Rock & Pop: The old person's guide to pop

Cliff Richard Royal Albert Hall, SW7 Lucinda Williams Empire, W12 Sheryl Crow Abbey Road studios

An umbrella, a Parker pen, an enamel pill box, a fine art lithograph and a porcelain collector plate ... all of these quality items and more are now on sale to celebrate Cliff Richard's 40th year in showbiz. Not that I availed myself of any of them at his concert on Tuesday, but I don't deny that this is an anniversary worth celebrating. Forty years since Harry Roger Webb sold the first of 250 million records, and here he is, filling the Albert Hall for a month. Surely 90,000 ladies of a certain age can't be wrong?

From the moment Cliff appears from a rostrum trap-door in the centre of the Hall, the secret of his success is plain. He hasn't changed a whit over four decades. If you saw him in concert in 1978 or 1958, he'd be doing the same slip-sliding, ice-skating dance moves as he does now, and he'd be telling scripted anecdotes with the same faux-self-deprecating smugness. His most famous asset, of course, is a face that ages only one year for every two years of his adult life, but there's more to his eery constancy than that. Cliff seems to have been untouched by life. Pain has slipped off his frictionless surface. As far as we can tell from his shows, he is a living doll - timeless, ageless, sexless. His auntie-friendly, nice-guy Christian persona never wavers an inch. Sometimes, his resemblance to Tony Blair is uncanny.

The song may change, but Cliff remains the same. And his other secret is that the songs do indeed change. Cliff has had 35 top-five singles because, not a songwriter himself, he has had no qualms about jumping on every mainstream pop bandwagon that has rolled past. His latest album, Real As I Wanna Be (EMI), is an absolutely archetypal late-Nineties pop record, precisely tailored by producer-arranger Peter Wolf to appeal both to Cliff's greying fanclub and to their grand-daughters whose bedrooms are papered with Backstreet Boys posters. And as usual, the smooth material is of impeccable quality. If you don't blink back at least a tear or two as you listen to "Butterfly Kisses", an unfeasibly moving testament of a father's love for his growing daughter, then you are a colder, sterner, and quite possibly nastier person than I am. The track is marred only slightly by the knowledge that its singer doesn't have any children.

Disappointingly, for the first half of his concert, a bearded Cliff forgets the young ones. Carried away by his regal surroundings and by the presence of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, he croons ballad after ballad: "From a Distance" and "Daddy's Home" were quite mushy enough already, thank you, without being drenched in strings. One of the only fast songs in the set is "Do You Wanna Dance?" but the question is rhetorical. There's nothing to dance to here.

With "Every Time We Say Goodbye", there is a nauseating omen that Cliff feels he should establish himself as a jazz crooner - a role which would require more emotion and technique than he'll ever have. So it's a relief when, for the concert's second half, his suit makes a symbolic switch from white cotton to black leather. He concentrates on his up-tempo numbers - "We Don't Talk Anymore" and "Devil Woman" to name but two - and he showcases the boy-band material from what he revoltingly calls "the Real album". You can't fault any of it. He was never more than a pretender to the throne of rock'n'roll, but on the occasion of his ruby jubilee, Sir Cliff is still the king of pop. Maybe I will send off for that lithograph.

Rather more convincingly as real as she wanna be is Lucinda Williams, a veteran Louisiana songwriter whose current album, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (Mercury), has been tipped as one of the year's best. Her realness is a definite contributing factor. Her voice is a heart-piercing sigh, not unhappy, just resigned to the harshness of life, and heavy with passion and pain that are all the more affecting for being kept beneath the surface. To put it one way, if Chrissie Hynde sang country, this is how she might sound. To put it another way, Williams is the anti-Celine Dion.

Her understatement is carried over into her live show. She has a gutsy, hard-rocking band, with three guitarists to augment her own strumming, and she wears a cowboy hat and a spangled guitar strap. But otherwise, her evocative vignettes are left to fend for themselves. Williams's only movement is a slight sway from side to side. Her chats with the audience are studies in matter-of-factness. She introduces "Drunken Angel" as a song about a Texan songwriter she knew who was "shot and killed one day in a senseless argument", as if it were one of those irritating things which happens to us all.

Maybe she should be a little more vivacious. The songs themselves, country- rock classics that they may be, are too sad and subdued to jump up and grab your attention. So while Williams's fans were rapt, and while it can seem incredible that someone with a voice as emotive as hers should make her money from having her work recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty, you can understand why her audience isn't wider.

If Williams were a little more starry, she'd be Sheryl Crow, which is my excuse for reviewing Crow herself, even though she didn't do a proper gig this week, but a small performance for press and competition winners. On the previous occasions I've seen her play, she has been half-hearted at most: maybe her months as Michael Jackson's backing vocalist put her off big concerts. In informal surroundings, accompanied by just her own guitar and that of Tim Smith, Crow is a new person.

She grins as she and Smith sum up more light and shade than there is on her new album. And she teases the quiet, reverential audience with clues to the inspiration behind The Globe Sessions (A&M). "My Favourite Mistake", a break-up song, is not about anyone in particular, she says, adding a smiling reference to her dalliance with Eric Clapton: "It's not about any famous guitar players." "It Don't Hurt", another break-up song, as it happens, is "about all the crazy things you do to get over someone ... like cutting you hair off." Her own formerly long hair, it should be noted, has been chopped into a tousled, Meg Ryan-style mop.

Cliff Richard: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to 13 December; and 2-16 March 1999.

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