ROCK / The times they are a-changing back

IT'S AN unenviable achievement to be on the oldies' circuit by the time of your first tour, but such is Charles & Eddie's lot. There's a soul nostalgia rather than a next-big-thing crowd at the Clapham Grand, but Messrs Pettigrew & Chacon don't seem too bothered. After all, if PR legend and their own song 'NYC' are to be believed, it was soul nostalgia that brought them together.

Eddie first caught sight of Charles on the New York subway, and was so impressed by the copy of Marvin Gaye's obscure Blaxploitation soundtrack Trouble Man he was holding that he promptly engaged him in conversation. Such acts of daring are sadly absent from the duo's live performance. The intriguing rough edges of their album, Duophonic - the blatant Buffalo Springfield guitar steal, the moving Aids lament - are glossed over, and the only note of drama is sounded by a recalcitrant microphone, which renders Charles cruelly mute throughout their current single, 'A House is not a Home'.

Charles, or 'Chuckie' as his foppish foil affectionately calls him, looks like a less dangerous version of the young Smokey Robinson, and has a high, clear voice to match when technology allows. Eddie's singing has a bit more grit in it, and his persistent mane-tossing goes down well with many of the women in the house. Those at the front reach up to touch him and find, with no bouncers or metal bars to stop them, that they can. For a while, with nice British reserve, they pretend to be not quite able to reach. Then one strokes Eddie's leather-trousered leg, and they all want a piece of the action. This bizarre tactile tribute is received with the ill grace of a cat whose tail is being played with when it's trying to sleep.

There is an even stranger gender panto at P J Harvey. The Forum stage is initially happily ringed with the expected majority of female admirers, but as the show goes on and Polly Harvey rocks out formidably, the laddish presence at the front intensifies - both in numbers and in its desire for display. By the encore of 'Man-size', when the calm and self-possessed woman on-stage is snarling 'Got my Girl, she's a wow' in a parody of brute machismo, her boy fans are singing along in a real testosterone frenzy.

It would be easier to dismiss this as an accident if the set didn't start with 'Man-size' as well as finish with it. As on the album Rid of Me, the two versions of this strange song are very different. The first is a discordant string arrangement, with drummer Robert Ellis conducting his own sextet. Harvey hits the stage as a vamp-librarian from hell in black feather boa and tacky flash of stocking top. After the one song, she receives a bunch of flowers (this being the last night of the tour) and leaves, along with the violinists. Tonight, she seems to be saying, everything will be back to front.

When she returns, it's with just her two fellow band-members and her '50ft Queenie' persona - fake (I hope, but with Harvey you can't be sure) leopardskin coat, red mohair dress, comedy sunglasses and gold stack sling- backs. It's her invulnerability that's most impressive. She is not a damsel in psychic distress, the dubious creative hysteric archetype she has sometimes seemed to be dramatising, but a demon guitar player with a unique West Country blues holler for a voice. The only cloud on her musical horizon is a tendency to slip into a chugabilly songwriting formula. A solid family background - listening to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica over Sunday dinner at her mother's insistence - should stand her in good stead in the search for new structures.

Parental encouragement is a growing force in the rock music of today. Swimming in the immediate gene pool of LA overnight sensations Rage Against the Machine are a political mural painter and a Mau Mau revolutionary, but the band haven't rebelled and become junior Republicans. Singer Zack de la Rocha is a very angry young man indeed. He bounces apoplectically about the stage proclaiming 'Take the power back' and 'I won't do what you tell me' while his band supply well-drilled funk-metal back-up. They've basically only got one song, but it's a good one - a pumped-up rewrite of The Osmonds' 'Crazy Horses', played as if their lives depended on it.

(Photograph omitted)

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