Folkies are in this season, it seems

Nicholas Barber on Pop
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The Independent Culture

Beth Orton, Shack, Derngate, Northampton Charlatans, Wulfrun Hall, WolverhamptonShelby Lynne, Embassy Rooms, London

Beth Orton, Shack, Derngate, Northampton Charlatans, Wulfrun Hall, WolverhamptonShelby Lynne, Embassy Rooms, London

Any beginner's guide to Beth Orton would start with the following statements: she combines classic female-singer-songwriter folk with cutting-edge dance production. She has worked with the Chemical Brothers and William Orbit. She has sold 300,000 copies of her Mercury-nominated debut album, Trailer Park. This year's follow-up, Central Reservation, was on the Mercury shortlist, too. She suffers from Crohn's disease and she has endured the death of her parents. She is 28.

How much of this you would guess if you saw her in concert without the beginner's guide in your pocket is another matter. Six feet tall and built like a slightly wilting sunflower, Orton stands rooted to the spot and picks carefully at her acoustic guitar, while her band, including a viola player and a cellist, surround her with slow, wistful, autumnal music. Sometimes it's soothing; at other times Orton's flutey voice hardens and turns bleak and desolate. But you'd never think you were in the presence of a musical revolutionary.

Orton is becoming more and more of a straightforward folkie. On Tuesday, the only remaining hints of a dance influence are the psychedelic projections on the screen behind her and the songs' inclination to meander along without much of a structure. Some tracks stand out - usually from Trailer Park, the more focused of her two albums - but most of the set washes over you. Trying to analyse it too minutely would be like trying to analyse a warm bath.

Orton's support act, Shack, have made one of 1999's most acclaimed albums, a feat which seems all the more notable when you consider that Mick and John Head, the Liverpudlian brothers at the heart of the group, once seemed unlikely ever to make an album again. In the years preceding the release of HMS Fable, the Heads have got over the collapse of their previous incarnation, the Pale Fountains, the death of their bassist, and their own heroin addiction. Mick Head looked positively surprised to find himself on the cover of NME recently, at the ripe old age of 37, labelled "our greatest songwriter".

Presumably, it was a slow week for pop news, but HMS Fable is a beautifully crafted record, its jangly Merseybeat deepened by maturity, experience and an ear for Nick Drake-ish folk poetry. It's a fair indication of what Oasis or Cast might be like when they grow up. On the other hand, I'm not sure the rows of silent, seated Beth Orton fans would have agreed as they watched four scruffy men lit by one red bulb, nervously singing and muttering to each other. Mick Head may or may not be our greatest songwriter, but Shack are not our greatest live band.

The Charlatans have suffered even worse luck than Shack. There was their bassist's depression. There was the imprisonment of their organist, Rob Collins. There was Collins's death in a car accident in 1996. And there was their accountant's embezzlement of £300,000 of the band's money. When last Sunday's gig began with flames engulfing the backdrop, I assumed that the Charlatans' luck was holding and the venue was on fire.

Luckily, the flames were just a lighting effect. With the release of what is set to be their most successful album, Us And Us Only, the Charlatans have raised the production values of their tour: over their heads was a circular lighting scaffold, bristling with multi-coloured striplights, like a giant crown of thorns.

But as with Beth Orton, the baggy martyrs' story can hardly be heard in their songs. There is a heaviness to their tread now that wasn't always there, but the music is neither sad enough to address their woes, nor happy enough to transcend them. In concert, it's a fug of beery, blokey funk-rock. You get the feeling that the Charlatans don't like to talk about each misfortune that comes along; they deal with it by getting in the drinks and the smokes, putting Dylan and the Stones on the jukebox and singing along until they fell over.

The band, in untucked shirts and T-shirts, kept their heads down and their instruments turned up. Tim Burgess mewled obscure lyrics, and, inbetween songs, he didn't talk to the crowd - not that any of his fans minded. It seemed the concert was best enjoyed with one arm around the shoulder of your best mate and the other arm thrust in the air and holding a beaker of lager.

Shelby Lynn's show on Monday was an unusual one, in that I came away more of a fan of hers, but less of a fan of the album she was supposed to be promoting. The album is I Am Shelby Lynne. It's definitely an enjoyable record and there's certainly nothing wrong with Lynne's thrilling voice. It can be raucous and rootsy when it needs to be, but can be as hypnotically subtle as the flicker of a candle. A lot of would-be pop divas could learn from her: her voice so powerful that she barely needs to use it.

The album's producer, Bill Bottrell, doesn't put a foot wrong, either, as he leads Lynne from country through Phil Spector-inspired girl-group pop to broken-hearted Billie Holiday jazz. Then you see hear the same songs performed live. Her relaxed band provide an easy, heat-hazy backing, Lynne scans the audience with a steady gaze and cool confidence - and suddently the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

I Am Shelby Lynne, while several country miles from the likes of Shania Twain, has a clean, poppy zing which doesn't do justice to the laidback, nightclub vibe the songs have in the flesh. Lynne is a classy country/ jazz chanteuse. Close your eyes and her Alabama drawl has you imagining the fireflies in a Southern summer dusk.

That's one explanation for why the men in the audience were red-faced and panting, anyway. Another is that Lynne is as gorgeous as her voice. I know that's not the sort of remark you'd get from our Classical critic, but this is pop, and pop being a superficial and image-oriented business, I'd be remiss in my duty if I didn't report that Lynne was the most beautiful, icy blue-eyed, sleepy-smiled, messy blonde Bridget Fonda-lookalike in a skimpy leather waistcoat I've ever been paid to gaze upon. "D'ya wanna go to Alabama some time?" she asks us before "Where I'm From". "I'll cook you crawfish, fried chicken ..." I expect there was a queue outside Thomas Cook the following morning.

Shack: Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), Thurs. Charlatans: Arts Centre, Poole (01202 685222), Mon; Newport Centre (01633 259676), Tues; Plymouth Pavilions (01752 229922), Wed; Apollo, Manchester (0161 242 2560), Fri & Sat