ROCK / Everything you could possibly want and more

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The Independent Culture
THE BALLOON has definitely gone up for Erasure, but the large blimp which floats above the Hammersmith Odeon with their name on it is a sign of security in stardom rather than impending catastrophe. The mini-Zeppelin is not the only feature of Erasure's 'Phantasmagorical Entertainment' that is over the top. Where Madonna's Blonde Ambition show had four elaborately conceived sections, this one has nine. And Andy Bell's stage persona would be extravagant if he was singing pub karaoke, let alone twirling about among backing singers and dance troupe in sky-blue spangled stetson and sequinned jockstrap.

The staging is a distinctive mix of technology and nostalgia. Vince Clarke's 'Tank', in which he marshals his computer programmes and occasionally trundles about, looks more like an 1880s Gottlieb Daimler prototype. The sets' most elaborate follies, especially the beautiful hawser-powered dirigible, in which Bell journeys to the centre of the roof, also look like past visions of the future. All of which cleverly complements the olde- worlde, early-Eighties synthesiser sounds to which Clarke's canny and elegant compositions have increasingly returned.

The four Abba covers don't quite merit their central position in the set, though the sight of Vince chewing gum ferociously to hide his embarrassment when forced to join in the formation dancing to 'Voulez Vous' is certainly an amusing one. The Erasure originals sound better, especially the songs from their last album, Chorus; the electronic drumbeats are toughened up, and synth-pop arpeggios sharp and tingling. Bell's tendency to launch without warning into cack-footed pirouettes like the world's worst ballet dancer does not detract from the keenness of his singing.

The entertainment is more or less non-stop. In the interval there is bingo, called by Vince and Andy in lurid jackets. The winner, Howard from Southgate, gets a kiss and a cuddly toy. The second half starts rather slowly, with a Wild West theme that gets out of control, but regains momentum with a fine 'Somewhere over the Rainbow', complete with Dorothian red shoes and a bench, and finishes with Vince playing a portable Casio in a towelling bathrobe. Right down to the well- earned cast bows at the end, the evening has the happy, homespun flamboyance of a school panto on a Hollywood budget.

The beguiling pick 'n' mix sensibility of Erasure's show, is echoed on a global scale at the World Of Music, Arts and Dance (Womad) in cosmopolitan Reading; where Chinese folk is just half a field away from Armenian rockabilly played by Canadians. Now moving into its second decade, Womad has made huge organisational advances since its chaotic beginnings in a Shepton Mallet swamp. The festival might now be an established feature of the musical calendar, but that doesn't make it a routine experience.

The Balafon Marimba Ensemble, eager ethno-musicologists from Oregon, lead into Hassan Hakmoun and Zahar, who come on like a Moroccan version of Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsies, with more dancing if slightly less clout. Klezmatics play traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe, with a jazzy New York slant. Yiddish with attitude, their set is a thrilling mix of speed-core wedding songs and homo-erotic ballads credited to King Solomon. Their subtly cacophonous blend of fiddle, clarinet and muted trumpet, with a Sham 69-worthy line in 'Oi] Oi] Oi]' audience participation, is given even more impetus by helpful lyric translations. 'Anyone who thinks Jews are good for nothing but drinking oily soup: you are our enemy and we will spit in your face.'

Whether the large numbers of children gambolling, almost unfettered ('Merlin, stop that at once]'), to the lovely, soft-hued Guinea Bissau melodies of Soumboya will grow up to build a better world or become mercenaries remains to be seen. The idyllic scene is marred only by a minority that wants to spoil things for everyone else by indulging in the barbaric practise of juggling. Face-painting incidents are, mercifully, few and far between. Immaculate Finnish close-harmony ensemble Varttina - very formal in co-ordinated pastel dresses, like a Nordic Beverley Sisters - are the late-night highlight, with their bracing tunes and astute handling of revellers. 'You are all very pretty boys, but I'm glad you can't understand what we are really singing.'

Erasure play Hammersmith Odeon (081-748 4081) tonight-Tues, Thurs-Weds. Womad continues today at Reading Rivermead Centre. Day Tickets are pounds 15.

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