Nottingham Rock City

Embrace have moved up a notch while no-one was looking...

It’s all about emotions, and what to do with them. You either make them big, or you make them small. Embrace are staunchly in the big camp – Alfie, meanwhile, take a less conspicuous tack. Singer Lee Gorton bites his fingernails and asks the audience, tremulously, “Do you just get rock bands here at Rock City? Because we’re not a rock band.” Alfie then nudge their way into a dense sweep of Doves-like atmospherics and prove his point comprehensively.

Gorton – looking like a Britpop refugee in stripey Adidas top and rumpled hair – would no doubt have a great rock voice if he chose to use it that way. In fact, he sounds quite a lot like Liam. Instead, however, he turns it towards more doleful ends, and the effect is like a slightly less classics-indebted Badly Drawn Boy (which makes sense, as Alfie were once his backing band and are also on Twisted Nerve).

Alfie are mostly pretty sedate; monolithic bearded fellows bookend Gorton, and no-one moves around much. Thankfully, things get more dynamic towards the end. A flautist with pigtails and spectacles appears, the guitarist begins playing behind his head and the bass player vigorously attacks the cymbals. Alfie may be a rock band yet. Certainly, they’re capable of surprises.

Embrace, bless them, are never surprising. They are as predictable and comforting as a bedtime story you’ve read a hundred times. People come to see them for that familiarity – to sing along, and feel part of something bigger than themselves. Embrace, one suspects, would make rather good politicians. There’s something in the rousing sentiment and anthemic musical turn of songs like ‘You’re Not Alone’ and ‘All You Good Good People’ that makes you feel kinder towards humanity as a whole.

The crowd practically drown Danny out during ‘Come Back To What You Know’ and a force field of almost palpable camaraderie is buffeted between band and fans. (The only voice of dissension is a guy in the balcony who repeatedly shouts, “Danny! You’re a c**t!”) In many ways, it’s the arm-waving, giddy audience who put on the real show. Danny’s only nod to stage dynamism is just that – nodding. Occasionally, he claps his hands but chances are he won’t be swinging from the lighting rig any time soon.

Perhaps this is one reason why Embrace remain nigglingly mundane. Despite their stratospheric choruses and the adoration of their fans, they always seem weighed down by more than their hair. Quite simply, Embrace lack presence. Still, they fill in the gaps with warmth, sincerity and – at their best – soul. Hence their ability to cover ‘Three Is The Magic Number’, the greatest song about arithmetic ever written, and actually do it justice.

There are two new songs, with typical Embrace titles ‘It’s Going To Take Time’ and ‘It’s Over’ – the first of which has a nostalgic, ’70s feel to it, and the second will no doubt prove itself to be among the best ballads Embrace have written. Played shoulder to shoulder with ‘Retread’, it’s clear just how far they’ve come. Embrace still aren’t at the height of their powers, but they’re travelling that road with increasing urgency. Even Danny’s voice has improved; where once he sounded like he was holding his nose and intoning dull legal documents, he now sings with depth and confidence.

So, while some things remain the same – ‘Hooligan’ is still an incredibly dumb song just as ‘Fireworks’ is still an incredibly brilliant one – Embrace have moved up a notch while no-one was looking. ‘Save Me’ and ‘Yeah You’ ricochet off the rafters with defiance. ‘My Weakness Is None of Your Business’ swells up like a call to arms, and ‘One Big Family’ strikes a communal chord with new sureness of purpose. No surprises. But the tunes, they get bigger. And the band, they just keep getting better.

April Long