ROCK : What those seeing Bernard Butler saw

OPENING for McAlmont and Butler at the Hanover Grand on Tuesday was Edwyn Collins, once of Orange Juice, now more bitter lemon. As romantic as a tax demand, he sneered through "The Campaign for Real Rock", word- playing rough with "Robert Zimmerframe" and a generation whose "idea of counter-culture is Momma's charge account at Sears". "These lyrics are written to be quoted by rock critics," someone near me muttered, which was embarrassing as I had lifted a couplet from that very song to use in last week's paper.

Collins croons like a deep-voiced Bowie, but his melodies don't do justice to his singing or his words. Halfway through his relentlessly morose acoustic set he stamped his foot and berated the audience for talking too much. Surely a performer shouldn't need to adopt such desperate tactics to win the crowd's attention. Collins managed it by bringing on Bernard Butler to add his mighty guitar to "A Girl Like You".

Since leaving Suede, official Bernard-guest-appearance sightings have ranged from Sparks to Paul Weller. Tonight - after rescuing Collins - he performed under his own name with David McAlmont on soaring vocals. McAlmont, too, recently broke from his band, Thieves; other than that the pair seem like chalk and cheese. Butler's replacement in Suede was only 17 when he joined, but Butler looks five years younger. His hair is snipped to an early Beatles bowlcut, he is so thin that a microphone stand hides him from view, and his biggest fashion statement is a T-shirt with "Labrador" on it (a smirk at Suede's Dog Man Star?).

McAlmont, on the other hand, is 6ft 4ins of dreadlocks and yellow crushed velvet. Maybe his suit was inspired by the previous day's glam-rock theme on Channel 4. The music could have come from the same source. M&B play glittery, romantic pop songs - only occasionally overblown - swathed in keyboards and strings, and ignited by Butler's lurid guitar.

The Suede divorce settlement has been the opposite of what we might have expected: Brett Anderson now has custody of a lean, mean, rocking machine, while Butler has walked off with the lush and lavish glamour. His new songs have more uplifting humour than would be caught in the same hemisphere as Suede (the galumphing music-hall turn "What's the Excuse This Time?"), and an optimism exemplified by their dbut single, "Yes" (Hut Recordings; out tomorrow). McAlmont's post-break up lyric could be directed at both M&B's former bandmates: "Yes I do feel better / I feel well enough to tell you / What you can do with what you've got to offer ..."

It's a brave man who tries to sing along with Butler's molten, flashy fretwork, but then again, you'd have to be sure of yourself to accompany McAlmont's operatic falsetto. And he effortlessly outcamps Brett Anderson. His red-gloved hands are usually on his hips, although he sometimes remembers to give a tambourine a desultory tap. As it turns out, it's Butler who is the more active of the pair: beaming away and frisky as a puppy. Making music like this, he has reasons to be cheerful.

When Tricky talked on Friday night it was hard to believe he was a professional rapper. "The next song is ... is ... is ... 'Pumpkin'," he said, squinting at the set-list at his feet. And, just before leaving the stage: "Next track is ... oh, that's it. Wicked. Heh."

He apologised for being so hesitant: it's his first ever headline show, and he's nervous. But as he's only just finished supporting PJ Harvey on her national tour, it may simply be that he's not a natural performer. Mostly he muttered, head down. His only movement was some shadowboxing, so that in his dress shirt and monocle he resembled a punch-drunk Chris Eubank. Only one of his three female vocalists - Cath Coffey of the Stereo MCs - attempted to connect with the crowd. The Clapham Grand, a cosy venue, seemed cavernous.

One problem is that Tricky's dbut album, Maxinquaye (Island), a miasma of unsettling paranoia, happens to be the most acclaimed record of 1995. Perhaps he knew in advance that he could never recreate its claustrophobic genius on stage.

His band, who look like ageing jazz musos (black clothes, ponytails, even, yes, a beret) made a reasonable stab at it. After a surprisingly jolly "Ponderosa" and a twittering "Suffocated Love", which sounded as if he had sampled an aviary, the mood got darker. (Although not as dark as the stage. The brightest light was a table lamp resting on the keyboard.)

The cumulative effect of Tricky's insidious trip-hop is nicely creepy. But there is a fine line between dreamily mysterious and boring, and overall it was an underwhelming show.

On Thursday at the London Astoria it was 1990 again - that halcyon time when people used terms like "Madchester" and "baggy" without blushing.

The Charlatans brought it back with their easy but purposeful dance rock. They have the advantage of a keyboard player with a Hammond, a rubbery electric piano and a healthy appreciation of Booker T and the MGs; they have a whirlpool of distorted wah-wah guitar; and they have some leery, sneery vocals. They have only one theme, but endless variations.

They are sometimes thought of as the Stone Daisies: like the Stone Roses, but not so good. (Nowadays, of course, that role is filled by the Stone Roses themselves.) Are the Charlatans charlatans? No, because they don't pretend to offer anything more than music to jump around to, and they don't stint on that.

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