Pop: Enough soul to take on America

SINCE THEIR inception in 1989, The Charlatans have seen enough high-drama to warrant their own soap opera. When key-board player Rob Collins died in a car crash around the time of 1997's Tellin' Stories, some thought that the "baggy" movement's most potent survivors would finally crumble.

Instead, they've gone on to personify that old adage about things that don't destroy you making you stronger. Us & Us Alone - due out in October - looks set to become their fourth number-one album, and the repeated letters in its title may prove significant.

Frontman Tim Burgess has declared that, this time, The Charlatans want to make a bigger dent in the American market. With headline spots at both the Reading and the Leeds festivals, tonight's gig was billed as a "secret" warm-up.

As a spectacular, if slightly tacky, light-show sparked up, they began with the epic-sounding offering, "Forever". With its nods to 60's pyschedelia and a swirling Hammond organ, it augured well for the upcoming album - cautions from the prog-rock police notwithstanding.

Likeable and boyish, Burgess looked like a 30-something Artful Dodger, and danced with his hips slightly forward as though on the verge of a limbo.

His voice has never been the most malleable of instruments, but his melodies are strong and idiosyncratic. Further, as his "be my Spiderwoman, I'll be your Spiderman" line in "One To Another" highlighted, he's capable of some oddly memorable couplets. To a man and woman, the audience felt obliged to sing the line with him.

The Charlatans' claims for the redemptive power of soulful rock music might seem a bit fifth-form, but in a live context they have enough power and drive to make you take the assertion more seriously. Songs such as the aforementioned "One To Another" - memorably tweaked by Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands - and "The Only One I Know" demonstrate that they understand the power of a simple, repeated riff. It's a trick as old as "Green Onions", and the cornerstone of the band's songwriting approach.

Of the new songs, the most impressive, perhaps, was "Senses". Liberally doused with distorted harmonica and eerie mellotron, it also sounded like something of a stylistic departure, its overall feel redolent of Spiritualized circa Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Later, "Blonde Waltz" also broke new ground. It was closer to Dave Brubeck than baggy.

By the time they encored with "Sproston Green", Burgess's voice was a cork bobbing on an ocean of stadium-rock guitars, but nobody seemed to mind. The Charlatans' most impressive conjuring trick, it appears, is to sell millions of albums whilst still making their audience feel as though they are part of an exclusive club.