Just one big happy family

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the pop concert equivalent of Terminator 2: the money was up there on the screen. Everywhere you looked at Janet Jackson's Sheffield Arena show there were fireworks, costumes, video monitors, more fireworks and crowds of musicians and dancers. "There are 19 of us up on stage," said Jackson in her press release. "It's like one big family." Considering her big family, this may not be much of a recommendation.

Her last album proper, janet. (Virgin), has sold 8 million copies, so she is no longer in the shadow of her brothers. But on Wednesday, you couldn't say the same of her relationship with her stage siblings. The audience may have been overwhelmed by the Fame dance routines, the flame- throwers, the zoot suits and the harlequin apparel, but Jackson was overwhelmed, too.

Her voice was buried under layers of keyboards and skull-hammering house beats. Several tracks slipped past in medleys so seamless that each piece seemed to be a verse of the same song. What was most noticeable about Jackson's performance was the eerie resemblance to her most famous brother: not just in the way she looked - a black(ish) Barbie doll, with Action Man's abdominal muscles - but in the way she did his trademark vocal squeak and strode across the stage, teeth gritted.

There were only two occasions on which Jackson truly dominated the show, and both were when the dancers and some of the band were offstage. The first was during a smoochy "Any Time, Any Place". She invited a trembling fan up from the crowd, sat on his knee, and caressed him until the poor fellow was on the verge of tears, among other bodily emissions. The second occasion was for even more dubious reasons. Halfway through the ballad "Again" she broke down, racked with sobs. (I was rather moved myself: it was the first song of the evening with a decent tune.) Every tear got a cheer from the crowd, although come to think of it I couldn't actually see any water running down those boiled-egg cheekbones. Jackson was faking it, and that Bottomley-esque sincerity marred the show. Despite all the pyrotechnics, it never felt very warm.

In the wake of their terrific single, "Wake Up" (Deceptive), and their chart-topping eponymous dbut album, Elastica are as fashionable as a band can be without coming from Bristol. To criticise them is a faux pas akin to admitting that you don't really fancy their singer / co-guitarist Justine Frischmann.

And yet ... maybe it was just end-of-tour enervation, but their show at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Thursday was not as taut as the snappy, stuttering punk-pop of their records. They ran through the album efficiently enough, but were upstaged by the springy bass, freaky Tom Verlaine-ish guitar and sandpaper-rasping female vocals of their support band, Powder. Elastica were sluggish in comparison, and there's no excuse for that if you play for only 40 minutes. Frischmann's insouciant drawl was less tuneful than usual, and her reputation as the razor-wit of indie music was belied by her between-song banter. "This is a song about tin boxes with wheels on. It's called `Car Song'," she said. Did I miss some ironic subtext, or is that a gormless introduction?

The most charismatic bandmember was Justin Welch, perfecting his nutty- drummer persona by squirting a water-pistol and making belching noises on "Line Up". But when you have to start recommending a concert for its burps and water pistols, there's something wrong.

To be in EMF you need to be able to play several instruments. For instance, at the LA2 on Wednesday, lead mewler James Atkin showed that he is a nifty guitarist, bassist and flautist. On the other hand, you don't need to be able to play many songs. Just repeat the formula of the 1989 smash "Unbelievable": a rave drumbeat, Ian Dench whacking out riffs like Keith Richards used to be able to, and a few samples for good measure (Stephen Fry, returning to showbiz, crops up on their new album), all done with manic energy. The fans pogo merrily, so why change a winning formula? Well, they'd probably sell a few more records if they did.