“I have to tell you, Manchester – I’m slightly shit-faced.” That’s just four songs in: heroic by anyone’s standards. Nerina Pallot grins, shrugs, drains her glass. “Fuck it. Are we going to have some fun tonight?” A full (and connected) house confirms that, yes, we probably are. Pallot’s last Manchester stop-off in early 2013, a solo show at RNCM promoting her Lonely Valentine Club EP, was a compelling but sedate affair. She reflects on that show tonight and concedes that it was “all rather proper. And you don’t come to see me for proper, do you?”
Indeed not. Those of us who’ve stayed close to her since the release of debut Dear Frustrated Superstar in 2001 know better than to be fooled by Pallot’s penchant for the odd grand piano and by the patronage of Radio 2. At heart, her classically tooled pop smarts are supported by technique but fired and bolstered by an unblinking fascination with the darker side of the human condition. 2011’s re-imagining of classic Laurel Canyon vibes Year of the Wolf may have been her strongest work to date but the electronically enhanced arrangements and broadened world view of last year’s The Sound and the Fury represented a thrilling about-face.
She starts with two of its least Nerina Pallot moments, though, leading her sharp backing trio on electric guitar through the booming delta throb of ‘Spirit Walks’ and ‘If I Had a Girl’. Already, just a few months on, they’ve become two of Nerina Pallot’s most Nerina Pallot moments. And while she follows up at the piano with ‘Idaho’ and ‘Damascus’, and both are pinpoint and delivered with dexterity and drama, you hope she continues to prod at the unknown. Certainly, an explosive ‘Ain’t Got Anything Left’, performed at audience request, is one of tonight’s highlights.
Emboldened by the rosé, Pallot is buoyant and restless throughout. “I’m not feeling this setlist, Manchester,” she confesses. “How about I play the song I wrote for Kylie that took her to” – deep sigh – “number 32?” Fine by us, and ‘Better Than Today’ is a feisty, funked-up stomp. A new song, tentatively titled ‘Come To Me’ is crafted as a female riposte to the syrupy canon of blokey, seductive balladry and she pairs it with that ribald account of lust in the shadows, ‘Geek Love’. Perfect.
With five albums to pick from, Pallot can afford to take detours at will. Tonight she by-passes third album The Graduate entirely, and a delicate, solo reading of ‘Daphne and Apollo’ is the only song from Dear Frustrated Superstar. And with just one track from Year of the Wolf, she diverts most of her attention to her 2005 breakthrough Fires. “I haven’t played that in years,” she says after a thundering ‘Heart Attack’. “Tune”, confirms an onlooker by way of response. ‘Mr King’ is as tender and beautiful as ever, as is an encore of ‘Sophia’, where Pallot is taken aback as the crowd take up her offer to join her on the chorus.
It wouldn’t be a Nerina Pallot show, of course, without a series of lengthy comic asides and wayward observations. Even without the wine, she’s a blast. Tonight, crossing the road for a crack at the Comedy Store’s open mic night would have been largely risk-free. She tells a painfully funny tale of an ex whose southern state upbringing had led him to conceal his homosexuality until Pallot found his online Grindr profile – one supported by a profile pic of his penis. “Er, is that how you recognised him, then?” inquires bassist Mark Ferguson. Elsewhere, she has a pop at David Cameron and Tony Blair (“They’re both Scottish, you know. Let’s just give the fuckers their independence and maybe they’ll stop sending us shit prime ministers.”), inadvertently reveals her secret plans to take her husband to Amsterdam for his birthday, and confesses how she really feels about the bridesmaid dress her cousin is making her wear (“I mean, how many women get up and go ‘Hmm, lilac. That’ll make me look good’?”)
After telling us for the umpteenth time how much she loves us (“She says that every night,” deadpans Ferguson), you remember: this is Nerina Pallot, and she doesn’t do bullshit in the same way she doesn’t do proper. “You know,” she says, “it genuinely blows my mind that after all these years people still come out and pay money to see me play.” And if that isn’t an indicator of the deep and affectionate bond between Pallot and her unwavering audience, what is? Of course, as she prepares to close the main set proper with a storming ‘Put Your Hands Up’, she can’t resist pulling the rug one more time: “Are you bored?” We indicate otherwise. “Seriously? Are you sure? It’s just that, gigs these days – you go to see someone you like and they don’t play your favourites and after four songs I’m like, fuck this.” Not, by any standards, a reflection of tonight’s show, where Pallot confirms once more that if you play with care and a generosity of spirit some way beyond the norm (not ignoring the two hour-nudging set length), no one’s dozing off or scarpering. And as we all know, the grape don’t lie. Drunk in love but sober as a judge. Long may her very improper conduct continue.