ROCK / With a yelp and a pout

IT WAS a Blur and Pulp gig, so someone had to mention the Mercury Music Prize that both bands came so close to winning. That someone was Pulp's Jarvis Cocker: 'Just one question: are there any M People fans in here tonight? Right. I should 'ope not.'

On Friday at London's Alexandra Palace it was the night of the neo-mods: the mod mods as opposed to the anc mods. Blur and Pulp shared the bill because their names are so similar. If there had been a band called Burp available they undoubtedly would have headlined.

Pulp are on first, with their disco soundtrack to pubescent angst. The music may be built around Russell Senior's violin and guitar and Candida Doyle's keyboards, but all eyes are on Cocker. His indignant pouts come straight from Larry Grayson, while his way of speaking and yelping the lyrics is his own. And his lanky vogueing gives the distinct impression that he has more elbows than the average human being.

Blur's set is preceded by bingo with cards that were handed out at the entrance. The prize is a night with the band, and, surprise surprise, everyone wins. Two hours of exuberant yob culture follow. By the light of strobes, lasers and giant sitting-room lamps, Blur fling themselves into their stomping anthems, and, at one point, into the crowd. Even their horn players are pogoing. And surging renditions of 'This is a Low' and 'To the End' prove that there is more to Blur than snappy chord changes and rousing choruses.

When the sweat dried, however, you had to wonder whether it was steel toecap-tapping music, played as it was to an exclusively white audience. And whether Blur are the condescending voyeurs parodied in Pulp's 'Common People', more Harrow boys than barrow boys.

His records sell, his name gets dropped, but Bob Mould is still a nobody next to the bands he has influenced. The Pixies and Nirvana, to name two, would not have sounded as they did if they hadn't had Husker Du LPs on their shelves.

Last Sunday at Brixton Academy, Mould's latest super- power trio, Sugar, maintained his trademarks: feral guitars, hummable pop melodies hidden behind a wall of sound topped with barbed wire, vocals that could be used in anti- smoking ads as a warning of what happens to you if you grab a cigarette between encores. Mould doesn't sing, he roars, and bassist David Barbe has the voice of Gonzo from the Muppets. But they still manage Byrd-like harmonies on songs such as Copper Blue's 'If I Can't Change Your Mind'.

So why isn't Mould a megastar? Because he doesn't look like one. With his baby face, receding hairline and portly body, he is a kindly uncle from one angle, Uncle Fester from another. Fester? Mould? Maybe they are related. He has the rotting name and the hermit lifestyle: all that's missing is the Addams sense of theatre. There is no movement to spice up Sugar beyond Mould's lumbering and stumbling, no light show to speak of, and for that matter no speaking either. Sugar do not utter a word until the final, muffled thank-you. I would have preferred a bit more engagement with the audience. Mould doesn't give a damn what anyone would have preferred.

Similarly influential is J J Cale, who brought his five- piece band to the Hammersmith Apollo after a gap of 18 years - a long time in pop music, but not long at all in Cale's neck of the woods. If Keith Richards swapped his swagger for a stroll, he would look like Cale, and with singing lessons he could sound like him, too. The Oklahoma singer-guitarist has dispensed with his customary shades, but not his cool. The drawback of this is that a game of Name That Tune would be tricky. 'Cocaine' elicits applause from the first notes of its classic rock riff, but more typical is 'After Midnight' - another song made famous by Eric Clapton - for which the fanatical cheering does not begin until the vocals do. Most of the evening is one long groove of R&B. And you'd have the blues, too, if you'd been ripped off so blatantly by Dire Straits and Chris Rea.

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