ROCK & JAZZ / Careful with that rake, Eugene

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The Independent Culture
IF Randy Newman was exiled to a desert island for three years with nothing to eat but hallucinogenic vegetables, he would come back looking like Eugene Chadbourne. The humid cellar of the Bass Clef is home from home to Chadbourne: this man's career is so far underground, his canary has a nosebleed. For all the 60 albums he's appeared on and the hundreds of tapes he distributes from his base in North Carolina, Eugene is nearest to being celebrated for his mastery of novelty instruments like the electrified rake and the amplified plunger.

But it's not what you play, it's the way that you play it, and Chadbourne - seated, and wearing horrendous denim shorts - plays his banjo like there's no tomorrow. You have to know your stuff to sound this silly, and his technical mastery lets him weld folk, trash and the avant-garde into the perfect vehicle for his distinctive libertarian philosophy ('Let 'em Drink while They're Young' is a typical anthem).

The drum-kit is fanned by the gently swinging Native American pigtails of Jimmy Carl Black, one of Frank Zappa's notorious Mothers of Invention. Black's insistence on singing dodgy old Zappa numbers like 'Hot Rats' in a sub-Beefheart growl rather breaks up the momentum of the first set. But the second, which also features Lol Coxhill on soprano sax, is a corker. Chadbourne's 'little medley of Appalachian favourites' turns 'Buddy can you Spare a Dime?', Charles Mingus's 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' and Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' into the same song.

Country-soul diva Maria McKee is a bit of a magpie too, but her plumage is glossier. She hits the stage at the Forum dressed more for The House of Eliott than the Grand Ole Opry. And she really does hit that stage. The early minutes of her performance are characterised by some petulant foot-stamping, and an attitude that suggests she would rather be back at her hotel watching TV. Her microphone seems to have been adjusted to fade out the richness in her voice and make it sound shrill and tinny.

Things look up when McKee takes to her keyboard for 'My Girlhood among the Outlaws'. The band settle and the fact that some of the audience like the singer enough to call out her name is no longer an embarrassment. Guitar strapped on now, McKee makes a much more convincing fist of Van Morrison's 'Young Lovers do' live than on record, and builds to a big finish. 'Why Wasn't I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)?' - her big soul set-piece - bears a striking resemblance to Irma Thomas's 'Time is on my Side', but is none the worse for that, and 'You Gotta Sin to Get Saved', the new album's title number, is a fine punky country hoe-down.

It's hard to imagine established, white British soul performers - Lisa Stansfield or George Michael - being as frank as Jamiroquai's Jay K about how their skin-tint has given them a leg-up. In the very entertaining sleeve-notes to his debut album Emergency on Planet Earth (Sony, out tomorrow) Jay thanks 'all the black singers and musicians' who have supported him, 'some of whom indisputably deserve the chances I've had and didn't get them, and yet still don't bring petty colour issues into it'.

This is a typically disarming gesture from a man whose brass neck and rubbery dancing alone could have made him a star. There are potential hits aplenty here, and longer numbers like the densely funky 'Revolution 1993' showcase playing worthy of Kool & the Gang. Even the environmental subtext (rhetoric by David Bellamy, cover by Le Douanier Rousseau) is fun. Who cares if Jay's BMW runs on unleaded petrol? The man is a pop star, for heaven's sake; contradictions are what he is contracted to supply us with. Some accuse Jamiroquai of being no more than the sum of their influences. But when did Stevie Wonder or Gil Scott-Heron last make an album this good?

Eugene Chadbourne: Glasgow King Tut's (041-221 5279) tonight, touring all week (details 071-354 5455).