ROCK / Poor Jason, frozen in fame's headlights

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The Independent Culture
ALL IS quiet outside the Wembley Arena. Touts search in vain for someone to give tickets away to, and old burger cartons flap past like tumbleweeds. Things look bad for Jason Donovan. Take That have usurped his primary-school wall-chart pre-eminence, and Philip Schofield has waltzed off with his technicolor dreamcoat. But inside the auditorium, the signs are better. A fair crowd greets Jason with the noise of 10,000 seagulls in a box.

A fine evening should be guaranteed. There's still the odd decent tune left from the Stock Aitken and Waterman years, and there are always the cover versions. It doesn't have to matter that Jason is not a great dancer - he moves uneasily and relies too heavily on sprinting to the back of the stage and jumping back down again. Or that the band plays like Microdisney on an off night. Jason's public loves him so much it will even forgive him for singing his own songs.

Since he first won himself a timeshare apartment in the hearts of the nation as Scott Robinson in Neighbours, his vulnerability has been his greatest asset. Where Kylie pounced on the idea of herself as a popstar with the unseemly eagerness of a dingo claiming a discarded kebab, Jason has always been more of a wallaby, frozen in fame's headlights. It is hard not to find this endearing. When he introduces one of many turgid new numbers by saying, 'This song means a lot to me because of the lyrical content', it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Unfortunately, in his determination to Mature As An Artist, Jason seems to have lost the ability to return the affection of his fans. His attitude towards them seems disapproving, as if he wanted them to be older - as if they were here for his benefit, not he for theirs. There is no video relay to enable those at the back to share in his artfully revealed stomach muscles, and he doesn't even pick anyone out of the crowd to dance with. A monster of defensive vanity, he seems to have been studying at the Chris Eubank school of stagecraft. Not until the encore, a brief but affecting trot through 'Any Dream Will Do', is any warmth allowed to surface. The crowd instantly turns to human vermicelli. This touching moment only throws the cold-heartedness of what has gone before into sharper relief.

Sonic Youth bridge the generation gap with better grace. 'I'm 33 years old,' their improbably lanky, tousled prime mover Thurston Moore tells the Brixton Academy, possibly underestimating, 'and this is a song I wrote about teenage sex education'. He and his wife, bassist and fellow rasper Kim Gordon, have certainly led from the front in this respect. The healthy degree of sexual integration at the cutting edge of American rock is largely down to their example.

Established as they now are, there is still something puzzling about them - their avuncular interest in other bands, the almost academic detachment of their lyrics, and the physical intensity of their shows. Sonic Youth treat their guitars like percussive instruments. They can play a lot better now than they used to, but they are still happiest making giant booming sounds by gently bumping the backs of their guitar necks. The results can be a self- indulgent mess, but just as often they have a pristine beauty.

On a good night they are a match for anyone, but they are easily bored. Around the time of their breakthrough album, 1988's Daydream Nation, they seemed to lose interest completely, and for a while became really dull. But a real urgency pervades the crisp and crunching guitar work on their current album Dirty, and it's a shame they don't play the whole thing. On songs like 'Youth Against Fascism', 'Theresa's Sound World' and the magnificent 'Sugar Kane', they show a tighter grasp than ever of exactly what they are on about.

'None of the bands that have come along since have lasted for as long as the ones from the Sixties,' observes a chronologically spot-on Keith Richards aficionado, lucky enough to be down the front at the Town & Country Club. Well, give them time. When Keith cranks into his opening number, 'Take it so Hard' from Talk is Cheap, the first of his two solo albums, it is easy to forget that the Rolling Stones have not released a great album since 1972. His guitar, of course, sounds fine: he plays in slabs, but intricate slabs. And he was being rather hard on himself when he confessed recently, 'Singing I know about, though the voice I ruined'.

He looks pretty good too. Professional as he is, Keith is reckoned to be more animated when the cameras are on him; which they are tonight, but weren't at his semi-secret Marquee warm-up. He is certainly a strange and entertaining man to watch. His guitar seems to be playing him, rather than the other way round - leading him back and forth across the stage in artful patterns - and his face cracks repeatedly into a strange, simian grin.

Apart from a misguided attempt to broaden the musical base with some cod reggae, there is plenty to smile about. Robert Plant taps a foot committedly at the back of the hall, and Keith reclaims 'Gimme Shelter' from breakdown-service ads. His band, the tortuously named X-Pensive Winos, match his raddled sprightliness. The florid tones of the male and female backing singers complement his cryptic semi- whisper, and they take centrestage on a climactic 'Time is on My Side'. True for Keith, but not for the club, whose landlords have decided to close it down.

(Photograph omitted)

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