Rock and Pop: Children of `Albatross'

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The Independent Culture
Peter Green's Splinter Group

Dingwalls, London


Scala, London

When David Helfgott made his comeback as a concert pianist after years of psychiatric problems, harsher critics maintained that we were applauding him not for playing brilliantly but for managing to play at all. Any such concerns about the return of Peter Green are blissfully unnecessary.

If the name is unfamiliar, it may help to know that Green was in Fleetwood Mac when they were good. If you're still stuck, he's the man who wrote "Albatross". One of the most celebrated acid casualties of the 1960s (during his decline, it's said he taught his parrot to whistle "Waltzing Matilda" backwards), he withdrew from the world, dug graves, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and as late as the mid-1980s was reported to be sleeping rough.

He relearnt the guitar and harmonica by playing along with the satellite TV Country Music Channel, and his gradual re-emergence was confirmed with last year's well-received album, The Robert Johnson Songbook, and a showcase gig at Ronnie Scott's. At Dingwalls he looked focused and serene, although when someone shouted his name longingly, he shot an "Oh blimey" look into the crowd.

It was clear from the off, with renditions of numbers like Otis Rush's "Homework" and his own "Black Magic Woman", that Green is still a white man who can play the blues. His fingers may have slowed down in their old age, but the sensitivity and feel is all there. For instance, on "Supernatural", an old John Mayall number, he constructed epic runs, swooping and gliding.

In the Splinter Group he has a fine band behind him, too, particularly guitarist Nigel Watson, whose best work was a match for that of his boss. They combined spectacularly on a gorgeous, moody, almost sombre account of "Albatross", a nod to the past that was rounded off by a stately yet menacing "Green Manalishi".

These days, this reviewer is used to feeling like everyone's dad. At Dingwalls it was like being everyone's eldest son, but it was back to quasi-parenthood the next night, for Pavement's first London gig for a while. The American lo-fi practitioners made their name in the early 1990s, the love-child of Kurt Cobain and the Fall's Mark E Smith, conceived in the Pixies' bedroom. There was a loose association with Blur, and singer Stephen Malkmus was a frequent house-guest chez Albarn. But then, as now, they have a sound that is utterly their own.

Performances used to be a byword for spontaneity and barely contained disorder. Songs would be interrupted by long discussions about what to play next, and the eccentric second drummer, Bob Nastanovitch, was prone to making cinnamon toast for the audience while Malkmus expounded on matters arcane and surreal.

A few years on, and proceedings run more smoothly, the only seminar coming before the last number, when bassist Mark Ibold appeared to be teaching everyone else the chords. But although the amateur ethos was part of the appeal, the new-found efficiency doesn't offend. Smooth is not necessarily bland, and Pavement are still endowed with enough jagged edges.

They devoted most of the set to the forthcoming album, Terror Twilight, a more polished effort than ever before. The slow, grand "Cream of Gold" reverberated round the Scala, a glacier of sound, while the new single, "... And Carrot Rope" zipped along like the Fall redone by Abba (or vice versa).

It was the old stuff, predictably, that incited the most mayhem, especially their biggest hit, "Stereo", disjointed and fractured yet intense and driving. They may have grown up a little (though they all still look about 17) but they certainly haven't mellowed.

"We're all civilised. Everyone I talk to is civilised," Malkmus had said as he took the stage. And indeed, it was all over by 10.30, some of the band shaking hands with the moshers as they exited the stage. Civilised indeed.

: The Junction, Cambridge (01223 511511) Monday; Robin R&B Club, Merryhill (01384 77756) Thursday.

Nicholas Barber returns next week.