Hard-Fi, Brixton Academy, London<br/> The Gourds, Borderline, Londn

Sons of Staines thrash it out
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The Independent Culture

Hard-Fi sprint on, punching the air, as they begin their five-night, sold out residency at the Brixton Academy as if it's a lap of honour. It's a week-long engagement that puts them in the company of legends including, pertinently, The Clash, the most obvious role model for their socially astute, rabble-rousing anthems.

Their status as a leading British band, which this confirms, has crept up on critics. Their debut album Stars of CCTV (recorded in a minicab office in Staines, the west of London satellite hometown that inspired it), despite Mercury and Brit nominations, was not universally liked. But the way Hard-Fi seize their moment, and are embraced by their crowd, tonight, is a lesson in pop conquest.

Opener "Middle Eastern Holiday", played to video images of invasion that range casually from Hitler's troops to Bush's tanks, attempts The Clash's uncompromising, sometimes unthinking rhetoric, as the band stand with legs braced apart, copying their heroes' classic posture.

Their choice of Billy Bragg as support act tonight, and acclaim by Paul Weller, further suggests an immersion in the agit-pop of the early Eighties. But more telling are the pint glasses that rain past Hard-Fi's heads, evidence of the mildly hooligan element every loved lad's band, The Clash included, attracts.

Singer Richard Archer is the willing focus, his almost grating whine recalling Mick Jones. But the way the veins of his neck strain with rabble-rousing passion, and his crowd-stoking aggression somehow stays humble, adds a touch of Strummer. But Archer's appeal is perhaps more akin to Green Day, the Clash acolytes Hard-Fi supported last year. He appeals to his crowd as if he is still one of them, revelling in his time on stage as they would. For all the interest in small-town violence of songs like "Feltham Is Singing Out", Archer specialises in geeky football chants, not the real thing. His band are sons of Staines who didn't fit, outsiders with the common touch.

Their music mixes traditional youthful alienation set to a punky thrash (as on new song "Suburban Nights") with specific, contemporary astuteness. Their biggest hit, "Cash Machine", addresses the frustration of a computer system telling you you're a pauper ("There's a hole in your pocket," goes the chorus, bellowed along by everyone here).

Like Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs, it speaks to a young audience that no longer expects the direct political consciousness rock provided in the days of The Clash, but do want to hear their social reality in song. "Stars of CCTV" is then left to the crowd to sing. It feels as if Archer is ceremonially handing the music, and the band's big night, to them.

"Living for the Weekend" then confirms that, for all their love of fuzzed guitars, Hard-Fi understand the tacky, dance-happy delights of Saturday nights today. Tonight has been a brash, happy success, too, for everyone here.

At the Borderline, The Gourds seem hooked up to the source of the joyous spirit of release Southern music gave the world - for a little while, at least. The chin-stroking reserve of British Americana crowds is left broken in the dust, as if this basement bar is a real Tex-Mex joint.

The band Texas's Gourds most resemble is The Band, the peerless Sixties group who backed Dylan then created their own fluid alchemy of roots forms. But The Gourds act more like the name The Band once slyly called themselves: The Crackers. Their lyrics speak a private language of grinning good ol' boy defiance, which has as much in common with rap as the Confederacy. Their music roams the Tex-Mex border, soaking up its cultural stew.

The gig is gearing up to be a five-star classic. But Southern boogie-rock gradually brings them down to earth, giving a listless feel to a set which seemed about to blast through the roof.

See www.hard-fi.com for future Hard Fi gig dates.