Tracy Chapman, Hammersmith Apollo, London <br/> Sinead O'Connor, Shepherds Bush Empire, London<br/> Billy Idol, Brixton Academy, London

Hits and misses of the Eighties
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The Independent Culture

As the canon of rock classics has shaped up for the new millennium, its rich tapestry has a large hole where the decade of the Eighties should be. For the era of Reagan and Thatcher was for the most part the era of synthesised radio-friendly pop, with Prince and Madonna as its twin figureheads, and the likes of Bruce Springsteen succumbing to stadium-sized bombast and, even worse, "production values".

Whatever pleasures the decade of Mick Jagger and David Bowie's "Dancing in the Streets" afforded, they tended to be finessed sonically, and often sartorially, to within an inch of their lives. Three artists whose heyday it was were back playing in London this week.

The folk-rock star Tracy Chapman rose to fame in the late Eighties on the back of her raw, quavering vocals, and tonight she stuck religiously to the script. The hits in the shape of "Fast Car", "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" and "Baby Can I Hold You" - all from her splendid 1988 debut album, Tracy Chapman - were mixed with material from the prosaic new album Where You Live.

There was a surprising cover of Nirvana's "Come As You Are", and a beautifully rendered version of Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door", here a serene, jazzy number that benefited from some sumptuous guest vocals from Carly Simon's son, Ben Taylor. Chapman remains a compelling performer, and in her hit "Fast Car" she has a song every bit as exquisite as anything by the Boss.

Chapman's sturdy effort was nothing compared to Sinead O'Connor's eccentric stint. The shaven-headed, 36-year-old elfin singer was introduced by dub giants Sly and Robbie as "Sister Sinead O'Connor", and took to the stage wearing an outfit not dissimilar to that of Hare Krishna practitioners.

The audience's cheers gradually gave way to bafflement, as it became clear that this was going to be a night of unbroken dub, with a multitude of honourable mentions to Babylon, Jah (God) and Marcus Garvey. Clearly, Prince and "Nothing Compares to You" weren't about to get a look in. To be fair, this wasn't O'Connor's first foray into reggae, having sung Bob Marley's "War" - which she delivered sublimely tonight - as part of the infamous Saturday Night Live appearance on which she ripped up a picture of the Pope. No photos of Marley or, Jah forbid, Haile Selassie would be torn up tonight. Instead, Sinead religiously performed reggae covers from her new album, Throw Down Your Arms.

Her voice is not ideal for the low register required for dub, but pays off when playfully reworking Lee Perry's delicious "Curly Locks". Boney M's "Rivers of Babylon" has never sounded so good as it did here, with O'Connor encouraging the crowd to sing along. Other covers worked less well. Nevertheless, O'Connor, like Eighties mavericks Elvis Costello and Kate Bush, never fails to surprise, and you get the feeling there's more to come from this artist.

So to the peroxided ex-punk who hit pay dirt - mainly due to his exposure on MTV - in mid-Eighties America as a sneering rocker, and released a sequence of generally tedious rock anthems, "Rebel Yell", "Hot in the City" and "White Wedding". In 2005, Billy Idol remains a poor man's Freddie Mercury, with a dollop of Freddie Starr and Adam Ant. Like Chapman, he's not out to challenge the faithful. His brand of pop-rock is conservative, as is all the weary metal off his new album, Devil's Playground. And as MTV's "rock critics" Beavis and Butt-Head would say, "this sucks".

It would be churlish to dismiss his show completely, however. His voice is strong and his lead guitarist Steve Stevens suitably Spinal Tap-esque (duck-walking, playing his guitar behind his back etc), and he did play his old band Generation X's fabulous "Ready Steady Go". But no more, more, more...

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