MUSIC / Better late tahn never: No star gazing, no pop puffs, just Jools Holland and the bands. Martin Wroe watches Later

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The Independent Culture
(First Edition)

THE huge keyboard player from American dance-gospel choir The Sounds of Blackness is chatting to the diminutive singer-songwriter Maria McKee. A few yards away P J Harvey is talking to Jools Holland who has just ably acquitted himself on a performance of Willie Dixon's 'Wang Dang Doodle' while country singer Vince Gill, the man who turned down the chance to join Dire Straits, is swapping guitar talk with other Blackness members.

It's not a music-business reception or backstage at a credible version of The Brits, it's the end of the recording of Later With Jools Holland, BBC2's acclaimed late-night rock show which returns this Friday. And everyone is relieved. It is an as-live show in which the artists take several takes to get that one, as-live take the director, Janet Fraser Crook, needs. It is 50 minutes of music which is two and a half hours long.

But it's worth it and for an elite audience in the studio at Television Centre, jammed with bands and gear, with lights, cameras and action, it is a memorable night. A mixture of drummer's mums, band hangers-on and record companions, Later is a hot lig - entrance is free, you get to see a clutch of cool bands playing music within inches of your face and the only risk is a telling-off from the floor manager for wandering into shot.

More importantly Later - which is now earlier, at 11.15pm, but still reasonably late - is a rock music television programme which is quite good. A novelty in itself. Fronted by the amiable piano-bashing Jools Holland, the programme offers the chance to see an excellent selection of untamed and unmimed acts, without the need to sit through a Terry Christian or a banal Top of the Pops presenter with a stick-on grin.

'We don't have acts who can't perform,' says Mark Cooper, the show's producer, who flatly denies that his own record collection dictates exactly who gets on the show. 'We don't have house acts or rave acts, they have to be able to perform live. It's a performance show.'

Cooper, a Late Show producer and prolific rock writer, is effectively head of taste on Later, choosing the bands for his own rock 'n' roll concert in his own studio. Probably the best job in the world. But he is also conscious that it is reasonably easy to make a bad television programme featuring rock music. His first job in television was on Channel 4's Wired.

He says that television and pop were pretty good bedfellows to start with, that Ready Steady Go caught the spirit of the age and that there was something appealing about their pairing in the Sixties. 'Rock music and television went well together then, when pop was profoundly uncomfortable on televison - when there was a clash between Pink Floyd and Lulu on the same programme - a mis-meeting of cultures, when rock 'n' roll was antithetical to television.'

Despite the addictive qualities of BBC2's Sounds of the Seventies, Cooper points out that if you had to sit through an entire archive programme of The Old Grey Whistle Test, 'you might enjoy one thing but there would also be awful stuff, unbelievably bad things'.

And if the Eighties is lauded for The Tube, the collective pop-picking memory often overlooks its periodic metamorphosis into shambolic mediocrity. Things are little easier in the Nineties, according to Cooper. 'The trouble now is that the rock music market is so fragmented, with a clearly defined teen audience, an indy audience, a 25-35 Q magazine / Virgin Radio audience and the 35-plus Sound of the Sixties types . . . and within each of those, the markets split again.'

The approach of Later is not to cater to any one audience but to mix and match, to please and challenge them all. The Word, which had the same time-slot on Channel 4, he points out, was definitely for a certain age of person. Later 'is definitely not for a certain age of person - P J Harvey might have made it on to The Word but Vince Gill would never have'.

Cooper charges that contemporary pop-television 'lacks integrity' because of too much record company involvement ('sometimes money changes hands') and the ratings-driven sensationalist way in which it is filmed. There is an advantage in licence-payers, not advertisers, funding Later. 'The music comes first, not the television and hopefully the pictures and music combine to offer a third thing, a poetry.'

Cooper says that his own choice of acts is not merely random, but offers some hidden sense of 'journey' for his viewer. In the first programme of the new 10-week series his own private theme is 'heaven and hell': Maria McKee - her new album is called You've Got to Sin to Get Saved - and squeaky-clean Vince Gill taking up the forces of good while the very noisy Alice in Chains and the seriously gothic P J Harvey take up the cudgels for the opposition. Not that they knew it - Cooper doesn't tell anyone his secret theme, mainly because it's often a little stretched. With the second programme - Aztec Camera, World Party and Leonard Cohen - he is already struggling, calling it 'the quite lush singer-songwriters' show'.

Not that it's important because the show hangs or falls on the quality of the musicianship and performance of the guests. In contrast to other pop programes, Later does not flirt with star-interviews, however superficial, or anything resembling a magazine format, which, with the exception of BBC2's Rapido, is rarely succesful.

'There is no journalism involved,' says Cooper, proudly. 'It's a show, an entertainment - we will have no reports on Northern Soul 10 years on.'

And embarrassing, illiterate, patronising presenters are notably absent. It's just Jools Holland, 'a cosmic clown' as Cooper calls him. 'He's a musician and he knows his music, and he's also very charming and doesn't take it all too seriously.'

The fact that Holland knows the music of the artists and is a half-decent musician himself seems to relax the guests and bring the best out of them, as was evident watching P J Harvey and Holland duet on 'Wang Dang Doodle'.

Cooper says proudly: 'Other shows can be a bit of a pretence but the kind of live performance that P J Harvey and Jools created . . . you don't see that kind of thing anywhere else.'

Later With Jools Holland: Fridays, BBC2 11.15pm

(Photograph omitted)