She could take on the lot of them

NICHOLAS BARBER ON POP
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The Independent Culture

Skunk Anansie, Muse Academy, Manchester

Skunk Anansie, Muse Academy, Manchester

Unless someone pretty dynamic comes along in the next 76 days, Skin from Skunk Anansie must rank as one of Britain's two most entertaining pop singers of this decade (Jarvis Cocker is the other one - sorry, Robbie). Before the end of the band's first song on Monday, she had leapt off the bass drum and administered a judo throw on her mic stand. Soon afterwards, she abused a theremin, mountaineered over a speaker stack and licked the guitarist's stomach while he was trying to play a solo.

It was one of the only times you noticed what the Anansie boys were doing. Mark Richardson is a vigorous, inventive drummer; Cass Lewis is a dread-headed bassist in a Wu-Tang T-shirt; Ace, the long-suffering guitarist, sports a M*A*S*H cap and the complicated facial hair arrangement that even George Michael has now given up as a bad idea. Not your average anonymous backing band, then, but they might as well be, given the hyperactive singer they share a stage with. Always moving, always encouraging her fans to dance and clap along, Skin is the only vocalist who could take on Mariah Carey in a singing contest and Muhammad Ali's daughter in a fist fight.

She is such an outrageously physical show-stealer that it's easy to forget how pure and operatic her voice is - she'd be a star even if she sang from behind a screen. (It's easy to forget, too, just how many catchy choruses her voice has at its disposal; Skunk Anansie's "Best Of" album will be a stormer.) But even more important is the sheer glee she derives from performing. Grinning throughout the concert, she tells us more than once how delighted she is to be playing to a sell-out audience.

What struck me, however, was how small this audience was compared to what I was expecting. On the band's website recently, Skin wrote that they were preparing some spectacular staging for their tour: "If yer gonna go up a level you might as well do it with bells on!" But Skunk Anansie haven't gone up a level. They've never joined the pop aristocracy, never had the smash-hit single that would have cemented them in the public's mind. And Manchester Academy is only half the size of the venues which they seemed destined to fill when they started out. As for Monday's show, it was no more dynamic than the ones Skunk Anansie were putting on four years ago. There was no evidence of anything with bells on.

The band's trajectory seems to have peaked. One sign of this was that Skin kept referring to Post Orgasmic Chill, their third LP, as a "brand new album". Bearing in mind that it came out in March and that it has since spawned four singles and left the top 75, any mention of its newness had to be a sales pitch. Another sign came during the encore. Skin, ever the charming hostess, thanked us for attending: "It's fantastic to see that rock music and people who love rock bands are still alive in these boyband-ridden times," she declaimed. "Support your rock music!" For all the cheers this speech elicited, it rang with the beleaguered bravado of a group that had been backed into a ghetto. In 1995, Skunk Anansie were determined to beat the world - and they planned to do so by taking a wrecking ball to the barriers between musical genres. Since then, their ambitions have diminished. They have settled into being a rock band. Their fanbase, likewise, has stopped growing and shifting. It has fossilised - turned to rock.

You could argue that Skunk Anansie have fulfilled their commercial potential: an angry, foul-mouthed political band fronted by a skinheaded lesbian were never going to be the stuff of a marketing executive's dreams. I don't think that's the problem, though. Skunk Anansie are held back not by being too radical, but by being too conservative.

Skunk Anansie's young support band, Muse, are easily labelled, too. The Devon trio are beholden to Radiohead, both for the plaintive castrato of Matthew Bellamy, their skeletal singer/ guitarist, and for their tortured music's balance between the subtly intricate and the crashingly noisy. But some songs on Muse's debut album, Showbiz, point to a way out of the pigeonhole. "Muscle Museum", for instance, is a rare example of a grunge anthem with a fluttering flamenco guitar part. And the spiritual blues of "Falling Down" suggests that, given time, Bellamy could fill a Jeff Buckley-shaped hole in the world.

 

Portsmouth Guildhall (01705 824355) tonight; Exeter Uni (01206 863211) Mon; Academy, SW9 (0171 771 2000) Tues; Nottingham Rock City (0115 941 2544) Thurs; Liverpool Royal Court (0151 709 4322) Fri

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