Deeply moving, standing still

Click to follow
EVER since Elvis Presley first thrust his pelvis into the face of American youth, so to speak, we've demanded twisting with our shouting, moving with our grooving. Only a remarkable rock band will get anywhere if they stand still on stage. Oasis manage because their music makes it impossible for the audience to keep still. Portishead don't have that effect. They were voted NME's dance act of 1994, but at the Southampton Guildhall last Sunday, no one danced. The group move the audience in a different way - they take the emotions and the imagination on a ghost-train ride.

The macabre organ is the background music of a horror film, brought to the foreground. The theremin samples provide the ghostly whistles, the guitar clanks like chains and the minimalist snare drumming is a deathly rattle. The nocturnal pulse of the songs reminds me of Ultravox's "Vienna" - though that's probably too uncool a band to mention on the same page as Portishead.

Barely visible through the dry ice and her own cigarette smoke is Beth Gibbons. (Dry, icy, smoky . . . that just about sums up Portishead.) She has no need for Celine Dion-style note-mangling: one brush with her shivering voice hints at horrors which make the long, dark night of most soul singers seem like a day on the beach. There's a frailty to her vocals that recalls Sinead O'Connor. Sinead singing Ultravox - you wouldn't expect it to transport you, but it does. As with Oasis, Portishead's sound is so fully realised, their debut album, Dummy (Go! Discs) is so complete, you wonder where they can go from here.

On the backdrop at Wembley Arena, Bob Marley looked ecstatic: grinning, eyes closed, octopoid hair in mid-flight. And no wonder. Thursday's Tribute to Bob Marley was the best 50th birthday party I've been to.

The audience's enthusiasm had as much to with this as the music. The sound was fizzing and carnivalesque, but it's fairly obvious what the Wailers were lacking. Bob's backing singers, the I-Threes - dressed up like Christmas crackers and shuffling through their choreography - seemed like, well, Bob's backing singers; Marley's children's band, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, were as dwarfed musically by their father's legend as they were physically by his huge image on the backdrop.

Pato Banton and the Reggae Revolution, the Freddy and the Dreamers of the genre, injected their routines with a sunshiny enthusiasm. How else could they accompany the cheery banality of Banton's lyrics? He tells the crowd to stay positive, then plays "Stay Positive"; he tells us never to give in, and plays "Never Give In"; he tells us that one world is enough for all of us, and ... and so on. Still, as party entertainers go, he's more fun than a magician pulling coins out of people's ears.

And it's the fact that it's so obvious that makes it good party music. You don't need to hear the chorus to sing along, you just have to know the title. It's "The Hokey-Cokey" with a message. After two hours, though, I began to wish that Apache Indian or Dreadzone would bring things up to date. Whatever this birthday bash was, it was no surprise party.

Luckily, the headliner was Jimmy Cliff. Predating Marley, he didn't feel the need to impersonate him: he could keep his roots while branching out. Trad reggae blossomed with funky drums, soul vocals, and rock keyboard and key changes. Cliff stood out as the artist who could not only honour the dead, but also keep something alive.

"This is a brilliant stage for dancing," says Norman Blake. "I've got my dancing slippers on." And the funny thing is, he has. He's also got a jumper with a hole in the elbow, and a beard you couldn't buy in a joke shop.

It's all part of a predictably mild- mannered show for Teenage Fan Club on Friday. You've got instantly memorable ditties from "our latest critically acclaimed album" Grand Prix (Creation) - "Everyone's talking about it. Especially us" - and from Thirteen, which prove that that album should have been more critically acclaimed than it was. You've got a silver- lined cloud of guitars, and voices that harmonise like jelly and ice-cream, like sugar and - more sugar.

Most importantly, you've got modest, self-deprecating charm. When you remember that the Fan Club come from the same part of the world as Simple Minds, you see what an achievement that is.