ROCK / All white on the night

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The Independent Culture
THE COOL album of 1993 was Bjork Gudmundsdottir's prosaically titled Debut. Despite this, her entrance at the Royalty Theatre displayed uncoolness of equatorial proportions. With a young, hip, 1,200-strong audience already seated, and a six- piece band already commencing to jive and look funky, all that remained was the arrival of the Icelandic elf herself.

She hared on, head down, arms outstretched like aeroplane wings, and ran the perimeter of the stage, disappearing behind the two drumkits then reappearing, even attempting a second circuit before realising that perhaps it might be a nice idea to start the song. Making it to the microphone just in time, she swung into 'Human Behaviour', the first song on Debut. As she notes in the lyrics: 'There's definitely no logic to human behaviour.'

Those who have only recently become enamoured of Bjork (it rhymes with 'work') might not know of the Sugarcubes, the band of bad-taste aficionados and vicious drinkers she co-fronted in the late 1980s. By ditching their abrasiveness and opting for Debut's light, airy dance-feel she has become a proper star, selling over 500,000 albums and walking off with two Brit Awards.

And it's all because of her truly unique voice. There really is no sound like it, this dazzling, pure instrument that can put the fear of God into you when she lets fly. She didn't miss a single note at the Royalty, sending extraordinary, icy sounds out into the theatre on 'Play Dead', growling like an anxious cat on 'Big Time Sensuality' and, on the delicate 'Anchor Song', even standing still for a moment. Otherwise she danced like a tipsy child, unselfconscious and winningly graceless.

Her band was odd, too. Behind her, a man and a woman prodded keyboards, another guy played drums in the orthodox fashion and one discreetly bashed percussion. Meanwhile, a self-parody of a funky bass player grabbed the attention not already grabbed by the flautist with the Madonna-style wrap-around microphone. No matter how cool and precise Debut was, this band sure looked unusual playing it.

'It's weird to play to people who are seated,' she pouted at one point, to which the only riposte was, 'Well, gee, Bjork, it's hard to focus on a singer who is surrounded by three men with hand-held cameras, dressed as cat-burglars'. The show was being filmed for a future video, so the Bjork sextet was in danger of becoming a nine- piece. Thankfully, this didn't completely ruin 'Play Dead', her one fabulous song to date, but with one film-crew trespasser holding up a wobble-board mirror behind her head, and another in a balaclava making downright sexual approaches with his camera lens, you wondered if the much-discussed 'intimacy' of the occasion wasn't getting a little lost in translation.

Still, despite the distractions, her voice was terrific. Wherever she keeps it - the gut, the soul, the heart - it rescued flimsy songs like 'Violently Happy' and 'Crying' and the theatre seats eventually flipped back to allow unashamed and widespread standing up.

It's now eight years since Eric Clapton hit on the idea of booking the Royal Albert Hall for weeks at a time - long enough for one member of the audience to enquire: 'Is this where they have the Last Night of the Proms?' This year's shows were intended as a kind of Best of . . . The stuff he enjoys playing, and most people by now know what that is. So out went the suits, in came a T- shirt and Levi's and a serious invitation to the blues.

Initially alone, he started in the Thirties with Robert Johnson's 'Terraplane Blues', acquiring a rhythm guitarist in the shape of Andy Fairweather- Low and tossing off blues songs in twos. 'Couple of songs by Elmore James,' he advertised.

At their conclusion he was assailed by a vigorously over-familiar greeting from the executive boxes. 'Couple of numbers by Freddie King,' he observed.

By now accompanied by a full band, including Little Feat's polyrhythmic drummer, Richie Hayward, Clapton had played almost 20 songs which he had not written. No offence to the blues, but was this going to go on all night?

He cued in 'White Room' by Cream (actually he didn't write that either) and then 'Badge' (yep), before freaking out on Jimi Hendrix's 'Stone Free', complete with psychedelic lights and discord. Then he played some more blues.

'Wonderful Tonight' signalled the raising aloft of two lighters, side by side, which would have been touching had Clapton not re-arranged the song to allow backing vocalist Katie Kissoon a lengthy showcase slot, the whole thing eventually coming in at a cuticle- charring 11 minutes. After that, what with one thing and another, a bit of blues was in order.

'Tears in Heaven' got the second biggest ovation of the night. 'Layla', which traditionally gets the biggest, was the cue for sections of the audience to leave their seats and gather by the stage. The funny thing is that they did this a good 30 seconds before Clapton actually began the riff. Maybe they were propelled there by race memory. Whatever, 'Layla' did the trick. But it's a modest musician who only gets around to playing his own songs 80-odd minutes into a show. Especially when those songs go down so well.

There was a peculiar sound at Van Morrison's first night at the Oxford Apollo: laughter. Gales of it. Sold out well in advance, the venue witnessed one of Morrison's most extraordinary concerts in years.

Stretching over two and a half hours, his set swung from R&B to gospel to the parameters of slapstick. In a blue suit, cravat and dark glasses, Morrison looked dapper, imperious and, well, happy. He swivelled effortlessly from 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' to 'Cleaning Windows', from James Brown's 'It's a Man's Man's Man's World' to 'Tupelo Honey', even back to 'Sweet Thing' from Astral Weeks. Crucially, however, he did not sing the last of these himself, leaving the stage to Belfast singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy, one of three Morrison proteges. Another was his daughter, Shana, a blonde with a great bellow of a voice, who duetted with her dad on 'You Don't Know Me'.

The third interloper was James Hunter, a young singer- guitarist in red braces whose mannerisms owed much to the Blues Brothers. Clowning and double-taking, Hunter played this spiritual music for laughs. Van seemed delighted.

Now wearing a hat and looking like Herbert Lom in The Ladykillers, Morrison and the eight-piece band, led by Georgie Fame, pulled off a miraculous 'In the Garden', playing barely audibly but with formidable precision. 'Lonely Avenue' was a return to the euphonic revivalist mood. 'Gloria' and 'Shakin' All Over' stomped exuberantly and even the usually mawkish 'Have I Told You Lately' proved a suitable, and noisily demanded, fourth encore. The end? Not until Morrison's girlfriend, Michelle Rocca, read a poem by W B Yeats, thanked everyone in English and in Irish, and said of her other half: 'I think he's a poet. What do you think?'

Basically that you ought to catch this unbelievable gangshow before Van Morrison battens down the hatches once more and it all starts to feel like a puzzling dream.

Eric Clapton is at the Albert Hall, 071-589 8212, Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun 6 Mar. Van Morrison is at the Manchester Apollo, 061- 273 3775, Fri; Sheffield City Hall, 0742 735295, Sat.

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