'The Fugees vin anko batay pou la vi." I know, me neither - at first - but anyone with a basic grasp of French should be able to work out that this message, on the T-shirts in the Apollo's lobby, is Haitian for "The Fugees come back to fight for life", or something like that. "Life" as a general positive notion, one assumes, not "their own" lives. After all, Pras Michel, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill can hardly be short of a few gourdes (Haitian currency) to rub together.
Theirs is a peculiar story. The Fugees' debut album, Blunted On Reality, was a credible rap release, as much a part of the grand black narrative as, say, the Wu-Tang. However, as soon as they released a cover of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" as a chart-topping single, second album The Score began to sell by the bucket, and The Fugees became the favourite rap act of people who didn't really like rap music: the sort of people who only own one CD by a black artist, Bob Marley's Legend (Hill, incidentally, is married to Marley's son, Rohan).
Tellingly, their lyrics namechecked artists with a similarly vanilla flavour: Seal, Tracy Chapman, De La Soul and even - so help me - The Police. They were, to reverse-paraphrase Jon Spencer, "non-controversial negroes", the Black Eyed Peas of their day.
After two more megahits, both covers ("Ready Or Not", "No Woman No Cry"), The Fugees' fame barely lasted longer than the album itself, and the trio split acrimoniously soon afterwards. This is a band whose Greatest Hits, embarrassingly, only includes 13 tracks, and two of those are different versions of "Killing Me Softly With His Song".
Their solo careers have been patchy. Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was a sublime single, and her Miseducation album raked in the Grammies, but her apparent grooviness was diminished when she turned out to be a God-botherer. Pras's prominent contribution to the past decade was the moronic "Ghetto Superstar". And Wyclef? Well, I suppose "Gone Till November" wasn't bad, and he did give a leg-up to Destiny's Child.
In any case, they're all millionaires several times over, and after a decade apart, you wonder why they're doing this. To a degree, tonight's hits-heavy London comeback is perfunctory, with a lot of padding. The backing singers get to sing scat, several songs are repeated twice or even three times, and Pras gets to do "Ghetto Superstar".
That said, it must be conceded, through gritted teeth, that they've still got a certain something. Lauryn, still china doll-pretty and sporting the biggest hair I've ever seen on a human being (an afro rivalled only by Patti Bouvier from The Simpsons), may be a fashion disaster - those yellow-pink-red rags are an ill-advised combo - but she's still got the sweetest voice.
Pras looks exactly the same as ever, and contributes little besides a brief crowd-surf. Wyclef, now balding, has sufficient charisma to make up for it. A monologue asking us to imagine how various celebrity lives might have been saved, such as MLK (staying indoors), Princess Di (imprisoning the paparazzi), JFK (travelling by bulletproof car), Marvin Gaye (blanks in his dad's gun), and Marley himself (toe amputation) is embarrassing, but he does speak a truth, albeit a blindingly obvious one, by asserting "George Bush doesn't care about Eye-rack, he just wants the oil."
A question mark remains. The Fugees have already done it one time. Do they really have the drive to do it two times?
XFM, London's indie radio station, now has the clout to pull together a state-of-the-nation who's who of indie rock 2005. Especially when the cause is Shelter, a cause described with shock-jock bluntness by compere Jimmy Carr as "a charity for lazy tramps and runaways".
As well as a handful of up-and-comers, XFM/Shelter's Winter Wonderland has brought together some of the biggest names. The first of them, Maximo Park, are stealthily growing on me and the public alike. I suspect that leader Paul Smith, with his Brylcreem combover, isn't as young as is generally believed, but that's fine. He's living proof that passion and intensity don't belong only to the young.
Hard Fi's Richard Archer, judging by his combat-rock clobber, his legs-apart stance and his aggressively cockney diction, seems to have decided he's Joe Strummer: "Tied Up Too Tight" sounds more like "Toyed Up Too Toy". "Gotta Reason", meanwhile, welds a Spandau Ballet bassline ("Gold") to a Sex Pistols lyrical steal ("Holidays in the Sun"), so perhaps an even more Hellish hybrid is around the corner. White funk plus white punk, then, is the Hard-Fi blueprint. Yes, the Staines massive are derivative, but they have an ace up their sleeve. "Hard To Beat", with its uplifting house motif and smalltown-romantic lyrics, is the night's most unifying moment. Looking around, seeing small groups of people with their arms around each other, bouncing up and down, you feel this is one of those songs that will put smiles on people's faces forever.
Before the main event, the leonine professional shouter Justin Lee Collins (his CV says "comedian") excitedly promises a "very special guest". My companion and I play impromptu bingo about their identity. I pick Primal Scream, Bloc Party, Razorlight and The Strokes. He picks Babyshambles, Franz Ferdinand, The Jam and Kasabian. We're both wrong. It's Chas & Dave.
Yes, after all that hype, it's Chas and bleedin' Dave, East End knees-up merchants rehabilitated by The Libertines (who hired them as support act a couple of years ago). Now, they may have pedigree (they used to rock out alongside Albert Lee and Chris Farlowe, they played on Labi Siffre's "It Must Be Love"), they might have penned the odd immortal tune ("Ain't No Pleasing You"), but the irony is wearing as thin. "Rabbit" and "The Sideboard Song" are all well and good, but "Snooker Loopy" is a bridge too far.
Perhaps C&D's appearance can be justified as "themed", since they both look like tramps. Speaking of which, Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson badly needs a shave too. His increasingly lustrous beard has put ten years on the once ruddy-cheeked, baby-faced front man, although he still hurls himself about during the fantastic "Every Day I Love You Less And Less" and "Na Na Na Na Na" with life-endangeringly coltish abandon.
"This is the first Christmas," he announces, "when I'll be able to tell my parents 'I'm in a band, and it's all right.'"
Mrs Wilson, do us all a favour and drop a Gillette in his stocking.Reuse content