Rock & Pop: Born-again hippies
Sunday 04 July 1999
Royal Albert Hall, London
Aerosmith, Lenny Kravitz, Stereophonics
Wembley Stadium, London
The audience was in reverential mood as it waited for the coming of the Reverend . Many of those in the Albert Hall on Tuesday would have agreed with Norman Cook's choice, on television the next night, of Green as pop's best singer ever. "Take Me to the River", "Tired of Being Alone", "Let's Stay Together" and Green's other early-1970s recordings are benchmarks of vocal expertise, while his temporary withdrawal from secular music, following his ordination as a minister in 1976, only increased his mystique. If you want to be a legend, it seems, being born again is the next best thing to dying.
The reverence turned out to be inappropriate. There was still genius in Green's control as he lifted his voice by increments from the finest wisp to a carnal holler, but he didn't behave like an untouchable enigma. He could hardly wait to waddle around the auditorium, a euphoric grin on his face, and shake hands with his congregation. Dressed in white from his bulging waistcoat to his shoes, he cut an endearingly comic figure - although I doubt that's how he was seen by the dozens of women who took the opportunity to touch more than the hem of his garment. Green is a crack shot with a long-stemmed rose too. For those few segments of the show when he was on the stage rather than among his flock, he javelined flowers to the many females who caught his eye.
This was a rhythm'n'blues revue, complete with a big, rollicking band and a closing medley of other people's hits that was so rambunctious it made sittin' on the dock of the bay seem just about the most invigorating activity imaginable. Green has obviously forgotten the period when he thought that such music didn't click with his Christianity. He hasn't forgotten his Christianity, though. If he wasn't asking us to accept Jesus, King of Kings, into our lives, he was asking us to repeat the words, "God bless the Queen". The concert, terrific fun as it was, was as much a revivalist meeting as the revival of a soul master.
Just as elated to be performing last week, in her fist-waving way, was Patti Smith. And again, the smiley proselytising seemed almost ... improper. Smith, looking more like Iggy Pop every day, watered down her impenetrable beat poetry with Sixties revolutionary slogans and flattered us that "London has not lost its spirit" ("Only its hair," I thought, looking round at the audience). Note also the studenty Oxfam blazer with badges on the lapels. Note how Smith pleated her long, greying hair mid-song and played percussion on a pestle and mortar. The androgynous punk poet has matured into a hippy high priestess.
That said, there are worse fates that can befall a 52-year-old rocker. Smith can still be fierce, her voice is wiry and powerful and her jazz- punk group musicians are exemplarily raw. Having seen Marianne Faithfull and Blondie in concert in June, I'm now ready to write an article about how female pop stars grow tougher, more passionate and more creative in their fifties.
From Patti Smith we turn to Aerosmith, who performed at Wembley Stadium last Saturday. You wouldn't have thought they could fill such an enormous venue in Britain these days, but "America's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band" (copyright: Aerosmith) are a unique phenomenon. While the comparable likes of Kiss and the Rolling Stones may sell as many concert tickets as they did back in the Jurassic era, Aerosmith are the only rockers of their vintage who still have hit singles today; last year's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" was one of their most successful, and at Wembley, it prompted the waving of more cigarette lighters than I've ever seen before.
To quote Gay Dad: Aerosmith rule. Their shiny pop-metal has kept its rock'n'roll roots, and it has some subtle twists and turns, particularly in Joe Perry's guitar playing. None the less, the band have had no qualms about updating their sound so that it blends in with whatever else is going on at the time. And they don't shy away from big, bouncy choruses or their visual equivalents: the stage was a funfair of flames, smoke, sparks and inflatable cobras.
The band-members are in better shape than ever. Fully fit after years of heroin abuse, Perry never misses an opportunity to show off his pectorals. Admittedly, the walking - nay, strutting - caricature that is Stephen Tyler is terrifying on the video-screen close-ups, but he's always looked as if his face got caught in an industrial vacuum cleaner at an early age. And he was in good voice on his terms, ie, he could scream like a tantrumming toddler for two hours and still be in tune by the end of them.
Second on the bill was Lenny Kravitz, a man who knows how to play to an audience of 75,000. Dressed all in white, like , Kravitz stopped at nothing to get 150,000 arms - give or take a dozen - waving along to "Are You Gonna Go My Way" and "It Ain't Over Til It's Over". I'm not convinced that he really helped bring unity and humanity to the world, as he promised, by scaling the barrier at the front of the crowd and urging everyone to sing the refrain of "Let Love Rule", but it was nice to pretend.
When Kravitz is on this form, it's easy to remember how exciting and talented he seemed when he first appeared in 1990. Evincing a passion for the Sixties years before Oasis did, his very name suggested he was a new Lennon, a new Hendrix. Recently, a jeans commercial gave him a chart- topping single, but much of his retro-rock seems marginal today. There are posters advertising the Madame Tussaud's Rock Circus with a picture of their Kravitz dummy and the slogan: "See our replica Jimi Hendrix." If you're sniggered at by an enterprise as risibly out-of-touch as Rock Circus, you know you're in trouble.
The reason Kravitz hasn't fulfilled his world-class potential seems to be that he is capable of writing dazzling pop songs, but would prefer to listen to his band's funky jamming. In a world in which he wasn't so fond of flute, trumpet and drum solos, he'd be headlining Wembley Stadium himself.
Appearing earlier in the day were the Stereophonics, who couldn't help but seem plain in such glamorous, if elderly company. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the company in which the Stereophonics wouldn't seem plain. There is an epic, flag-waving quality to Kelly Jones's songs and, when he puts his mind to them, his lyrics tell harshly vivid stories. But in concert the most colourful thing about the band was the sunburn on the drummer's nose.
The Welsh trio take pride in being as serious, solid, burly and no-nonsense as their music. You've got your bass, your drums, your thrashing guitar, your husky, howling vocals and that's your lot. The same ponderous arrangement whatever the speed of the song. No backing vocals. A bit of extra guitar and keyboard, if you're lucky, but only if they stay low in the mix. If the spectators want anything as frivolous as entertainment, well, they'll just have to make their own. And they did, by lobbing plastic bottles at each other and staring at Noel Gallagher as he lit a fag in the royal box.
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