ROCK & POP: Heavy metal for the 90s

Eminem Astoria, London Flaming Lips Forum, London; Death in Vegas; Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Never trust a pop critic. During his concert on Monday, Eminem complained that, after his last London performance, the reviews put its running time at 15 minutes. In fact, he protested to the crowd, the show had been a full 40 minutes long. To ensure such a hurtful slander wouldn't recur on this occasion, he asked a minder what time it was. "20 after 10", replied the minder. "Show started at 10." So there we had it: 20 minutes already. Eminem counted this as a triumph.

The first point to make is that a 40-minute set is not normally anything to boast about. The second point is how ironic it is that Eminem should make his stand for truth immediately after a song called "Just Don't Give", in which he brags about not caring what people say about him. "Run and tell your friends that my shit is wack," it goes. "I just don't give a f---." Apparently he does give a f---, after all.

The third point is that, if we're being honest about it, Eminem didn't take the stage at 10 o'clock on Monday, but at 10.10. So there.

You shouldn't take him too seriously. Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers, aka Slim Shady, is taken very seriously in the US, where he is one of this year's most controversial music stars. A 25-year-old white rapper from Detroit who writes blackly comic vignettes about drugs, date rape, bullying and murder, he has had American commentators fuming. Mathers is even being sued by his own mother over the way she is portrayed in his raps and interviews. Naturally, his album, The Slim Shady LP, has sold more than three million copies.

But if you don't stand to make any money from a defamation case, Eminem's music isn't worth worrying about: his fans are no more likely to emulate the grisly deeds he describes than Alice Cooper fans were to guillotine themselves in the 1970s. And indeed, Eminem occupies a similar niche. If you're a white adolescent frustrated by life, Eminem's pseudo-rebellious posturing, his swear words and his revenge fantasies are the ideal form of cathartic escapism that heavy metal used to be. On Monday, after one of his many requests for us to stick our middle fingers in the air, I spotted a studded wristband and a fingerless glove among the raised hands, not to mention a devil's horns hand gesture. And as a stage prop, Eminem had a giant inflatable mummy which could have been a cast-off from Iron Maiden.

It wasn't quite a heavy metal show, though. Eminem is a Charlie Brown lookalike in a T-shirt and baggy grey tracksuit bottoms, and his sidekick, MC Proof, does his best to spoil the rapping by shouting over the top of it. Still, at least Eminem made an effort. Hip-hop gigs don't usually provide anything to look at except two MCs and a DJ, but this one had the mummy, a giant telephone, a few model toadstools and, for one song, some poor lackey dressed as Magic Mushroom Man. And if you're still not impressed, consider this: Eminem was on stage for an entire 50 minutes.

The Flaming Lips's latest album, The Soft Bulletin, is US alternative rock as sung by Neil Young and produced by Brian Wilson or Phil Spector. Actually, it's produced by Dave Fridmann, who was also behind last year's Mercury Rev album, Deserter's Songs, and the two albums have a lot in common. (Mercury Rev was formed by people who had deserted the Flaming Lips.) The Soft Bulletin is a big, warped, symphonic psychedelic album, filled with magical pop tunes and lyrics which manage to balance lovelorn sincerity with an eccentric, enquiring intelligence. ("What is the light that you have shining all around you," sings Wayne Coyne in his falsetto croak. "Is it chemically derived?")

The only problem is how to recreate such a multi-layered album in concert with just three musicians - especially when one of those musicians doesn't play any instruments except a theremin, and a gong, and, for one and a half songs only, a guitar; his hands are more often occupied with a frog- faced oven mitt, a nun-headed glove puppet, a polythene bag of confetti or a megaphone. There's your answer. The Flaming Lips know they can't recreate The Soft Bulletin so they concentrate on creating something else: a true multi-media event. A lot of the music is left to backing tapes, while the hallucinatory films on the screen behind are integral to the show.

Not that they ever upstage Wayne Coyne, a gentleman buccaneer with a neatly trimmed beard, a nautical overcoat, and curly locks swept back off his handsome face. When he's not smearing fake blood on his forehead or throwing fistfuls of confetti, he's apologising to the audience "for playing such depressing songs". "There's no real way around it," he warns us before "Waitin' For a Superman". "The next song is a sad one. It has the potential to actually make you sad."

The other two Lips sit on either side of him. Michael Ivins is the studious, bespectacled, balding bassist who ignores his colleague's insanity. Steven Drozd (yes, that's how it's spelt) is a scruffy keyboard-player/ guitarist with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a gift for minor chord progressions that comes to the fore on the evening's covers of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "White Christmas". Who knows whether the band's heroically loopy performance is an avant-garde deconstruction of rock concert conventions or three men having a laugh. It was probably something in between. One thing's for sure: it has the potential to actually make you happy.

Like the Flaming Lips, Death In Vegas have film footage on a screen behind them. Unlike the Flaming Lips, they have lots of musicians, too. The band's masterminds, Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes, are walled in by banks of machinery and surrounded by a full rock band, two brass players, a six- piece choir and three other guest singers, Dot Allison, Jim Reid and Bobby Gillespie (never mind that the latter two seem to have a combined vocal range of three notes). Call me a management consultant, but that does seem to be a lot of people to make some repetitive, two-chord opiates that Air and Spiritualized have done better.

Flaming Lips: Leadmill, Sheffield (0114 275 4500), tonight; Manchester Univ, (0161 832 1111), Mon; Pyramid Centre, Portsmouth (01705 294444), Tues

EXIT POLL: Audience verdict on Eminem

PETER RICKETTS

WAREHOUSE MANAGER, 30

I think Slim Shady did a superb job. One of his quotes is "I'm white and I don't even exist"; well, I believe he's a black man living in a white shell. Eminem come in with "My name is Slim Shady" to let everyone know who he is - Slim Shady, aka Eminem. His support act, High and Mighty, were very well presented - they were blinding.

STEPH EASTOE

SALES ASSISTANT, 21

He didn't play for as long as I thought he would. I thought there'd be a lot more ad-libbing, more skitting; but there was none of that. It was very bland in my opinion. I mean, it was all right, but I was disappointed. If you go to see hip-hop live, you expect a lot more from it. From listening to his CD I thought he'd be different on stage.

ZADIE

SMITH

NOVELIST, 24

I thought it was fantastic. I've seen him twice, and I think he's remarkable, he's lyrically stunning. It's the most multicultural gig I've been to in my life. He has an incredible amount of energy, and he's a poet. I know his records inside out. He's the man. I was singing along, word for word. I'm so exhausted!

DANIEL EVANS

TRAINEE SURVEYOR, 21

I think Eminem's an incredible lyricist. He still does a lot of underground stuff, he does battle rhymes and freestyling. His freestyles are truly incredible. But he's making it in the pop world. I would have preferred to see him in a smaller gig, playing more to the people who really do care for him. Apart from that, he put on a good show and was quite entertaining.

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