ROCK / Camp without the kicks

THIS WHOLE pop music thing has been a terrible mistake. Classical is best. Nigel Kennedy is a lovable rogue. The strident harmonies and frantic kitsch of

The B-52s leaves the mind prey to all manner of dangerous delusions. The band have been projecting their brand of determinedly zany Southern camp for so long you'd think it would come naturally, but on the last of their four nights at the Hammersmith Apollo it seems like very hard work. The seabed stage-set is borrowed from Walt Disney's The Little Mermaid, but the show is decidedly lacking in animation.

The only person onstage who seems to be enjoying herself is guest vocalist Julee Cruise. The former David Lynch henchwoman is standing in for founder member Cindy Wilson, who has wisely opted to retire. She revels in the chance to show there is more to her than that ethereal Twin Peaks warble. Unfortunately the belting, hip-thrusting abandon she brings to her new role only throws into sharper relief the world-weary demeanour of the band's two longer-established frontpeople. Fred Schneider is the man they call the singing dachshund, but his bark has lost its bite. Kate Pierson still dances like she's underwater, but she no longer seems to enjoy it. Even the dancers in Charles and Di masks who parade onstage during 'Roam' cannot build up a convincing head of jollity.

Dolly Parton grew up so poor her family ate soup flavoured with rocks. Today's country divas have disadvantages of their own to overcome. Washington DC's Mary-Chapin Carpenter has triumphed over the considerable handicap of a double-barrelled first name. For one afternoon and one night only she evicts Buddy from the Victoria Palace Theatre to offer British fans a rare glimpse of a platinum-tinged talent.

Carpenter is a jaunty character with considerable presence. She sidles about the stage, occasionally playing up to smiling band members. Her manner is warm almost to the point of schmaltz, but she marshals her musical troops with cool confidence. There's courtly bass-player J T Brown; flexible honkytonk keyboard man Jon Carroll, whose ponytail has a life of its own; and hang-dog guitarist and producer John Jennings, whose fretwork is impeccable, even when his guitar is held up, Hendrix-style, round the back of his neck.

There's only one star in this show. Carpenter's third album, Come On Come On, has put her almost in the Garth Brooks league. There is a touch of his blandness about her on record too, but not in person. The gutsy twirl of Carpenter's voice is equally well suited to self-reliant, mid- tempo stompers like 'I Take My Chances' and breathy ballads such as 'The Moon And St Christopher'. Her concise songwriting is full of humour - 'I Feel Lucky' jokingly objectifies new country peers Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam - and sometimes there is a harder message too. The caustic 'He Thinks He'll Keep Her' dares to raise the question of payment for housework - not an issue country music has traditionally broached. The mellifluous encore 'Passionate Kisses' features inspirational support act Lucinda Williams, whose voice contains those elements of darkness and danger which Carpenter's misses, but who lacks her knack for bending a crowd to her will.

Henry Rollins could bend a crowd with his bare hands if necessary, but such measures are not called for during his spoken-word show at the Astoria Theatre. It's not just Rollins's terrifyingly well- muscled upper body and manic stare that tend to make people respond to what he does. His vulnerability is equally disarming. This man might have a bar-code tattooed on the back of his neck, but individuality is his watchword.

He talks for two and a half hours without notes and without hesitation. It's a measured, urbane stream of reminiscenses and anecdotes; some funny, some tragic, the odd one slightly boring. The material changes every night, which renders all the more impressive Rollins's ability to get back to the point of the story after digressions that would have made Ronnie Corbett fall off his chair. There's something unnerving about the smoothness of his delivery, given the wild fluctuations in the tone of his material. One minute he's laughing about Paul Simon and Edie Brickell's newborn child - 'How much do I have to pay that kid never to pick up a guitar?' - the next he's recounting in gruesome detail the story of his best friend's murder. His life is much easier to listen to than it can be to live.

(Photograph omitted)

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