Billy Ocean, review: mass karaoke from music's quintessential gentleman

Creating an immaculately crafted comfort zone: Billy Ocean - MAR/Capital Pictures
Creating an immaculately crafted comfort zone: Billy Ocean - MAR/Capital Pictures

Certain great voices have the power to be both reassuringly familiar and to transport you somewhere dreamy. British Trinidadian R&B pop legend Billy Ocean definitely possesses that quality; at Ocean’s packed Royal Albert Hall date, it seemed apt that we heard him before we saw him – his unmistakably warm, rich voice flowed from the wings, prompting delighted cheers for the opening number: 1980 groove Are You Ready.

The 71-year-old cut a charismatic figure on stage, too, with silver dreadlocks and a dazzling white suit, a reminder that the former Savile Row tailor was once known for being the best-dressed man in music. Ocean has always been the quintessential gentleman loverboy.

There had been a year’s wait for this pandemic-postponed tour, which was named for Ocean’s 11th studio album, One World, but also packed a crowd-pleasing showcase of 70s and 80s materials. The crowd largely comprised fans who’d grown up with his music, and they greeted the classic tunes like long-lost sweethearts, jumping up for buoyant hits such as Love Really Hurts Without You (Ocean’s original breakthrough, which as he proudly pointed out, now marks its 45th anniversary) and Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car (a reminder, frankly, of how deeply odd 1980s serenades could be – though it was served here with characteristic charm). They also sang along at length, sweetly encouraged by the star, who was far too gracious and polite (and possibly distracted by dealing handshakes and fistbumps with the excitable front row) to observe that we collectively sounded like a mass karaoke session.

Given the undeniable strength of Ocean’s vocals, material and talented band (with backing vocalists including his daughter Cherie Charles, and splendidly vivacious sax blasts as well as elegant flute melodies from David Baptiste), it was unfortunate, and frustrating, that the sound quality seemed muddy throughout. Ocean has always been an exceptional songwriter, intelligently attuned to various musical styles from Motown-era soul to synth-pop, reggae, disco, calypso and beyond; there are abundant gems throughout his catalogue, and tonight’s set-list stand-outs included the sublime ballad Suddenly (which still makes falling in love sound revelatory), 1985 chart-topper When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, and a finale of the Grammy-winning Caribbean Queen. While the golden oldies were always going to be the main event here, Ocean’s latest tracks also demonstrated that he’s retained his knack for composition, with highlights including the Eurodance-influenced good vibes One World, to the high life flavours of Mystery. All too often, however, the music sounded muffled when it should have really soared in this beautifully grand setting.

It was also a shame that some of the strangely pedestrian live arrangements also tended to chug along, slightly stalling the show’s pacing as well as sapping the urgent funked-up energy that essentially fuels brilliant grooves such as Red Light Spells Danger (another stormer that's now in its mid-forties). Ocean’s soul pop revue felt more like a cosy excursion than a full-throttle joyride. Perhaps such a gentle touch was entirely deliberate; at this stage in his accomplished career, Ocean arguably doesn’t need to try hard, and at this particular point in time, perhaps there’s more place than ever for an immaculately crafted comfort zone.