Travis, Alexandra Palace, London

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The Independent Culture

As chants of "Le-on! Le-on!" confirm, a section of tonight's audience has come to see Travis's support act. Among them is Yes's Rick Wakeman, who can be seen nodding his head to raucous Southern gems such as "Molly's Chambers" and "Holy Roller Novocaine". Hirsute and tightly clad of jean and T-shirt, Kings Of Leon have a drummer who resembles an Open University lecturer circa 1971, and a singer with the severest fringe since that of Katie Puckrik. At times they sound like Stillwater, the fictional band in Cameron Crowe's homage to Seventies rock, Almost Famous. Paradoxically, this makes them achingly hip, and their taut, tumultuous set is a treat.

For Travis, these are more testing times. Coldplay have snatched their "lovely blokes with tunes" baton, and their current album 12 Memories (think Revolver gone agit-pop) lacks the anthemic immediacy of their previous records. It's not that Fran Healy has forgotten how to pen a strong melody; more that he seems a little less sure of who he is. It's a point underlined by that ill-advised beret he's taken to wearing. Like U2's The Edge, it seems Healy is now in denial about his receding hairline.

Material from 12 Memories crowds the first third of the set. Although Healy is as engaging as ever - singing superbly, and asking how our Christmas shopping is going - maudlin, mid-tempo songs such as "Re-Offender" and "Quicksand" are clearly out of step with the audience's mood. Our desire for karaoke en masse is granted when the band air "Sing" and "Turn" - hit singles whose strident, positivity-laden, choruses make them perfect for festive live performance. But then comes newie "Mid-Life Krysis", which is about as Christmasy as a dead reindeer lying over a melted snowman.

Things improve immeasurably with "Driftwood" and "All I Want to do is Rock". The latter - a thrumming anthem which had Noel Gallagher raving about a much younger Travis back in 1997 - is a reminder that, before Nigel Godrich's glistening production helped bring them fame and its attendant mixed-blessings, Travis could match Kings Of Leon for gung-ho irreverence. A shame, then, when at times tonight they seem overly slick and considered.

When Healy returns for the fist encore he's alone save for a white grand piano which matches his suit. "I'm no Elton John," he warns us, apropos his ivory-tickling. What transpires, however, is a touching performance of "Some Sad Song" the "hidden track" which closes 12 Memories. Healy's soaring, almost choir-boy like vocal conjures midnight mass rather than office party, but unlike much of the "official" material on his band's latest album, the song seems to come from that subconscious place where true inspiration often lives.

As if in acknowledgement of the "Bah, humbug" nature of much of the set, Travis then perform Wham's "Last Christmas". It's a move from the sublime to the ridiculous, but as Santa Claus (that is, an inebriated roadie in the requisite red and white suit) joins them on sleigh bells, you can't help smiling. Besides, the two girls in front of me wearing antlers finally have something to shake them to.