The Coral, Northumbria University, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

When Lenny Kravitz burst on to the international music scene 15 years ago, much was made of the fact that his album featured only equipment made before 1973. The buzz of the valve amps and fret rattle of the 1950s Fender Stratocaster guitar was, he said, essential to his music's authenticity.

That was at the tail end of the Eighties, of course, when producers had embraced the Fairlight sampling culture and super-clean digital aesthetic to create wave after wave of over-polished, highly manicured pop stars. Much like today, in fact, when identikit performers with ambitions to become little more than C-list celebrities are paraded before us, each as faceless as they are bland.

Little surprise, then, that against this avalanche of the disposable, bands such as The Coral have appeared with a magnified vision of the authentic. Magnified because, whereas Kravitz was happy to stick to ancient equipment, The Coral, it would seem, have created a world where nothing exists post 1973. Not only is their stage set-up a playroom of valve amps, classic guitars and analogue keyboards, but their sound draws on pre-glam rock influences ranging from Cajun, rock'n'roll and US psychedelic garage to Sixties crooner pop and even prog rock.

The Coral's obsession with authenticity has resulted in a live show that seems from another time. It's not that the Merseyside seven-piece are necessarily retro. Theirs is less an act of lip-service to sounds past than a total immersion in a sonic ideal. Unlike the Stereophonics, who borrow from the greats only to walk happily in their shadows, or Oasis, who took on The Beatles' back catalogue with a raver's ear for an anthemic chorus, The Coral attempt to draw from that same pre-1973 gene-pool as though they were of that age. It's not so much about purism as about authenticity. And achieving the authentic is far harder than pursuing the eclectic.

So, is The Coral's sound a pastiche? On tonight's showing, the answer would have to be no. It helps that the singer, James Skelly, is a truly enigmatic front man. Like a scally Tom Waits, he moves between tambourine-rattling enthusiasm and aching soul-bluesman with defiant ease. His voice, like Eric Burdon singing Scott Walker's classic Scott 4 album, is a liquid-over-gravel baritone straight from a bygone age. It's a voice that comes into its own startling light on the country-and-western lament of "Liezah" and "Pass It on", in which Skelly captures a tenderness and depth that belie his tender years.

High points come in the psychedelic blues of "Dreaming of You" and the Sixties acid-pop of "Secret Kiss" (complete with oil-lamp backdrop), both of which seem drawn direct from the soundtrack of the LSD-party scene in Midnight Cowboy. Or the rockabilly-bluegrass twang of "Bill McCai", which wouldn't have seemed out of place on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack. And that is where the band do occasionally sound empty. For them, there is no Vietnam to react against (the Gulf war is too timely and thus less "romantic"); they can only read the signifiers of that age and attempt to embrace them. It's in such moments - much of the debut album, in fact - that they sound contrived.

But when The Coral let themselves loose on the yet-to-be-released "Migraine", they transcend limitations of time and deliver something truly great. All of the band's signature sounds are in place, but they become enveloped by a Pink Floyd-esque feedback jam, always threatening to explode but always controlled. For those few minutes, it's as though acid house never happened. Or punk, for that matter. But then, that's the idea, isn't it?

Touring to 30 November and 16-20 December (www.thecoral.co.uk)

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