ROCK / Burning and barking in Berks

ANY BAND that risks third-degree burns in the name of entertainment is all right by me. At the Reading Festival, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were all right by everyone. Their Sunday night performance packed the field fuller than it had been for the entire weekend, so you could be sardined in the first 500-odd rows, or stand so far from the stage you might as well have been watching the show on TV through someone else's sitting-room window.

The band made great viewing even from that distance. At Woodstock 94, they wore giant lightbulbs on their heads. At Reading they opted for metal hats that doubled as Bunsen burners. As Anthony Kiedis leapt around with a huge flame spouting from his head, it was a miracle that his Rapunzel hair escaped unscorched.

The music varied from their standard Jimi Hendrix on fast- forward to a solo bass-and- vocals ditty, and was given an extra kick by new recruit Dave Navarro, who was already sporting the band's uniform of shorts, tattoos, incendiary headgear, and nothing else. But, as ever, the stars were Kiedis and Flea, the blue-haired bassist who is as technically proficient as John Entwistle, with the advantage of being completely barking. A tough act to follow. Luckily, nobody had to.

Hole's show on Friday was destined to be more curiosity than concert. Could Courtney Love really carry off a set after the deaths of her husband and her bass player? She did, although an impromptu staging of Oedipus Rex would have been more comfortable. Every comment ('yeah, I know, I'm so brave') brought a shudder. It will be a while before Hole can be judged on their own merits.

Earlier, in the Melody

Maker tent, the battle of the Smiths-soundalikes took place. Neither Gene nor Echobelly have a Johnny Marr in their ranks, but both already have songs which can drive the faithful into a frenzy. Gene's Martin Rossiter is a skilled Morrissey impersonator. 'Tell me about drink . . . tell me about women . . . I've been left behind by taste and time,' he droned, with accompanying fey poses. Echobelly's singer, Sonya Aurora Madan, forgot her Morrissey impression and did her Johnny Rotten instead. She sneers, she swears, she tells us how egotistical she is, and she doesn't actually make much sense.

The Melody Maker stage was also the place to see bands who break the rules of rock. Take for instance Jeff 'Don't Call Me Son-of-Tim' Buckley, who ignores the one about rock needing major chords and four beats to the bar. Even if it weren't for his weird gothic folk songs, he would be worth hearing for his vocals, which build to a spine-tingling, unearthly scream. It sounds like a sustained note on the guitar or the violin or the organ - anything but the human larynx.

Primal Scream's appeal is that these days they obey the rules of rock music to the letter. It's Saturday night, so it must be time for sloppy, good-time pub rockin' (never 'rocking'). Denise Johnson, the backing vocalist who effortlessly out- sings Bobby Gillespie, adds a touch of class, and guests Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) and Mick Jones (The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite) add the 'all good mates together' element. For a tired but happy festival crowd this jamming (sorry, jammin') was the nightcap the doctor ordered, but can the band stretch their ideas over another album? There are not many late-Sixties Stones riffs left for them to copy.

(Photograph omitted)

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