Inside Joan's armour plating

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The Independent Culture
THE CROWD at the Birmingham Sym- phony Hall on Thursday had three reasons to be cheerful. First because Joan Armatrading fans are such a loyal bunch that the very sight of her has them cheering; second, because she is a local girl; and third, because her show - a greatest- hits selection played by a slick and funky band, plus an acoustic rendering of some songs from her new album, What's Inside (RCA) - was excellent.

Still, I would say that, wouldn't I? Critics always like Joan Armatrading. Especially Sunday broadsheet critics. All the more reason to expect her to be a tiny bit middle-class, -aged, -brow, -of-the-road, the musical equivalent of the yucca plant that sits in the corner of a yuppie's flat.

It's a reasonable point. There was no stage show or light show to speak of; the band had the tailored expertise of session musicians, and we could have done with a break from all the instrumental breaks. When Armatrading has such a bulging back-catalogue to play with, there's no need to stretch songs to breaking point.

But don't be afraid. Even if the words "acclaimed singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar" have you reaching for your ear-plugs, she will have you putting them down again. First, listen to that rich voice, gutsy and gentle by turns. Then discover that beneath the Joan Armour- plating, she is warm and funny. And while you'd expect her songs to be intelligent, you should also know that the tunes are pretty good, too. That includes the What's Inside material, despite being fairly acclaimed- singer-songwriter-with-acoustic-guitar sort of stuff. "Every Day Boy" is the most unpretentious, and therefore most moving, song about an Aids sufferer that I know.

If that sounds too serious, there are melodies and rhythms which move your feet as well as your emotions - although not in the Birmingham Symphony Hall. It was a shame that we were seated in stiff rows in a high-ceilinged theatre, when a relaxed, intimate setting would have made the show seem less of a fans' convention and more an evening for everyone. While selling 10 million albums is nothing to be ashamed of, it's also true that if she played some smaller clubs she might, paradoxically, reach a wider audience. Joan Armatrading: why let the Joan Arma- trading fans have her all to themselves?

When Cream went sour in 1969, their bassist, Jack Bruce, embarked on the Serious Pop Star's odyssey: he passed through rock, blues, jazz and classical, and settled in a no man's land between them all. His new album, Monkjack (CMP), is a letter from this wilderness. More Serious than ever, there isn't a bass guitar in sight, just Bruce on vocals and piano, and Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic on organ.

The record was recreated on Monday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, right down to the running order of the tracks. Worrell wore a tasselled, purple and gold tunic, as if auditioning for a part in Aladdin - the Genie, perhaps. There's certainly something magical about the way he conjures up whirs, whistles and rumbles from a hefty antique Hammond.

Bruce's abilities are more earthbound. His curious vocal style - swallowing some words and vomiting others out ferociously - seemed designed to prevent us making out the words. Not a bad idea, when so many of the lyrics were by Bruce's long-time co-writer, Pete Brown. "Folk Tale", composed originally for Songs for a Tailor, Bruce's first solo album, begins: "How will I find you, oh my love, in the darkness of day?/ I will look in glass forests where electric fish play." Bruce got through it with a straight face. I wasn't so self-disciplined.

He pounded the grand piano, changing keys as fast as he changed from rock to classical. But all too often, the songs dissipated into scrambling, scribbling jazz indulgences. Bruce drifted so far away from his starting point during one protracted cadenza that when the verse finally came around, he chuckled: "What was the tune again?" No idea, Jack. But then I wasn't too sure of what the tune was to begin with.

Worrell is an exceptional player, and Bruce is an excellent one. After a couple of hours, though, two virtuosos noodling away on keyboards don't sound that much different from anyone else.