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Absence can't make Art grow stronger

"YOU DIDN'T think I still had this much hair, did you?" chided Art Garfunkel on stage at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday. True enough, he didn't look as bald as we might have expected, six years after his last visit. Weird as that coiffure is - a Ronald McDonald clown wig that's slipped back a couple of inches - it never changes. He's still curly after all these years.

His voice, though, has grown husky. On "Bridge Over Troubled Water" it somehow scaled old heights - wistful, lonely, and strangely hollow - but mostly he sounded severely in need of a packet of Tunes. He's got plenty of tunes with a small "t", though: "I Only Have Eyes For You", "Wonderful World", and the Watership Down theme, "Bright Eyes", still the most powerful song ever written about rabbits. With the hymnal "American Tune", he skidded out of his own solo oeuvre and into that of his ex-partner-in-rhyme. From then on, Paul Simon was a ghostly presence, a wraith who seeped into the concert like smoke until he threatened to engulf it altogether.

Before "Scarborough Fair", Garfunkel pondered: "If I had to pick my favourite of all the Simon and Garfunkel tunes, it would be this one." Was it a co-incidence that the song, derived from a traditional folk melody, has the one tune that Simon didn't write? The teasing continued on "Homeward Bound". He replaced "all my words come back to me" with "all his words come back to me", flipping his thumb sideways at an imaginary Simon.

Ice duly broken, he warmed to the theme. One reason that the duo split, he said, was that he had suggested changing a lyric of "Mrs Robinson" from "wo wo wo" to "woo woo woo". "Paul was so touchy," cracked Garfunkel, and slotted in his own words tonight.

He could build a whole stand-up routine around the "former-colleagues- who-have-done-better-than-I-have" line. There is Jack Nicholson, his co- star in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Garfunkel has been jealous of Nicholson ever since, and believes that he would have been better as The Joker in Batman: "I would have done him more ... low-key and wry."

For this concert, he had found co-vocalists less likely to upstage him. On "Cecilia" he was joined by Kathryn Cermak, aka Mrs Garfunkel. I'm not calling her a trophy wife, but as she stood there in a little black dress and on a little black podium, she did look weirdly like a statuette. And for a sprightly jog through "Feelin' Groovy", he ushered in their four- year-old, James, to hit the high notes for him: at last Garfunkel had found a duettist shorter than Simon.

But as with "Mrs Robinson", the gimmick turned a great song into a passable joke, and turned Garfunkel into the dumb blond with the golden voice, willing to play up to his role as a nostalgia act who coulda been a contender. For all its self-deprecating charm, this attitude seemed a bit sad. Wistful, lonely, and hollow; low-key and wry.

On the stage of the London Palladium was a platform with patterned rugs - the sort that students bring back from a year off - spilling over the edge. Rickie Lee Jones sat cross-legged on these, hugging her acoustic guitar, tea-cosied in a woollen hat: all your American, female, hippy- drippy, campfire, singer-songwriter nightmares made flesh. The critically acclaimed missing link between Joni Mitchell and Sheryl Crow, tonight she was more like Phoebe from the American sitcom Friends.

In keeping with her new album, Naked Songs (Reprise), she had sloughed her backing band, and had only a few threads of guitar and piano to cover her modesty. Most of her lyrics, though, were kept well-hidden by her incomprehensible delivery. She seems to imagine that the crass formula of pop music is beneath her, what with all its tunes, rhymes, scansion and so forth.

Exceptions were "Coolsville", a gripping, frightening collision of scat- singing and scattiness; and in a lighter mood, "Chuck E's in Love" and "Easy Money". But frequently her childish, gawky persona made you believe that you were watching a whole concert by Art Garfunkel's son.

Paul Brady is a Northern Irish singer-songwriter who looks like Van Morrison's little brother, and whose compositions have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Tina Turner ... and Art Garfunkel. No, not a great recommendation, perhaps, and it's true that his fortysomething soft rock is more sensible than startling. He tends to make a drama out of a mid-life crisis.

In the Jazz Cafe on Monday, though, he loosened up, played a mean tin whistle, and performed with bags of craft, assurance and heart. Inci- dentally, Eric Clapton was in the audience, clapping along. He looked to be enjoying himself a lot more than he does at his own concerts.