ROCK / Breaking their own records

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THE SUBSTITUTES are on at Wembley. Irish dance-punks Blink stand in for the advertised support act because Delores O'Riordan of the Cranberries has nobbled her knee in a skiing accident. And Paul Hester, the madcap drummer who left Crowded House during the American leg of their tour, is succeeded by the comparatively subdued Peter Jones. What is less expected is that the rest of Crowded House seem to have been replaced at the last minute too.

Surely these clowns chasing each other round the stage are not award- winning, million-selling, OBE-holding veterans? They must be a student band who have blundered into the Arena and decided to stay around for a laugh. One of them wears silver trousers and parodies every known rock-god stance. One of them plays the piano with his nose. The backing vocals aren't quite in tune and the guitars are raucous. Even the back projections - of out-of-focus flowers and flames - are, the singer admits, like 'your old uncle showing his crappy home movies'. No, these cannot be the middle-of-the-road Australasians who released the melodic, thirtysomething rock albums, Woodface and Together Alone (Capitol).

They're not. Crowded House live are a different, wilder animal from Crowded House in the studio. 'Weather With You' and 'Locked Out' have always been catchy, but when they are thrashed out in concert, with some of the smooth edges roughened, they have greatness thrust upon them.

Mark Hart switches between organ, slide guitar and melodica to vary the texture. Neil Finn's voice is surprisingly strong, and he's a mean guitarist and pianist to boot. His blokey rapport with the crowd is better still. The old audience singalong routine is given a twist, with the addition of 'Where is Love?' from Oliver] and the 1812 Overture.

Finn and bassist Nick Seymour are a natural double-act, instantly following a scorching rendition of 'Fingers of Love' with an argument over which of them has the smellier feet. Seymour sniffs Finn's shoe and concedes: 'Actually, it's not that bad.' Jagger and Richards meet Reeves and Mortimer.

This horseplay would be more suited to a smaller auditorium than the outback-sized Wembley. 'There's a three-second delay before your voices get to us,' Finn complains to the back row. But then, a venue that rents out binoculars at the door is too large to be ideal for any band. Crowded House boost the spectacle with Maori singers and log-drummers, who join them for 'Catherine Wheels' and 'Together Alone'.

After this, their records seem like preparatory reading: there to help you get to know the tunes before you see them at their terrific best in concert. Finn announces that the band should be making another album this year. 'You'll be on it,' he tells Seymour. Remembering Paul Hester, their departed drummer, he adds: 'And that's more than can be said for that young bastard back in Melbourne.'

At the Hammersmith Apollo, someone switches on the backing tape to 'I Can't Help Myself', from Julia Fordham's new album, Falling Forward (Circa, out now). The lights come up and it turns out that it's

not a tape, it's a band - guitar,

bass, drums and a sort of Linda McCartney figure on inaudible keyboards and percussion. You have to watch them very closely to convince yourself that they are not miming. Then Fordham walks on and sings her mid-speed soul-pop. She too sounds exactly as she does on the CD. Her voice is pure and powerful, but no more stirring than it would be if you were watching her on Top of the Pops. Even the new song 'Come Back to Me' sounds exactly the same as it does on the record - and it isn't even on a record yet.

The guitar solos are short and unadventurous, the keyboards are lush and unobtrusive. None of it is so loud that it prevents you chatting to your neighbour. At the encore she warns the audience with Victoria Wood jollity: 'If you're expecting something rehearsed at this point I'd advise you to run and catch the last Tube home.' Then comes a song so polished you can see your face in it. If she really were to play something unrehearsed, that would be worth missing the train for.

Crowded House: Cardiff Int, 0222 224488, tonight; Manchester G-Mex, 061-832 9000, Mon; Sheffield Arena, 0742 611003, Tues; Aberdeen Exhibition Ctr, 0224 824824, Thurs; London Finsbury Pk Fleadh, 071-284 4111, Sat.

(Photograph omitted)