ROCK / Digging it all again

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The Independent Culture
'SHINY, SHINY, shiny boots of leather . . .' The gleaming decadence of the

Velvet Underground's 'Venus in Furs' lights up the air in an Edinburgh pub. This celebrated paean to perversity is now the soundtrack of a television advert for car tyres that grip in the wet.

A couple of hours later and the band are onstage at the Playhouse, singing the song in public for the first time in a quarter of a century. If any members of an excited crowd were in need of reassurance, Velvety support act Luna and an interval tape full of Underground cover versions have affirmed that, with so many other people having made careers out of Velvet Underground impersonation, it would be churlish not to let the band themselves have a go.

This is a reunion that seemed no less unlikely than all four Doors or the Jimi Hendrix Experience getting back together, but once under way it seems perfectly natural. John Cale's viola-scrapings, Mo Tucker's Teutonic backbeat and renaissance tugboat captain Sterling Morrison's stoic guitar are all happily in place. It's Lou Reed who seems the most enlivened by being back in his old band. He's wisely ditched the awful Michael Bolton haircut he brought to Britain last year, and the prima-donna attitude that went with it. He now plays his funny-looking guitar like it's a new toy.

Maybe Lou heard his song on television, because he changes the emphasis on every line in 'Venus in Furs', coming in late like Willie Nelson would. Other renditions are more faithful to their originals, and the threatened new material is generously kept in reserve. The only vaguely unfamiliar song is 'Mr Rain' from one of those fag-end out-take VU albums that only very sad people own. There is no shortage of novelty though, as Cale and Reed share out the Nico songs - the former's baroque-deadpan rendition of 'All Tomorrow's Parties' is one of the highlights of a big evening. 'Rock and Roll' and 'Sweet Jane', Reed's post-Cale standards, lapse a little into pub-rock pointlessness, but Tucker arrests the tendency with a delightfully off- kilter 'I'm Sticking with You', and 'White Light White Heat' is a blast.

You don't have to buy into all that pasty-faced middle-class junkie rubbish to appreciate this band's greatness: the primal sophistication of their sound. 'Heroin' is still a beautiful song, even for those whose drug of choice is Benylin - in fact the song works just as well if you switch the two substances. And by coming back and looking so healthy, the Velvet Underground have done a welcome disservice to their deathly myth.

Younger, but (Axl excepted) uglier, Guns N' Roses are another group of edge-dwellers showing unexpected signs of longevity. A shout of triumph goes up from the assembled youth of Buckinghamshire at the first glimpse of what they've come to see. Axl's chopper is indeed an impressive sight as it lands at the back of the stage, hard on the heels of a brief but savage downpour.

The Milton Keynes Bowl is not the dramatic, deep-sided natural arena the name implies - the reality is more like the Milton Keynes Saucer - but elemental forces are at work there, as the veneer of civilisation which the Bowl's proprietors have worked so hard on is gradually stripped away. Some very drunk men in Stranglers T-shirts have somehow got hold of the remains of a cooked pig, and begin a gruesome game of American football. Their antics progress in outrageousness until finally one throws the carcass to the ground and has sex with it.

Next to this, nothing Axl & Co can do will seem particularly shocking. The band are back down to their 'molten core' of six, and this is a no-frills kind of show: either the pyrotechnics are missing or they just can't be seen in the half-light. The back to basics feel is enhanced by the return of second guitarist Izzy Stradlin; drafted in to replace his own replacement Gilby Clarke, who's fallen off his motorbike. They play for nearly three hours, which is pushing it a bit in chilly conditions, but the set rarely drags - at least, not for those close enough to the speakers to hear it properly.

Axl is perpetual sound and motion. Potteries-born guitar-slinger Slash is the perfect foil; the only sign of life on his hair-covered face is the twitch of the cigarette stapled to his lower lip. They combine most fruitfully in the show's central acoustic section, perched on a sofa and joined by a happily plastered Clarke, with a mellifluous rendition of 'Patience'. This relaxed and musicianly interlude, together with a lively encore of 'Honky Tonk Women', backs up the hypothesis that Guns N' Roses are the best Rolling Stones tribute band since the Faces.

Few venues have less life-supporting atmosphere than Earls Court, but Peter Gabriel's 'Secret World' show fills it with warmth and awe. Much of the credit for this goes to the designer, theatre director Robert Lepage, who has created a series of staging conceits so impressive that the uninvolving nature of much of the music can be overlooked.

Gabriel makes a great entrance - in a big red telephone box, singing 'Come Talk to Me' into the receiver. Out in the auditorium there's a rustle of taffeta, and Sinead O'Connor (hers is proving to be an active retirement) scampers into view atop a smaller second stage. An affecting duet follows, as Gabriel closes in on, and then retreats from, his quavering quarry, aboard his trusty conveyor belt.

This is one of few moments when the sound is as compelling as the vision - O'Connor's return for 'Blood of Eden' is another. Elsewhere the virtuosity of the players is rather cold and unyielding, and Gabriel's willingness to put the spectacle first seems prudent. The shortcomings of 'Shock the Monkey' pale into insignificance when trees grow out of steel floors and the band vanish into a magic suitcase.

Velvet Underground: Wembley Arena (081-900 1234) tonight; Glastonbury Festival (0272 767868) 25 Jun.

(Photograph omitted)