MUSIC / Down at the old Bull and Bush: Giles Smith watches the touts gather and Hutchence flounce as INXS's 'pub gig' tour hits the Astoria

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AT THE Astoria on Tuesday, INXS, Australia's globally huge rock act, went small. This was the 'Get Out of the House' tour - a series of unusually intimate appearances which the band has taken to referring to as 'pub gigs'. Before remarking ironically on the difference between the two-tier, 1500-capacity Astoria and, say, the snug at your local Dog and Duck, you perhaps ought to bear in mind the Australian definition of a 'pub' - basically, a 24-hour aircraft hanger with a bar down one side. It was in these kinds of venues that, in their early days, INXS taught themselves to dodge beer glasses and learned what pumped up a crowd and, by comparison, the Astoria must have felt to them about as confined and polite as a provincial arts centre on a Tuesday lunchtime.

Even so no one could pretend the 'Get Out of the House' tour is a casual, rootsy venture, conceived without a care for commercial possibilities, utterly innocent of franchises and tie-ins. Tickets for these shows have declared the time, date and town but nothing more. The venues have not been announced until the day of the show, with ticket holders channeled in pre-selected directions to get their information - read about it in a particular paper, hear about it on a chosen radio station, check up on it in a selected record store. In other words, these were pub gigs with a good quantity of corporate dealing going on in the saloon.

Meanwhile, independent dealers were holding their annual conference outside on the pavement - at least judging by the quantity of them. This was tout heaven - a big-name act in a restricted setting, making for an ample pool of sorely disappointed fans, willing to pitch up on spec and part with whatever it took (pounds 60 for a pounds 15 ticket). It was hard to know which was longer - the line of desolate-eyed people looking for a way in, or the line of scum trying to flog them one. Grateful though one is to any band who dares to ring the changes on arena rock, one would be still more grateful to the group that could sort out their ticket distributors.

Those inside perched on the balcony, or shoved each other from side to side on the dancefloor and reacted to a tape of Talking Heads as if it was a support act. How many pub acts have a grey, wrap-around curtain device to keep the audience's eyes off the instruments before the show starts? Members of the road crew ripped this away when the lights dimmed, and out walked the the six band members, their singer Michael Hutchence in the middle of them in the kind of shiny, black jacket favoured by coalmen, with a red shirt hanging out from under it. A sampled voice chuntered indecipherably, the guitars growled, the drums slammed and off they went into 'Communication'.

Even in a small theatre, no other group does the stadium rock thing with quite so much determination. The songs came mostly from 1988's Kick (nine million copies sold) and the recent Welcome to Wherever You Are (three million and counting). There's nothing subtle about most of them. Kirk Pengilly puts his guitar down occasionally and wheezes into a saxophone; Andrew Farriss sometimes abandons the keyboards for percussion. But the sound barely alters, remaining a compacted barrage of thumping, largely bereft of dynamics. In this kind of rock, it's a thin line between being taut, punchy and electrifying ('Suicide Blonde', 'New Sensation') and being tedious beyond belief ('Mediate', which is one dull riff with a slew of mumbling over the top of it). For the most part, INXS steer on the right side of the divide, but even when they don't, you can always stare at Michael Hutchence.

Hutchence must be the most convincing old-style rock star we now have. He flounces about like a floppy doll, leans across the monitors into the crowd and points slowly to the skies and there isn't a trace of irony. The other band members try hard to pull your eyes away from him, chiefly by wearing absurd combinations of clothes - Tim Farriss picked the winter camouflage fatigue trousers, with the emerald green jacket and the scarlet baseball cap; Garry Gary Beers wore a skirt. Even so, you watched Hutchence, climbing out to hang off the edge of the PA stack, while fans reached up to pat his knees.

Many got closer than that. Someone would occasionally flip up out of the throng, and set off across the heads that stood between them and the stage, making their way by lying down and easing themselves forward as if paddling an invisible surfboard. If they didn't sink, they tumbled hopelessly on to the lip of the stage where, quite frequently, a large gentleman with no hair picked them up by the back of their belts and removed them firmly to a safe jump-off point at the side.

But more than a few made it through directly to Hutchence, who seemed genuinely pleased to see them, trading hand-slaps or hanging one of his long arms across their shoulders and grinning stupidly. In fact, Hutchence's enthusiasm, the very real possibility of a meaningful clinch under the spotlights, made the trip to the front an increasingly popular option. It's probably fair to say that, by the time 'Devil Inside' wound up the set, most of the audience had been on the stage at some point or other - a democratic happening which you probably couldn't organise at Wembley.

(Photograph omitted)