Pop: Brown around the edges, but still blooming

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The Independent Culture

HE MAY have started the decade with the world at his feet, but the Nineties had become an increasingly unfriendly period for Ian Brown, the former singer of the band Stone Roses, themselves the great might- have-beens of the past 20 years.

Since the Roses' gradual demise, which climaxed in the worst performance by a headline band in the history of the Reading Festival (a display largely put down to Brown's wavering vocals), he has sought to re-invent himself as a solo performer.

However, Brown's image as a pot-smoking, faintly mystical man of peace has been looking somewhat threadbare of late. His career has suffered some rather unusual disruptions such as being handed out one of the first prison sentences for "air rage" (he served 60 days in Strangeways at the end of last year). Then there was the outcry after some breathtakingly ignorant remarks about homosexuality in an interview with the music press

Tonight's show is a live Internet broadcast to promote Brown's second solo album, the excellently titled Golden Greats. Though patchy, it's an interesting record, much of it consisting of complaints at the perceived injustice of his incarceration.

Brown kicks off with the limp rhymes of the current single "Love Like A Fountain", and it sounds fine, the multi-faceted squelches of the record enhanced in live performance and his voice holds up well. The invited audience are delighted, and probably a bit surprised. Despite a consistent record of onstage under-achievement, they are, touchingly, still really rooting for him.

The unusual line-up of his backing band is remarkably effective. Consisting of former Fall drummer Simon Wolstencroft, brilliant percussionist Inder Mathura, sporting a magnificent moustache, and programmer Dave McCracken, controlling the entire musical backing by computer, it's an intelligent and excellent sounding solution to the eternal problem of the dance/ rock crossover.

The crunching "Gettin' High" is fine, despite a scrappy ending, and the prison plea "Set My Baby Free" is hook-laden and catchy. Even last year's "Corpses In Their Mouths" single retains some melody, though it still seems no more than a snippet of a longer song.

In fact, it's only the horrific massacre of his first solo hit "My Star", where Brown boldly goes to places where no man's voice has ever been before, that lets him down. However, when he sings the words from The Beatles' "Dear Prudence", the song's primary influence, he just about gets it back.

Extraordinarily, he encores with a remarkably competent version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", with not even a whiff of tedious irony. Perhaps that's the very thing that keeps people interested in Brown. He's never had much of a voice, visually he just about manages to look this side of cool, and he often seems to have lost control of his own destiny.

But he's patently sincere, disingenuously so, and he's trying to create something which isn't just a retread of past glories. For that alone he deserves some respect.