ROCK / Advertising and old standards

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a line of mid-range Fords outside the Labatt's Apollo Hammersmith (once the Hammersmith Odeon) for the Brian May Band; they're all pretty new, so maybe Brian's advert inspired their purchase. Car sales apart, tonight his job is to pretend that Queen are open for business as usual. The great British public is here, rockers and raggas alike, drinking plastic pints of sponsor's lager over their tour brochures ('Life is short. Let's rock,' reads Brian's personal message inside). Three men are arguing closely over just what chord Brian is playing in silhouette on the brochure cover, while someone in a P J Harvey T-shirt looks on. A lot of people liked Queen, and Brian's riding that wave, for the time being.

Even more people like hard rock - it's probably the global music, as the Brazilian support band Paralamas demonstrate by grafting several squealing guitar solos on to a Bob Marley cover. This is a crafty move for an unknown band before a foreign crowd; we all recognise the common fretboard language.

Post-Queen, Brian May is basically about hair and guitar solos - the lumbering rock beast that once had to compete with Freddie Mercury's mock-opera moans is now fully off the leash. The hair is as reliable as ever: still big, a Brillo-pad cape that follows him all over the stage. At one point a backing singer grabs a handful, but quickly lets go, and it drops heavily against his back. In contrast, his guitar solos are strangely subdued - apart from one cod-Hendrix orgy - hemmed in and drowned out by the 1970- vintage session musicians who make up his band, and this is a pity. The new songs aren't up to much, either - just lots of lugubrious rockers that sorely lack some Mercury campery. They play that song from the Ford ad second and Queen's 'Tie Your Mother Down' third, flattening both with dull drum thuds.

Brian does try - too hard, sometimes. He can sing a little like Freddie, or at least an advertising exec's Freddie, but most of the time the band's volume blocks him out. There's all the conventional hard-rock spectacle - even a bewildering drum solo that climaxes with spurts of flame, Spinal Tap-style - but none of Queen's joy in its absurdity, just a grinding professionalism. 'After all this time, I still expect Freddie to come bounding on, y'know,' says Brian at one point, and we all rather hope he would.

Gary Clark may have less hair than Brian (in fact, he has hardly any, which makes him look bizarrely aggressive for a singer- songwriter) but he too is swimming in the shark-infested waters of the solo career: the same woman is distributing promotional postcards at both gigs, and his new single is already in the 99p bin (as a CD) at my local record shop. Not that anyone at Jongleurs in Camden Lock seems concerned: two couples behind me stop talking about deck shoes for several minutes to fill in their postcards. And Gary, formerly of Danny Wilson, plays to almost continuous applause.

'He's like Marty Pellow (of Wet Wet Wet) on his own,' a friend had told me, and that's about right. Clark rhymes his way through doubting love-songs from his recent LP, Ten Short Songs about Love, that exactly reflect the demographics of his 25- to-35-year-old audience. 'We live in days when so many loves fall apart so fast,' he croons. 'Let's make a family, let's make it last.'

His band are all smooth Steely Dan surfaces of piano and brass; the audience greets the occasional minor rock-out or harmonica solo with bursts of wild appreciation. Gary's singing favours style over content, marking the beginning and end of each song with Soul Man moans that really only tell us about his record collection.

There are lots of uplifting choruses, but just not enough interesting words. For all Clark's effort, as he ducks his head around the microphone, eyes closed, he doesn't have the intensity or the sense of risk of his heroes, Neil Young and Stevie Wonder.

People bounce gently to the melodies, shout for favourites, sing along unrequested, and demand lots of encores. Clark plays the Danny Wilson hits 'Mary's Prayer' and 'The Second Summer of Love' with zest, but they only emphasise the problem: trite as they are bright, they're closer to Lloyd Cole than Nat King Cole. And a cover of the Isleys' 'Summer Breeze' is the highlight of the show by an uneasy distance.

Maybe what Gary needs is a little megalomania, a goal beyond the tuneful competence we're all so comfortable with. Freddie might have done him some good.

Ben Thompson returns next week.