Bo's beat lives on

Click to follow
TOWARDS the end of Bo Diddley's show at the Grand on Tuesday, the veteran bluesman and rock 'n' roller (born Ellas McDaniel 66 years ago), delivered a sort of doo-wop memorial lecture, listing the great names that had helped to define his kind of music over the years. "Muddy Waters!" he said, and we all cheered. "Bo Diddley!" he called, and we cheered even louder. "The Grateful Dead!" he said, and we exchanged worried glances, but, what the hell, we cheered anyway. By the time he shouted out "Elton John!" there was a confused silence. Bo Diddley had lost it again, or, as he eloquently put it himself earlier in a show full of prodigious ups and downs: "I done threw a rod in my crank-case. My elevator stopped. I'm gone."

Whether this was a comment on the many technical difficulties - bad sound, broken strings, a workaday band - or the waning of his sexual potency, was a moot point. Certainly, it can't be easy being Bo Diddley night after night, although he's inevitably buoyed up by the formal perfection of the Bo Diddley persona. For what Bo Diddley plays is the Bo Diddley beat and his most famous song is, of course, "Hey! Bo Diddley". The props of his performance are the celebrated rectangular Bo Diddley guitar, a pair of spectacles and a brush-cut hairdo, now much less brushy and kept covered with a cowboy hat until the end. As soon as he appears, the crowd start calling out the Bo Diddley beat and he has to chide them with "Later, baby, later". If only we knew how much later it would be.

The residual power is still evident in his first real move, an awesome open chord that makes the floor vibrate, and also breaks the first of several strings. The Rolling Stones (who borrowed the beat for "Mona" and "Not Fade Away") probably have an army of technicians to deal with such emergencies, but Bo does the work himself, winding on the snake- thick bass string - until it snaps again. When he senses that we're getting restive, he moves to the front of stage and shimmies, letting out great swathes of rhythm guitar until one is conscious of nothing but ohms of burring electricity washing over you. It testifies admirably to Bo's enormous influence on power-chorded heavy metal, as well as Dick Dale surf-grunge and general all-round axe-abuse.

But like the wily old pro he is, he slows us down again with some cod- reggae and slow blues, before taking over the drum-seat and tantalising us with snatches of the trademark beat. Even in the encore, he still withholds the rhythm. Standing by the bar, waiting for the inevitable, I spy a middle- aged media type hunched over his drink. As Bo at last consents to play us out with the only reason there is for seeing him, the exec starts to shake, legs vibrating, body twitching to the pulse of the guitar. When it comes to the chorus, he starts to scream: "Hey! Bo Diddley!"

Bo's Fifties feeling for the futuristic (in the shape of his guitars, if nothing else) may well find its modern equivalent in the music of William Orbit (QEH, Thursday). His tasteful trance, techno and ambient house conjures up another bright, shiny future - like, one imagines, the kind of records on sale in that scene in Clockwork Orange where Alex scans the racks of vinyl. In an evening entitled In the Realm of the Senses (another film reference point), the cult re-mixer presented four parts of his multifaceted talent for electronic soundscapes. Comprising odd re-workings of classical themes, ambient-folk, techno-narcolepsy and disturbingly rock-ist anthems, the best shot came from the vocalist and cellist Caroline Lavelle, who sang Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" to a rumbling background of electronic bleeps and burps. The whole concert had the rather forced air of a record-company-backed showcase; with Orbit a prisoner behind the bars of his computer and keyboard console, the music took place at a kind of aesthetic distance, remaining weirdly impersonal until, in the final section, the curtains of the backstage wall opened to reveal a video projection screen. With computer-generated images of what looked like brain-scans to watch, the music suddenly began to make sense. The widespread use of CD-Roms can't be far away, which might be why WEA are spending so much money on him.

The strangest juxtaposition of the week must have been saxophonist Branford Marsallis following his version of the feminist Maya Angelou's poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" with a strippergram coming on stage as a birthday present for his keyboard player. Pulling out a bottle of baby-oil from her plastic bag to anoint the pianist, the stripper seemed willing to go all the way before Branford belatedly realised his miscalculation and sent her off. He is clearly trying desperately hard to be funky - but this was surely a bridge too far, even for the rebellious brother of puritanical jazz-purist Wynton. But perhaps there was a method in his madness all the same: the crime of playing with Sting (for which he received serious stick from his brother) will now seem far less heinous in comparison.