Nice cheeks, shame about the voice

Ian Brown | Hammersmith Palais Paul Weller | Rivermead, Reading David Gray | Concorde 2, Brighton
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The Independent Culture

Ian Brown and Paul Weller have more in common than their mean sets of cheekbones. Measured in pop star years, both men - or more accurately, blokes - are getting old: Brown is 37, Weller is 42. They led two of Britain's most celebrated bands, the Stone Roses and The Jam, but now refuse to perform any of those bands' songs. And each of them has endured a career low point almost as dramatic as his career high point: Weller's came after The Style Council imploded and he was left without a record deal; Brown's was, well, roughly from the release of the second Stone Roses album onwards.

Today, they both have immovably loyal audiences, a phenonemon which, at first glance, seems a lot more reasonable in Weller's case. His solo output has been regular and fairly consistent since 1992, whereas Brown has managed just two solo albums, and is the worst live singer seen on a British stage since cattle were banned from karaoke bars. As for his concert on Thursday, it could have been on Trigger Happy TV. In one sketch from Channel 4's recent Candid Camera update, its star, Dom Joly, stood up at a poetry circle and counted to 100, just to test what his audience would accept as a poem. Was Brown trying a similar prank? That would explain his walking on the spot, making "tsch-tsch" hi-hat noises and moaning random lines from his songs in among quotes from "Dear Prudence" and Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday", while his band jammed muggy, exotic funk grooves and, yes, a Pearly King and Queen boogied at the front of the stage.

Dom Joly was at Wednesday's concert, filming the chaos, and he has directed the video for Brown's next single, so the theory is almost watertight. Almost. But sometimes, just sometimes, the show came together. Bearing in mind the site of the Stone Roses' gruesome last stand, Brown might be advised to avoid open-air festivals, but at a gig that's dark and smoky and doesn't start until 10.30, his indie/ dance/ world music experiments can make atmospheric sense. The sinuous, Middle Eastern patterns of "First World" and the throbbing synth riffs of "Golden Gaze" work some kind of alchemy on Brown's foghorn voice: tuneless or not, he recites sinister, gripping incantations. Then comes "Corpses In Their Mouths", on which he is actually required to sing a melody, and it's socks-in-ears time again.

It's possible that one day Brown will make the orchestral pop classic he keeps promising, but for now he is shaping up to be a classic pop eccentric. Watching him in concert is like observing his career: what's so fascinating is that you never know whether it's going to be brilliant or disastrous next. Even when it's terrible, it's always interestingly terrible.

Paul Weller, on the other hand, is never terrible, but is rarely terribly interesting, either. On Tuesday, following a brief introduction by Oasis's truant, Guigsy, he strode out from the wings, strapped on a guitar and with a businesslike "G'd evening", he thumped into his first song. If he hadn't been wearing a T-shirt, he'd have rolled up his sleeves.

Weller maintains in interviews that pop is a "proper" job like any other, and he certainly gives that impression in concert. He's not there to have fun. He's not there to experiment. His musicians, Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Cradock among them, have all put in their hours at the rehearsal studio, but they prefer a back-to-basics, no-messing, gruff-and-tough approach. They've got an album to promote and that's what they're going to do. Addressing more than a few words to the audience, changing out of their jeans, or varying the tone or tempo of the arrangements - let alone slipping in a Jam song - would just be frivolous. That said, I couldn't possibly endorse one friend's assessment: "He wants to sing like Steve Winwood and play guitar like Eric Clapton, but instead he sings like Eric Clapton and plays guitar like Steve Winwood."

The crowd was as stony-faced as the band. In between songs there were cheers and chants - always "Weller", never "Paul" - but during the music the fans stood impassively, knocked out of their trances only by a drum solo from Steve White. Maybe pop music is as much a job for them as it is for Weller.

In a faded denim jacket and jeans, David Gray would fit neatly in Weller's band. There is a musical overlap, too: both men write sensitive, personal songs inspired by sixties folk, although while Weller sounds like he's bellowing in your ear in a rowdy pub, Gray mutters his woes after the chairs have been stacked and everyone else has gone home. Like Weller, the London-based songwriter has also had his wilderness years. He was dropped by his record company in 1997, and had to finance and release his fourth album himself. Heart-warmingly, White Ladder went on to sell 100,000 copies worldwide and spend six weeks at number one in Ireland. It's re-released in the UK tomorrow.

Gray's songs are po-faced and unoriginal next to those of his models, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, but you could see him as the tougher big brother of Travis and Beth Orton; by introducing drum loops and samples to the singer-songwriter formula, he's revealed a knack for foot-tapping pop tunes as well as for late-night laments. If he does become a star on this side of the Irish sea, I only hope he cuts half an hour off his show. After an hour and forty minutes, even his soulful rasp and alluring choruses get tiring. And there's a limit to the entertainment value of watching an insanely energetic drummer who's the spitting image of Peter Sellers. Still, the faithful in attendance on Easter Monday were rapturous to the very end. Among the throng was one of the McGann brothers, whom I happened to walk past during the show. "Is that Peter Sellers?", he was saying.

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