Meltdown Festival: Television, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Mixed signals from Television
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At their best, Television are one of those bands whose music gets thrillingly into your bones, the searing tones of the twin Fender guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd driven home by an intense and dramatic pattern developed by the bassist Fred Smith and the drummer Billy Ficca.

At their best, Television are one of those bands whose music gets thrillingly into your bones, the searing tones of the twin Fender guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd driven home by an intense and dramatic pattern developed by the bassist Fred Smith and the drummer Billy Ficca.

But when things don't quite work, the band are listless and devoid of passion, the music strangely colourless and uncommunicative. They delivered both aspects of themselves at Meltdown to a crowd almost falling over themselves in readiness to adore every note.

This unfortunate dichotomy is present probably because Verlaine, the group's quixotic leader and chief songwriter, keeps everything on such a tight leash but is himself all too vulnerable to distractions and vexations other performers would brush aside. So, in a 90-minute set that allowed no interval and concentrated on music either from the epochal 1976 album Marquee Moon or Television's efforts in the Nineties, but almost entirely skipped 1978's Adventure, Verlaine spent more time fretting about his electronic guitar tuner rather than getting on with giving the audience what they were almost pleading for - Television in full flight.

Verlaine's increasingly distracted mood eventually impinged on the music. Yet there were times when the music was so good, and so thrilling, that the gig was on the verge of greatness. A driving version of "Venus" was hampered only by understrength vocal miking, but the rolling twin-guitar patterns and thunderous drums of "See No Evil" were overwhelming.

Virtually all major solos on the night were handed to Lloyd. Given Verlaine's skittishness, this turned out to be a good thing, for Lloyd, a player rarely given his due either in the band or in rock generally, turned in three solos during the set that had the entire band stomping behind him in a kind of dervish frenzy and audience mouths dropping open in awe. His combination of tone, idea and sheer edge took him into a class of player where the names Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughn are not entirely inappropriate.

Verlaine, whose more lyrical style is normally a perfect contrast to Lloyd's quicksilver, slashing attack, was sufficiently out of sorts to limit himself to the occasional brief foray amid a good deal of workmanlike chording. His great set-piece, the long drama of "Marquee Moon", was kept until last in the set but went very wrong indeed.

The original recording offers an object lesson in how to build to an overpowering climax. On this night, Verlaine became impatient with himself and his solo, often taking his hand off the fretboard and shaking it as if he'd got cramps, then finally just cutting to the chase and leading the rest of the group into the heavily staccato patterns that deliver the tune's climax. This part at least worked, spilling the composition's motherlode all over the audience, but then Verlaine allowed the whole thing to unravel in a couple of minutes of inconsequential doodling as the band watched him intently for a clue as to how they were to end this thing.

Lack of rehearsal? Lack of care? Anyway, with the song ended the band exited stage left as soon as possible. It was at least five minutes before they straggled back on, this time with Patti Smith, to deliver a rather bloodless "You I Rate".

With Smith exiting to cheers, the band plunged into a short, incoherent rabble of noises and rhythms that would have been more appropriate at an avant-garde free improvisation concert: a virtual V-sign to the audience. Then they were gone for good and the house lights went up. The best of times, the worst of times.

Meltdown continues to Sunday (0870 401 8181; www.rfh.org.uk)

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