Rock : Obscure object of desire

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The Independent Culture
"THE POPE, Salman Rushdie, the Queen Mother . . . all people who have nothing to do with this next song." Richard Thompson's introductions make you wish that he would, as one heckler shouts, get on with it. They're rarely funny, and almost all self-deprecating: "Thanks for coming out to see a couple of old plonkers like us." This jars when the Pope, Rushdie and the Queen Mother are the only three people more apotheosised than he is. It is written into every music critic's contract, beside the clause demanding weak puns on album titles, that Richard Thompson's virtuosity should be revered. A treat of a tribute album, Beat the Retreat (Parlophone), was released this week; and the Royal Festival Hall on Friday night was packed. A lot of singer-songwriters wouldn't mind being so obscure.

Tonight, he is on a bare stage, accompanied by his acoustic guitar, and the double bass of Danny Thompson, no relation except in ability. The stripped-down arrangements emphasise that his songs are . . . very good. Not works of immortal genius, just very good. It's folk music, but a miscegenation of Scottish, American and Russian folk, at least, along with English. More impressive is his guitaring: he sprays flamenco notes as easily as others strum barre-chords.

As such, it's fine. But there are few transcendent moments. "Ghosts on the Wind" is one, thanks to its scintillating bass, and support-act Christine Collister's breezy vocal harmonies. Other songs featuring the trio hint that this show would have been livelier with a band.

At the London Astoria on Thursday, L7 stop and start and stop again, unsure which song to play, and Donita Sparks sings: "There's no business like show business . . ." "Well," says bassist Jennifer Finch as she surveys the shambles, "at least we look great". It's a fair point.

The hardcore quartet has three frontwomen: the two guitarists and the bassist stand at the very front of the stage and take it in turns to sing lead vocals. It's a formidable sight. While most of their grunge contemporaries believe that directing your performance at your Converse boots proves it is meaningful, L7 take the stage sporting flashing devils' horns. They can bare their souls without boring their audience. And so we have Sparks and Finch teaching the audience their new barn-dance, during the piledriving "Andre", and Suzi Gardener leading a Monty Python singalong. They are, after all, in show business. And the LA women have the songs to back up their antics. They combine taut new-wave chord changes with heavy-metal guitars and spice them up with some extra touches, Sparks' vocoded Dalek voice on "Talk Box", for instance.

The hit single, "Pretend We're Dead", is irrepressibly catchy, and "Riding With a Movie Star", which tonight becomes "Riding With Johnny Depp", is a classic driving song, assuming that you're driving a bulldozer and breaking the speed limit. Never has having your ears damaged been so much fun.