ROCK / Diamond that's as big as the Wembley Arena: Neil Diamond; Pavement

'HELLO again,' Neil Diamond rasps delicately to a bulging Wembley Arena, 'hello'. As greetings go, it's a pretty direct one, but directness has always been a strong point with this Harley-riding Brooklynite. 'I like to go for the pure emotion of music, without the mind creating intellectual gridlock on that highway from the heart,' as he puts it in the sleeve notes to his double CD Greatest Hits, which currently sits proudly at the top of the charts.

Those of a depressive turn of mind like to take this as evidence of pop's new gerontocracy, believing the music of youth to be trapped in the iron grip of an ageing establishment, not unlike the way the Soviet Union used to be governed. It would be fairer to say that Diamond has written some great songs. 'Sweet Caroline', for example, which brings a lot of people to their feet, not all of whom can be called Caroline. And 'What a Beautiful Noise', a number which has yet, to my knowledge, to be interpreted by any performers of the thrash-metal persuasion, but certainly ought to be. This is his 701st performance in the round with this particular band and, if not exactly daisy-fresh, the act is certainly standing up well.

Dressed in a fine pair of black Crimplene high-waisters, Diamond sashays around the edge of the the gently revolving stage. Inside it are his band, whom he introduces as 'the greatest bland in the world' - which is not so much a Freudian slip as a diaphanous negligee - and then puts his hand over his mouth in horror and tells them: 'You'll never know if I meant that.' There's no shortage of nice cabaret touches. Whenever a song mentions waking up next to someone, there's a quick burst of screaming and Neil says 'Thank you very much'. In the middle of his rose-tinted immigration anthem 'America', the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes unfold together from the roof. His enthusiasm for the Special Relationship crystallises with a reggae version of 'Red, Red Wine', a sort of cover of the cover that UB40 took to No 1, in the middle of which he confounds anyone who thought they would never hear Neil Diamond rap. 'Even if the words seem to turn around wrong, I don't care 'cause they're playing my song.'

From the other side of the showbiz tracks come Pavement, Diamond's fellow Americans and unacknowledged melodic road buddies. It doesn't do to be any more specific than that about their origins, as until recently the band were based on either side of the continent - half in New York and half in northern California. You might think this would make rehearsing rather difficult and, on the basis of a chaotic and very entertaining performance at the University of London Union, you would not be wrong. Parts of their show invite the use of emotive words like 'shambles', but the ever-present possibility of total disarray is part of what makes this band so intoxicating.

On first hearing, their album Slanted & Enchanted (Big Cat ABB34) seemed too much like too many other people, particularly The Fall and Velvet Underground, whose legacies have hardly been under-exploited. But this is one of those records that puts down roots in your brain. With a nervy languor that is all its own, it turned out to be the sleeper hit of the season. There are very few Pavement songs without at least one jutting moment that trips up the memory - a bright sprig of melody or a little flurry of discord. Played live, they really start making sense. They speed up and slow down just as they are supposed to, propelled with compelling sureness by some gloriously haphazard tub-thumping from Gary Young, the deranged 39-year-old drummer, who stands on his head for much of the show and generally makes Keith Moon look like Phil Collins.

That there is something special about this band is already widely acknowledged, with much talk of newly clued-up major record companies beating paths to their door with barrow-loads of corporate junk bonds. It's almost frightening that a band this strange and complicated should be in that position so quickly. A couple of years back they would have struggled to make ends meet, and played to audiences of dozens rather than hundreds. Whether or not Pavement choose to step up into the spotlight they hopefully won't lose their current happy, scruffy grandeur.

Pavement play the Marquee (071- 437 6603) 26 Aug and the Reading Festival (081-845 8882) 30 Aug.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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