Mercury winners take to the road in search of their lost credibility

<i>Roni Size/Reprazent </i>| Octagon, Sheffield <i>The Delgados </i>| Royal Festival Hall, London <i>Badly Drawn Boy </i>| Metro University, Leeds
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The Independent Culture

If the Mercury Prize is supposed to be about musical innovation, how come musicians are so keen to distance themselves from it? The ungrateful upstarts. After all, the winners are rewarded with a fat cheque and a mind-boggling increase in sales. But in reality the prize acts as an index for those who want to impress their mates with good music but can't be arsed to find it for themselves. Prior to the ceremony, the winning band is usually loved - or loathed - by a few. But within weeks of bagging the prize their previously innovative sound has become dinner-party music and their reputation is in tatters.

If the Mercury Prize is supposed to be about musical innovation, how come musicians are so keen to distance themselves from it? The ungrateful upstarts. After all, the winners are rewarded with a fat cheque and a mind-boggling increase in sales. But in reality the prize acts as an index for those who want to impress their mates with good music but can't be arsed to find it for themselves. Prior to the ceremony, the winning band is usually loved - or loathed - by a few. But within weeks of bagging the prize their previously innovative sound has become dinner-party music and their reputation is in tatters.

Take, for example the Bristol-based Reprazent, champions of that excruciating genre "jazzy drum'n'bass". Three years ago they won the Mercury Prize, thereby ensuring drum'n'bass's safe passage to suburban coffee tables. By the time the ceremony had finished, the genre was already deemed dead and buried. So what is a band to do? Well, if you're Reprazent you go to ground and return three years later with a new album bursting with righteous anger and violently shunning your jungle- lite past. "You'd better believe that we're back," yelled MC Dynamite to the throng of baggy-trousered Sheffield students.

It seems Roni Size and co have dispensed with the jazz inflections of their last album in favour of edgier breakbeats and dense hip-hop grooves. Even old songs such as Heroes and Brown Paper Bag from their Mercury-winning album New Forms have been imbued with a blistering energy. Similarly, new songs Who Told You? and Snapshot, too long and overblown on record, reached for the jugular when played live. Given that this is a tour largely made up of university venues, Reprazent seem to be aiming for a new generation of fans. But there remains a nagging feeling that they are flogging a dead horse. Their sound may seem different, refreshing even, but not new.

Perhaps it is bands such as the Delgados who benefit most from the Mercurys. They get the kudos of the nomination yet, as they leave empty-handed, emerge with their credibility intact. On the other hand, it may have more to do with their unassuming personality as a band. They aren't the most charismatic of performers, but their music speaks volumes. They invited a nine-piece string section to join them at their Festival Hall show, lifting their elegantly fragile songs to magnificent heights. This Glasgow group are from the Ken Loach school of song-writing, if there is such a thing. Seeking inspiration in the despair and deprivation of inner-city life, their lyrics trawl such subjects as child abuse and unwanted pregnancy (their latest album The Great Eastern is named after a homeless hostel in central Glasgow). In other words, The Delgados are not the stuff Mercury winners are made of, and are all the better for it.

So what of this year's victor Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough? This bearded singer-songwriter from Manchester may not have championed a musical genre, but he is slowly killing off live performance as we know it. If he had a game plan before his Leeds show it was to make us hate him before the post-Mercury backlash began. "We haven't rehearsed this one," he remarked before This Song, taking his umpteenth swig of Jack Daniel's. No matter, it lasted only 15 seconds. "It's the first night of the tour and it's only Leeds," he muttered, by way of an apology. Perhaps all this wouldn't have seemed so painful if he had not been on stage for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

By the end of the night we had learnt of his fixation with Lucy Pearl's breasts, endured a lengthy jam with a Swanney whistle and been treated to a drunken impression of Roger Daltrey. It would have been funny if it hadn't been pathetic. As for the music, well, there was an instrumental interlude which might loosely be called experimental, though I'd prefer unlistenable. When a man in the audience yelled "boring!" Gough leapt off the stage in fury, shouting, "You want boring? Go listen to the f--king Stereophonics."

There were redeeming moments, though. A cover of Springsteen's Born in the USA confirmed rumours of Gough's joyous devotion to the Boss. A handful of songs from Hour of Bewilderbeast were also played flawlessy, leading one to question exactly how much of Gough's shambling antics is contrived. If that is the case then he is no better than the industry he professes to hate.

Reprazent: Portsmouth Pyramid (02392 358608) today; Shepherds Bush Empire, W12 (020 7771 2000) tomorrow. Badly Drawn Boy: Glasgow QMU (0141 339 8383) today; Newcastle University (0191 233 0444) Weds; Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton (01902 552121) Fri; Bristol University (0117 954 5810) Sat.

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