Steel Panther / Mötley Crüe / Def Leppard, LG Arena, Birmingham Little Dragon, Concorde 2, Brighton

It's as if poodle rock never went away when Mötley Crüe and the hair metallists get together

We are gathered here today to take a look, two decades after its alleged demise, at that improbably deathless genre, hair metal.

Or poodle rock. Or glam metal. Whatever it's called, we know it when we see it: the music from that peculiar period between 1981 and 1991 when LA metal-lite ruled the world.

What did it all mean? Hair metal was built around an unusual incarnation of the rock'n'roll Rebel Male: ravenously heterosexual, but distinctly feminised. Not just in appearance (lipgloss, Lycra, bandannas, heels, hairspray and eyeliner) but in its precise sexuality: the primped poodle rocker wasn't so much a traditional stud as a male slut, beautiful but brainless, there to be used. Whether by accident or design, this role-reversal was strangely liberating. No wonder girls loved it.

If anyone's got a handle on this Like Grunge Never Happened stuff, it's the parodists. Steel Panther, spoof rockers who extol the virtues of "heavy metal, pussy, hard drugs and not working too hard", are on and off before The One Show's begun, but it doesn't matter. Glam rock crowds start early: at 6.01pm, half an hour to stage time, the first fan's already been carried out legless.

Before they've played a note, Steel Panther have cracked their first joke: even though they're third on the bill, Stix Zadinia's riser is so tall that his bass drum's at head-height. A movie-trailer, "In a world ..." voice begins: "It is the future, the year 6969", and the rest is hysteria.

The headline news is this: Steel Panther genuinely rock. Were they merely a Bad News/Spinal Tap extended gag, it would wear thin. But their act, honed in a House of Blues residency, is underpinned by some truly phenomenal musicianship. (They're seasoned session men underneath the blond locks.)

Songs such as "17 Girls in a Row", new single "Just Like Tiger Woods" and "Death to All but Metal" are irresistible. "Asian Hooker" rhymes "South Korea" and "gonorrhoea", and makes a sushi joke I don't need to spell out. And there's the obligatory change of tempo with "Community Property", the least romantic power ballad ever written.

The crowd absolutely adores them. When Michael Starr, their red-robed, Roth-a-like singer, asks, "How many people love heavy metal so much that they'd kill a baby seal?" he's met with roars of agreement. When guitarist Satchel says, "If we don't get some of your tits out, we're gonna get fired and replaced with Reckless Love", there are plenty who oblige.

Going on after Steel Panther is a bad hand of cards: watching the "proper" bands is like watching the news after The Day Today. Your senses are ultra-heightened to the absurdity.

Mötley Crüe draw the short straw. The idea of Crüe has always been better than the reality. Their orgies-and-all autobiography The Dirt is a jewel, but the songs have never been there, give or take the ultimate hair metal anthem "Girls Girls Girls", and no amount of pyros can hide that fact.

Nikki Sixx is cool as anything; a living breathing archetype of the tattooed badass rocker, his Heroin Diaries is up there with The Dirt, and his hanging-down mic is admittedly an awesome prop. Tommy Lee, the attention-seeking drummer, provides spectacle by playing upside down on a roller-coaster loop, although he shouldn't be allowed to play that mirrored piano on "Home Sweet Home", a fifth-rate "November Rain" (even if the former came out first).

But Mick Mars's solo spots consist of tuneless, pointless pedal distortion, and Vince Neil, gambolling like a 50-year-old puppy, is as shrill as ever, with none of the power of a true metal screamer like Dickinson or Dio. A lot of fun can be had comparing the vocals on the Carnival of Sins DVD with fans' hand-held YouTube clips from the same tour. I don't know who the guy on the DVD is, but he's great.

Incidentally, when they segue Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 1" into "Smokin' in the Boys' Room", do you think they know?

There's an unmistakable exodus of foxy vixens from the barrier, and an influx of mums and dads, for the headliners. Def Leppard, being down-to-earth, sensible, prosaic Yorkshiremen, never had the filth factor. From their Silvikrin hair down to their glittery sneakers, their clothes look like they've come straight from the dry cleaners.

They have their moments: the wonderful "Photograph" is marred slightly by Joe Elliott's shaky falsetto; "Pour Some Sugar on Me" is a fist-in-the-air classic, and one-armed drummer Rick Allen's solo is astounding. But Leppard were always the ultimate mullet band: business at the front, party at the back. Their vanilla metal is summed up by "Rocket", which namechecks Elton John songs for heaven's sake, and "Hysteria", which is the least hysterical song imaginable.

What have we learned? That the joke band seriously rock, and the serious rockers are a joke.

Little Dragon are almost as vanishingly invisible as the mythical beast of their name. The Swedish synthpoppers' Japanese singer Yukimi Nagano is an astonishing talent. Hers is one of the most evocative voices to rub up against a synth since Electribe 101's Billie Ray Martin. On tracks such as the heartachingly gorgeous "Ritual Union" and the Goldfrapp-like glam schaffel of "Shuffle a Dream", Yukimi's the star. On stage, despite the eye-catching leopard bolero and metallic hotpants, she disappears from view, often vacating centre stage entirely to shake maracas behind one of the three keyboardists, leaving an absence of charisma, for which smoke and lights can only partly compensate.

Next Week:

Simon Price catches Dutch diva Caro Emerald

Rock Choice

Your last chance in who knows how long to catch Manic Street Preachers, in an epic three-hour set in which they'll play all 38 singles from their National Treasures compilation, at London's 02 (Sat). Meanwhile, mash-up masters Stephen and David Dewaele, aka Soulwax/2 Many DJs, bring Soulwaxmas to London's Brixton Academy (Fri & Sat).