Pop Live: The raw and the overcooked

MEAT LOAF

BIRMINGHAM NEC

AMERICAN MUSIC biz executives recently launched the Diamond award, a new certification for truly mega-selling records. With 13 million units shifted in the United States alone, Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell, the most successful debut album of all time, sits nicely alongside the likes of Garth Brooks, Pink Floyd, Journey and Maria Carey.

Unlike Bat's composer Jim Steinman, Marvin Lee Aday, the Meat in the Loaf, has struggled to transcend the original masterwork. Fittingly enough, Meat - as he insists on being called - starts his current "Very Best Of" tour with a strong version of "No Matter What", the song the dastardly Boyzone weren't supposed to release before he got his hands on it. Perched atop a fake stone throne, the singer looks like Frodo from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (that saga is the equivalent of Bat in the cultural zeitgeist).

Having eaten Ronan Keating for starters, Meat then straps on a guitar and powerchords into "Life is a Lemon and I Want my Money Back".

The chutzpah and the cheek of the singer and his band are undeniable as they launch into the crunchy riff of "Dead Ringer for Love". Patti Russo makes a fine posturing job of the duet, while the musicians hint at the seminal "Jenny Take a Ride" by the Sixties garage-band Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

As my mind drifts into a million lateral thoughts, the grand piano chimes the bombast of "I'd do Anything for Love (But I Won't do That)". The song builds and builds with reprised choruses and every single instrument stressing the dramatic chord changes. Not for Meat Loaf the medley approach (more's the pity), but rather a full-scale collision of grand opera, heavy metal and stage musicals as the gum-chewing singer modulates the final "I won't do that" a la Pavarotti.

During "Rock'n'Roll Dreams Come Through", he shakes like a demented preacher - but his gospel is from the psychobabble school of Jerry Springer or Dr Ruth. Indeed, after the pure Eurovision kitsch of "Is Nothing Sacred?", Meat and Patti act out the soap operetta scenario of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light".

The Phil Spector manque and the Frankensteinesque Springsteen of the music are greatly improved by the panto goings-on. The star, in a dinner- jacket, and the game Russo as the all-in-white one-night-stand bride are pure corn, but their routine is suddenly hampered by a malfunctioning glittery curtain refusing to fold and drop as expected.

I'd promised myself not to mention the infamous Spinal Tap but Meat's skilful ad libs - "First your big mouth, now my curtain won't fall! I'm just gonna stand in the middle of it!" - show the extent of his acting ability as he salutes and milks the applause before chastising the stage manager.

After that wonderful impromptu moment, the Unplugged-style encore of Bat material doesn't feel as genuine, while the enormous bat dangling above Meat just raises a giggle.

Too often, the platitudes disguised as profundities of "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" feel like a sound-track crying out for a high-concept blockbuster.

Meat Loaf, who, as an actor, has now starred opposite Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and Brad Pitt, truly belongs on the big screen. Let's see him in Beauty & The Beast: The Musical!

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