ROCK / A legend in his own safari park: Chris Rea

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The Independent Culture
WHATEVER THE reason for Island Records dropping Julian Cope, his current state of contractless martyrdom seems to agree with him. Cheesy grins abound on the second of Cope's four nights at the Town & Country Club. The ads promised 'Two Thousand Years of Music', and that is roughly what he delivers.

Cope is dressed like a pile-up in a safari park, his animal print ensemble topped off with a gravity-defying ponytail on loan from Coronation Street's Tracy Barlow. He starts out with a band; doing frazzled, rambling stuff from his recent double-albums Peggy Suicide and Jehovahkill, and then comes back solo, having swapped his spots and stripes for some camouflage hot-pants and tights. Cope's arch hints at polymorphous sexuality seem disingenuous, coming from a dyed-in-the wool nuclear breeder, but this man certainly knows how to do justice to his own legend.

He is at his best accompanying himself on guitar, romping through the wilds of Wilder, the classic (and commercially suicidal) second Teardrop Explodes LP. His latest band come back to help him through his solo career, and Julian wheels happily about the stage, pretending to be an aeroplane. Conventional wisdom says this man's got more tunes than marbles, but I'm not so sure.

When conversations turn to Chris Rea the word flamboyant is not often heard. At Wembley Arena, he is lit in tones that are subdued to the point of obscurity. His only prop is a homely chair and table with a glass and a packet of fags. Rea's life-story does not lack drama - this is the man who was expelled for wrestling with a teacher who'd torn up his essay on Siegfried Sassoon - but he prefers to let his fingers do the talking. His are understated, very English guitar heroics in the mould of Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler, but with more to like about them.

Sometimes it would be good if he sang a bit more and played a bit less, but when you get this far away from charisma, you come back round the other side. The contented puff of Rea's cigarette when called back for an encore means more than many a pop star's spoken effusion. He really cuts loose with 'Let's Dance', shifting his weight from side to side and almost wiggling his bottom. The electric effect this has - some of the crowd actually stand up - suggests that if Rea was to cast off his blues-tinted spectacles, and instead make Chris Rea - The Happy Album, the world would be his whelk.

'Good evening insects, and humans too', and a warm welcome from Digable Planets; mellow, vibrating New Yorkers with a notion to make hip-hop live. A giant double-bass looms over the stage, and there are real trumpet, saxophone and drums too, twisting with machine-like precision amid the DJ's tasteful borrowings. The venue is the Circa Club in Berkeley Square. A nightingale doesn't sing, but the sounds are sweet enough.

Digable Planets are college-rappers, name-checking Sartre and Camus alongside their favourite basketball team. The self-consciously cute names chosen by the three interlocking wordsmiths - Butterfly and the two 'Bugs, Doodle and Lady - suggest an excess of calculation, but the jazzy groove seems organic. And their album, ponderously entitled Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Elektra, 15 Feb) shows they can sharpen up when they want to. Beneath the lazy summer-jazz ripple of the standout number 'Femme Fetal', there lurks a devastating attack on the American anti-abortion lobby.

Chris Rea plays Manchester G-Mex (061-832 90000) tonight, and tours for two more weeks. For details call 071-938 2181.

(Photograph omitted)