Lou Reed takes a walk on the mild side

ROCK
AT THE Shepherd's Bush Empire, Lou Reed comes on stage in black leather trousers and a tight black T-shirt. It has to be a good sign. The shirt may be a little too tight around the middle, but its presence hints that a rock'n'roll heart beats beneath it.

Around the time of his last album but one, Magic and Loss, Reed was spotted reciting his lyrics as if they were poetry, and admonishing his concert audiences for not being quiet. Tonight, he and his three-piece band kick off with "Sweet Jane", and, over the next two hours plus, they rock through most of the songs from his new album, Set the Twilight Reeling (Warner), and some purist-worrying versions of old favourites. Reed races over "Waiting for the Man" so fast that he obviously doesn't want to wait for long. On an "I Love You, Suzanne" that sounds more like "La Bamba", he adopts two voices that we never imagined he had: a falsetto, and a voice even lower and gruffer than his usual one. On "Walk on the Wild Side", the "coloured girls" are now plain "girls". Maybe in a few years time they'll be "women".

Whether it's the love of a good performance artist (Twilight is dedicated to his latest flame, Laurie Anderson), or whether he's trying to disprove the recent, damning biographies, the new Lou is in evidence, PC and settled. He's not taking hard drugs, he's taking it easy.

Consequently, the new songs are hardly momentous, though they have their moments: the gospel refrain of "Hang On to Your Emotions", the pretty chorus of "Trade In", the funky drum beat of "NYC Man", the heads-down rock of "Hooky Wooky". "Sex With Your Parents" is a deadpan jibe at Bob Dole and friends; "Egg Cream" is an uncomfortable but fun union of Stonesy music, Jonathan Richman-esque subject matter, and two lines of self-parodic, lurid Lou Reed: the milk-shake "made it easier to deal with knife fights / Kids pissing in the street".

Make no mistake, this is decent stuff, and he acquits himself honourably. But gone is the indecent, dishonourable Reed of legend, who would pretend to inject heroin on stage. There's nothing upsetting about this concert, except perhaps Lou himself, who is a dead ringer for a tortoise in a David Essex wig.

It's not that he doesn't enjoy music any more. He can jam for hours - and does - and nothing brings a smile to that Victor Meldrew face quicker than a chance to take a bow with his band, stroll off-stage, and return for an encore or seven. No, rock'n'roll amuses him, all right. It's a leisure activity. And when you're at leisure, you don't want to challenge yourself or others. So, while the Velvet Underground were just about the only band of the Sixties to demonstrate that the Beatles didn't cover absolutely all of the angles, Reed's invention tonight goes as far as strumming some of the chords on an acoustic guitar rather than an electric. He plays basic arrangements of basic songs, and if his voice is not monotone, it's tetratone at the outside.

It would perhaps be unfair to judge him on his past peaks, Himalayan as they are, except that a glance around at the audience confirms that the long-serving fans outnumber the teenage recruits 10 to none. Halfway through the show, from different corners of the venue, three fans shout out in quick succession. " 'Waves of Fear'! " is the first request; the second is: " 'Rock and Roll'! ". A third man then calls out: "Lou Reed!" I'm not sure if he's celebrating because his hero is present, or complaining because he's not.

Under the misapprehension that writing songs about cats and toy cars automatically makes you funny, the Presidents of the United States of America are a joke band without any punchlines, and a Seattle grunge band without any angst. So are they completely pointless? It's something to ponder as you get ecstatic and sweaty to "Lump" (Columbia), "Peaches" and the other songs from their two-million-selling eponymous album.

Live, you see, the Presidents win by a landslide, leaving the likes of Rocket From the Crypt and Green Day back in the primaries. Their hilarious, spontaneous show at the Leeds T&C on Thursday had the momentum and bounce of a bungee jump. Whether playing their own lo-fi, fun, funky punk, or covers of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" and the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star", the Presidents are more infectious than a herd of British cows. And there's the novelty value of the instruments played by Dave Dederer (guitarist) and Chris Ballew (singer/bassist/Lee Hurst look-alike) having a total of five strings between them. The goofball lyrics are still useless, though. It's something to ponder as you find yourself singing along with them. Kick out the Pearl Jams!

Their support band were Ocean Colour Scene, who are very, very good at what they do. That is, they're very, very good at what Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Stones and the Who do. Whatever retro criticisms are levelled at Blur and Oasis seem laughable after you've heard OCS's "new" album, Moseley Shoals (MCA). Every note could have been recorded before the band were born.

Luckily, the group have some old-fashioned virtues to go with their old- fashioned everything else: a raw, passionate voice; strong, clear song- writing; dexterous blues-rock guitar; carefully produced records; and a live show with enough life and grit to revive even the weariest old riffs and haircuts. So far, their claims to fame have been the stints of their guitarist and bassist in Paul Weller's band, and their single, "The Riverboat Song" being the music you hear on Chris Evans's TFI Friday when a guest makes the long walk round the catwalk balcony. Now, their time has come. Better 30 years late than never.

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