Leon Russell’s A Song For You is one of those songs that elicit a huge communal cringe when delivered with anything less than titanium-strength confidence. A plea for tenderness from a performer to the subject of his affections, its power rests on the singer making his audience believe that they’re the only other person in the room. That Mick Hucknall can pull it off – and within seconds of walking on stage – is no surprise.
Self-doubt has never loomed large in the Simply Red canon – and if it's ever going to enter Hucknall’s psychological make-up, it’s unlikely to happen in a venue that resembles an enormous breast. Sure enough, when the time comes to perform The Right Thing, Hucknall’s hand alights upon his crotch for the line “I feel it now/Much harder now” – just in case anyone present imagines that the song relates to some greater existential struggle.
In any case, the hard work necessary to earn the goodwill of this crowd was finished a long time beforehand. The Albert Hall is teeming with couples whose love lives have been soundtracked by that priapic Mancunian croon. A slow-building sequence of new and old songs is lent a toothless supper-club ambience by a twelve-piece string section which Hucknall delights in referring to as “The Simply Red Orchestra”. Selections from patchier recent albums such as Home and the freshly-minted Simplified have to be carefully wedged in between well-drilled favourites. Lost Weekend is the kind of song you forget while it’s still playing; while his hubristic annihilation of Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th St momentarily loses even his most adoring fans. Rather better is Smile, the kind of sweet soul rhapsody that Anita Baker is apt to turn out once in a while. Hucknall, 45, has a voice for which you would forgive anything, which might account why he doesn’t feel the need to try as hard with his lyrics these days.
Nonetheless, it’s instructive to be reminded how deftly those early songs steered clear of silky platitudes. When Hucknall tackles a stripped-down Holding Back The Years, it sounds like a gift from his younger self – a song for a time when the lyrics will resonate profoundly in the lives of both singer and audience. Swapping sugary strings for prowling tomcat syncopations, Sad Old Red is a synergy of masterful singing and songwriting. With an arrangement that resembles mutiny in a tea-tray factory, 1994 chart-topper Fairground elicits mass abandon, before Hucknall bids farewell with his most well-loved cover version. “If you don’t know me by now,” he sings, “You will never, never, never know me.” After two decades of singing mostly about his cock and what he wants to do with it, he probably has a point.