Rock & Pop: Under the influence? It's the power of lager

Underworld Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton Kula Shaker 100 Club, London
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The Independent Culture
An hour into the first show of Underworld's UK tour, and fierce banks of lights illuminate sweaty young men hugging each other, mussing up each other's hair and shouting "lager". It's a touching scene. The elegiac chords of "Born Slippy" have just echoed around the hall, and this is the moment the sweaty young men have been waiting for. Who says music doesn't bring people together?

"Born Slippy" was a single unlike any before or since. Nine minutes of hammering beats, fevered chanting and, every now and then, three distant synthesiser chimes, it was so unconventional that it could barely be described as a song at all. Unsurprisingly, it was ignored when it was first released in 1995. It wasn't until the following year that it featured in the soundtrack of Trainspotting - and then on the soundtrack of every blokeish, drunken night out - and the ominous murmur of "lager-lager-lager-shou-ting" was heard throughout the land.

The single sold 400,000 copies and Underworld found themselves posititioned alongside the Prodigy as leaders of the techno-to-rock crossover. They nearly named their new album "Tonight Matthew We Are Going To Be Underworld", so conscious were they that they'd leapt to a level of fame where they might be impersonated on Stars in their Eyes. The album, which came out last week, ended up with the title Beaucoup Fish (V2). I'm not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Underworld are yet to receive the Stars in their Eyes treatment. It wouldn't be hard to impersonate Darren Emerson and Rick Smith, though, as they hunch over mixing desks the size of banqueting tables; nor Karl Hyde, their vocalist, who dances and bunny-hops and occasionally shouts in his bandmates' ears, like a bored child trying to get the attention of his parents as they read the paper. But the triumvirate is just a part of an Underworld show. Their concerts are multi-media experiences. You don't watch the band as much as you absorb what's all around you; just as you don't listen to Underworld records as much as you immerse yourself in their amniotic throbbings for an hour or so.

At the back of the stage are five big screens, constantly flickering with patterns. Some of these patterns are completely abstract; some are out-of-focus, over-exposed, black-and-white film; some are colossally magnified footage of the band. Meanwhile, lights spin across the walls and on a curtain above the crowd. The music warps and pulses and ebbs and flows, and the trademark Underworld bass-drum beat is as insistent as the one which batters through the wall from a next-door neighbour's party at 3am. Stars in their Eyes's budget wouldn't run to all of this.

The experience can be transporting. But after a while, the relentlessness of it all can be numbing, too. The crowd was definitely flagging before "Born Slippy" arrived to perk everyone up, and it was obvious that this intense, well-realised live event was not meant for anyone who had just popped along to hear the single. Next time there won't be so many lager- lager-lager lads in the audience. Underworld are going back underground.

Last week Kula Shaker played a series of warm-up gigs at the tiny 100 Club in Oxford Street before touring Britain in support of their new album, Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts (Sony). They certainly needed some warming up. Their organ-drenched, Indian-inflected psychedelic rock, which was fresh and surprising when it first came along, sounded limp and formulaic on Wednesday. The band couldn't quite pull their songs into focus and Crispian Mills's voice was operating on less than full power. At its best, it's such a musclebound, swarthy roar that you can hardly believe it's coming from a puny former public- school boy with a blonde bowlcut. On Wednesday, the singer and the singing were a perfect match.

This lacklustre performance was annoyingly inconvenient, because I'd come to the gig ready to defend Mills. My view - and certainly his view - is that he has suffered enough at the hands of the Press as it is. Because of his obsession with India, he has been branded a cultural plunderer who has appropriated the language and rhythms of another race. Guilty. But that's been the definition of rock'n'roll since Elvis Presley. And because of his praise of the swastika as a mystic Eastern symbol, he's been branded a neo-Nazi. Not guilty. However foolish Mills's comments were, I doubt that any journalist truly believed there was anything sinister behind them once the deadlines had been met and the headlines written.

Mills also stands accused of being a twaddle-talking prat whose late-Sixties /early-Seventies derived music is as meaningful and contemporary as Hair, the musical, or Days Like These, the alleged sitcom. This charge is harder to dismiss. On "S.O.S.", Mills complains: "This is the age of decay and hypocrisy/ Sometimes I feel the world isn't ready for me." In fact, the world was ready for him 30 years ago, three years before he was born.

In short, it's not possible to take Mills seriously on his own terms. But my advice is: don't even try. As they say on the food and drink pages, Kula Shaker are a band best enjoyed alongside Fatboy Slim. Both acts take bits from old records, put them together and pump out some mixed-up, full- on, over-the-top, rock'n'roll. Fatboy Slim uses computers and Kula Shaker use instruments, but otherwise the only difference is that Norman Cook knows how silly his music is, whereas Mills thinks he's on a mission from some god or other. I admit that this can be frustrating, but when the tracks are as fun and as funny as "Great Hosanna" or "Shower Your Love", then Mills's delusions are his problem, not ours. Kula Shaker are only really worth complaining about when they fail to deliver any good, mindless, party music. That's what happened on Wednesday.

Underworld: Astoria, WC1 (0171 434 0403), Tues & Wed; Portsmouth Guildhall (01705 824 355), Thurs; Norwich UEA (01603 764764), Fri; Academy, SW9 (0171 924 9999); Sat. Kula Shaker: Leeds T&C (0113 280 0100), Wed; Glasgow Barrowland (0141 339 8383), Sat; and touring.