The Charlatans/ The Music, The Academy, Birmingham

Stone Roses on the cheap
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The Charlatans/ The Music

"Ten years ago," announces Radio 1 compere Steve Lamacq, "they were playing The Hummingbird..." The Hummingbird, I'm guessing, being a small venue, and the point, I'm guessing, being that The Charlatans have come a long long way, baby.

And if we're playing that game, I can go even further back with the reminiscing. Twelve years ago, my students' union social committee needed a band to headline the university's annual ball. The ents officer told us he'd booked someone called The Charlatans. "Who are they?" we asked. "Like the Stone Roses, only cheaper," he replied.

That brutally frank description could, give or take a bit of cosmetic Hammond organ, have served as an adequate summary of The Charlatans' early years. The big difference, of course, is that The Charlatans are still here. As the title and content of John Robb's biography We Are Rock makes clear, this is a band who have survived death, imprisonment and, most likely, pestilence, flood and third party.

Of course, longevity for longevity's sake is an overrated virtue in pop. What do The Charlatans have that makes it worth having them around? Musically, they're no innovators. They've shifted – only slightly – from their Roses-rivalling days, onto freewheeling country rock with funky basslines, and tinkley pianos instead of the organ. Spiritually, however, they do have something to cherish.

Sincerity is even more of an overrated virtue in pop, but there's something oddly likeable about The Charlatans' absence of guile and duplicity. There's something sweet and open-hearted about them. Which may be the reason why, even though they attract an overwhelmingly blokey crowd (number one crops and casual clobber as far as the eye can see), there's none of the simmering undercurrent of aggro you get at, say, an Oasis gig. It's a love thing, and as the song goes, "Love Is The Key".

Most singers lose range with age. Tim Burgess, in what may be the world's first case of reverse puberty, seems to be gaining it. Looking very boho tonight in his Beckhamesque stubble and sporting a raspberry beret (the kind you find in a second-hand store), he adopts a peculiar choirboy falsetto on the surprisingly not-bad new single "A Man Needs To Be Told".

However, thanks to a muffled PA system (I hope it sounded good on the radio, because the sound in the Academy was like listening to a long-distance telephone call through a hiking sock), it's the older, more familiar stuff that connects, notably "Weirdo" (their best use of the organ, and their most sparing), and a lethal one-two sequence of "One to Another" and "The Only One I Know".

The latter anthem reminds you that, like "Louie Louie", it's one of those songs that everyone sings along to without knowing the words. It also reminds you that they've been digging pretty much the same groove for over a decade.

They don't mean any harm, and it's hard to wish them any. The Charlatans sound like they should be playing on the car stereo in the scene where the hero, battered but still alive, drives towards the sunset and into freedom. For that, it's difficult to begrudge them.

The same cannot be said for their support act. The Music are being trumpeted in the New Musical Express as "the most exciting band in Britain". If "exciting" means northern git-rock played by ugly students with wah-wah pedals, it's news to me.

If Primal Scream actually followed through with their promise to "Kill all Hippies" (bizarre suicide note that it was), The Music would be first for the chop. Sadly, Bobby Gillespie is all mouth, and that's about as likely as the Scream releasing "Bomb the Pentagon" as their next single.

The Music are four scruffy indie kids from Leeds who've overdosed on The Stone Roses (one song lifts its intro wholesale from "Made of Stone"), and whose much-vaunted "attitude" consists of saying things in interviews like "It's not that we hate Starsailor, we just don't like that sort of music" and (I hope you're sitting down) "We don't dislike them personally, and if people like it, fair enough."

Tonight, the three junior musos widdle through all the worst bits of The Second Coming while singer Robert Harvey stands side-on to the audience, wigging out in a world of his own like he's in a rehearsal room.

The Music have one song that may fill the odd provincial indie dancefloor. It's the new single, and it's called – coming from almost anyone else, this would be a great, great song title – "You Might As Well Try To Fuck Me". Thanks for the offer, but I'm washing my hair.

s.price@independent.co.uk

The Charlatans tour with Starsailor: SECC, Glasgow (0870 040 4000), 13 Dec; MEN Arena, Manchester (0161 930 8000), 14 Dec; Wembley Arena, London (020 8902 0902), 15 Dec

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