 61-year-old Manchester singer, performing for an audience was the thing he had missed the most.

Strolling around the lip of the stage, he chatted between songs with the casual garrulousness of an old nightclub crooner, only his trademark tangled mop of unruly ginger hair offsetting a distinctly old-fashioned image. “I’d like to dedicate tonight to the ones who didn’t make it,” he told the sold out 20,000 strong crowd. “I’m sure they’ll be looking down and singing along with us too.”

The live audience proved themselves more than adequate in that department, joining in to supply mass backing vocals for a version of The Stylistics' You Make Me Feel Brand New with a sophistication not usually heard in arena singalongs. The mood, indeed, was unusual for one of these huge shows, as the band weaved together sinuous licks and solos on a series of sensitive, sensuous ballads with Hucknall jazzily caressing melodies rather than really letting rip.

The pandemic seemed to be much on his mind, as he revealed that all but one of the band had caught covid, the lone escapee being bassist Steve Lewinson. “I’ve got long covid as well,” grumbled Hucknall. “I keep waking up in the middle of the night, heart racing, ba-boom, ba-boom! I’m getting three or four hours sleep a night, so I grab an hour here and there where I can.”

It was odd to listen to him having a little moan before digging into another easy-on-the-ear ballad, including For Your Babies and Holding Back the Years. But then something shifted, as the band upped the tempo for 1989 hit New Flame and Hucknall responded by slinging his velvet jacket off and pumping up the vocal and physical energy.

From that point on, every song raised the tempo and intensity, as Simply Red’s skilful rhythm section guided us to the dancefloor. Only saxophonist Ian Kirkham remains with Hucknall from the original 80s line-up, justifying his place with a series of dextrous solos. The rest have been recruited over the years for their muso skills, locking seamlessly into a sexily syncopated groove machine as they banged out hit after hit, including Come to My Aid, Something Got Me Started, Stars, Sunrise, Fairground and classic covers of Barry White’s It’s Only Love Doing it’s Thing and the Valentine Brothers’ Money’s Too Tight to Mention. Simply Red have never been the hippest of bands, their pride in virtuosity somewhat going against the grain of pop critical favour, but every detail of their music is immaculately put together, then topped off by one of the greatest singers this country has ever heard. You just can’t argue with that kind of class.

It was nevertheless one of the strangest constructed sets I have ever witnessed, starting off slow and intimate and gradually building power, so that if you graphically mapped it out it would look like a constantly ascending graph. By the end, the whole arena was on its feet, dancing and singing, and the previously rather self-contained and downbeat frontman was racing about in a sweaty, short-sleeved shirt, grinning from ear to ear, and really letting his fantastically soulful vocals fly. It was almost like witnessing the miraculous healing powers of music at a soul revivalist meeting. I hope Hucknall got a good night’s sleep afterwards.