ROCK / Lady sings in blues, and red

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The Independent Culture
WHILE Charles was being interviewed on television on Wednesday, Diana was making another personal appearance. Diana Ross, that is. But Ross is at least as royal as the Windsors: 10,500 people at Wembley Arena have no doubt about that. Children scamper forward to present her with bouquets while proud mums take photos. Security guards crouch at the ready as she shakes some outstretched hands. She waves and the crowd waves back, almost believing that she is smiling at each of them in person. She can't be, but she helps us to pretend. She dedicates every single song 'to you' except for one which goes out to Marvin Gaye and one to her children. And just in case we feel left out, she adds: 'Actually, this is the kind of song you can dedicate to anybody you love, and I'd like to dedicate it to all of you as well - and your children.'

The songs come from One Woman (EMI), a compilation album released last year to mark 30 years since the Supremes' first hit. Unfortunately Ross sings only a verse or two of some of the Sixties classics - 'You Can't Hurry Love' is particularly hurried - and devotes the best part of the show to 'The Best Years of My Life' and more of her recent sugary ballads.

Her voice is as sweet and girlish as it was when she was a Supreme three decades ago. Fine for upbeat, bubblegum pop, but short on soul. Of course, it would be difficult for anyone to convey the longing appropriate to the line, 'Love has never shown its face since the day you walked out the door', with an ecstatic fan clasping his hands round her neck. The mood is celebratory from start to finish. Each number is a singalong / cheeralong favourite, so the whole evening feels like an encore.

Not that the music is meant to be as important as the presence of the star. On the rare occasions when Ross is not parading through the audience, hugging and kissing her loyal subjects as she goes, she stands on a hexagonal stage in the centre of the Arena. The polished 11-piece band are submerged in the darkness of an orchestra pit beside the stage. To give her her due, Ross introduces them by name, but there is only polite applause. The crowd only has eyes for Diana. The musicians must know how the other Supremes felt. Not to mention Prince Charles.

The band's main opportunities to show off their technique come during Ross's numerous costume changes. However famous some of the songs are, the real set-list runs: 'Tight black plastic dress with detachable skirt, pink dress with matching high heels, red mass of glittery ruffles, yellow dress (also glittery), blue ballgown . . .' Every new outfit elicits as much applause as the opening bars of a familiar song.

It helps that Ross looks half her age. From a distance, anyway. The further back you are, the more she resembles Janet Jackson. Closer to the front, she starts to resemble Eartha Kitt.

But you shouldn't look too closely at Diana Ross. She is a fairytale princess. Before a Billie Holiday selection from Lady Sings the Blues, she mentions her sporadic film career: 'What's so magical is that you can take yourself out of your life and into another, either a real one or a fantasy.' The audience is not sure whether she is real or a fantasy, and nobody cares much either way.

New York ragamuffins the Spin Doctors also play their hits, including the one with the repeated sassy funk riff, the heavy-metal guitar solo, and the lyric: 'Ay-aah-da-baa-tee- doo-aachaa-boo-Superman'; and the new one with the repeated sassy funk riff, the heavy-metal guitar solo, and the lyric: 'Ay-aah-da-baa-tee- doo-aachaa-boo-centurions.'

The group's current album, Turn It Upside Down (Sony), suffers from the phone-call phenomenon: you can be listening to one track, then you can leave the room to answer the telephone, and when you return you have no idea if the same track is still playing or if it's one of the other 12 on the album. On stage, this problem is accentuated. There are none of the keyboards which leaven parts of the album, and Chris Barren scats and mumbles his words, obscuring such Shakespearian poetry as: 'Hey now, Nellie, with an anchor on your belly / Shall I compare peanut butter to your jelly?' Maybe he should leave the singing to guitarist Eric Schenkman, who makes a better job of the few verses in which he takes the lead vocals.

This is not a concert for people who like to listen to distinctive tunes. It's a dance night for people who don't like drum machines and samplers. The floor of Brixton Academy appears to have been replaced by a trampoline, and everyone happily bounces in time to the music. Barren, the most spindly Spin Doctor, hops and twists like a marionette in the hands of an enthusiastic but incompetent puppeteer. The bassist, guitarist and drummer (listed in ascending order of hair length) concentrate on their

instruments and do their best to ignore him.

Despite advance warnings that their improvisations can last longer than a nuclear winter, the Spin Doctors manage to keep their set down to a merciful length. None the less, so many similar songs in succession can be tiring.

There is a treat for those who stick it out until the second encore. 'You are not gonna believe this,' Barren tells the audience, and welcomes Roger Daltrey on stage to sing 'Substitute' and 'Mannish Boy'. 'I'm a full-grown man, way past 45,' growls Daltrey. He may be a different generation from the Spin Doctors, but it is a relief to hear something which does not suffer from the phonecall phenomenon.

Diana Ross: Wembley Arena, 081- 900 1234, tonight.

(Photograph omitted)