ROCK / But where was John Travolta?

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The Independent Culture
MIKE READ: age shall not wither him. Compering Capital Gold's Giants of Seventies Soul extravaganza at Wembley Arena, Read doesn't allow his composure to be ruffled by a profusion of technical hitches. The Wembley bar prices - normally a powerful incentive to temperance - have had no effect on this hardened crowd of superannuated soulboys, and these are not people to be messed with even when sober. Luckily, the acts themselves process smoothly. George McCrae ('Rock Your Baby') confounds those who believed him to be dead. The Real Thing counsel, 'Don't forget our new single, it's called, erm . . .' And the vocal harmonies of the Tavares are miraculously intact, though cricketing brother Chris is sadly missing. What exactly were the Bee Gees thinking of when they wrote the words to 'More than a Woman'?

Nostalgia evenings are always poignant, but dance music moves on so fast and recycles itself so voraciously that these disco landmarks seem especially defenceless against the march of time. Rose Royce's magnificent 'Is It Love You're After?', for example, can't shake itself free of 'The Theme from S-Express', which borrowed its trumpet flourish. Edwin Starr, though, will not be cowed by the passing years. Starr is not just a very proficient entertainer, a star even - no, this man is a god. His voice is taut and his audience participation (we shout 'War]', he sings 'Heugh]') is delightful. He still does mid-air splits. Starr's masterstroke is an apocalyptic version of Black Box's 'Ride on Time', in which he reclaims Loleatta Holloway's woah woah woahs from the deadly embrace of the sampler and sings them himself, until he eventually has to be dragged from the stage by a team of trained dogs.

This would be a hard act for anyone to follow, but Billy Paul, 'Me & Mrs Jones' notwithstanding, is less equipped than most. Harold Melvin's back catalogue might be the envy of the karaoke world, but sadly there aren't enough of his Blue Notes left to make a chord. KC & the Sunshine Band bring the evening to a gloriously bathetic climax. They were always the poor man's Kool & the Gang anyway, and by the time they take to the stage in glitter and frightwigs after a horrendous delay, most of the crowd are already happily burning each other up along the North Circular.

It's hard to imagine Ice-T touring in a nostalgia package in 10 years' time.' They killed King and they shot X, now they want me,' the rapper intones matter-of-factly on 'Message to the Soldier', the last song on his new album, Home Invasion (Virgin 787 844-2, released 22 March). Before last year's Cop Killer controversy, this could have been marked down as a typical piece of Icy hyperbole, but that now every white establishment figure from the LAPD to Charlton Heston is gunning for him, you can see his point.

Mr T's response, as ever, is to throw lighter-fuel on the fire of his enemies' fears. The title song proclaims, 'This is a rap-jack. I'm stealing your kids' brains, you won't get 'em back', and the cartoon sleeve (which was instrumental in his final break with the Time-Warner group) depicts a white kid surrounded by rap tapes and black literature, his mind filling with lurid images. When Ice-T addresses his own, self-made myth, as cat-burglar turned enemy of the state, he is ferocious and funny. When he resorts to dumb sex-raps and straight-up gangsterisms in a vain bid to show that he hasn't lost touch with his roots, it's disappointing.

Now, though, the music will always come second with Ice-T. Without joining the carpers who claim he's a better politician than a rapper, that is probably no bad thing. Ice's collaborators, DJ Aladdin and Evil E, are not known for breaking new ground, and as this is his fifth album (excluding Bodycount, the speed-metal side- dish which turned into a main course), he is not so much a rap veteran as a fossil. This is not such a convincing album as 1991's OG - Original Gangster, but with Ice- T now firmly established as a world-famous film star and folk devil, that doesn't have to matter.

Meanwhile, at the Town & Country Club, there's a blinding flash of light and an evil splintering of timber. A gleaming white staircase pushes up through the floor. At its foot, perched atop a golden chariot, dressed as Boadicea, is Tasmin Archer. Oh, all right, she isn't. Tastefully lit, backed by a remorselessly colour- co-ordinated band which includes her two co-writers, Archer powers modestly through songs from her debut album, Great Expectations (EMI). The weight of said hopes doesn't seem to have got her down yet, and not all those who whoop with excitement at every intro can be employed by her record company.

It's unfair of EMI to try to make Tasmin Archer single- handedly responsible for the future of the troubled British music industry. Black, female singer- songwriters have a notoriously short career-expectancy at the best of times, as Tracy Chapman and Des'ree could testify. Record companies tend to launch them with an enormous hoo-ha and then forget them the minute things get rough. In her favour, Archer has got a strong voice, more raw and intense than her well-mannered songs, and an intriguing tendency to hang on to notes you wouldn't expect to hear held. Her stage persona - 'this one's dedicated to my mum' - is likeably gauche, as it has every right to be on her first tour. Unfortunately, too many of her other songs lack the force of her singles, 'Sleeping Satellite' and 'In Your Care'. Let's hope she'll be allowed the time and space she needs to root out the cliches.