Every January, the NME packs off four bands on a tour of the country's college campuses. It gives music critics something to write about at a time when most groups are hibernating, and it gives students a flavour of the "exciting new music ... the NME will be championing in the forthcoming year". That's what the programme promises, anyway. In fact, UNKLE, Delakota and Idlewild all released albums in 1998. So the tour feels more like a review of last year than a preview of this one.
The bands themselves are looking backwards, too. If you encountered the Llama Farmers and Idlewild in a blindfold taste test, you'd guess their vintage to be America 1989, not Britain 1999. They do a decent job of filling a Pixies-and-Nirvana-shaped gap in the market, but they add little of their own to the punky, college-rock template which was sketched by their heroes. The Llama Farmers are doubly derivative. Their take on grunge has been taken from Placebo, right down to the streamlined guitars and the whiny American accent adopted by their singer. Still, the band are in their teens, so they could yet build their own identity. They should start by renaming themselves. No offence to anyone who is actually in the business of farming llamas, but that's not a name destined to be printed in metre-high letters on a banner outside Wembley Arena.
Idlewild's motto is: never mind the quality, feel the noise. Their bassist headbangs, their guitarist jumps around, and their singer, Roddy Woomble (no, really) brushes his fringe out of his eyes - not everyone can be a rock'n'roll animal. A few songs into the set, though, the band are tired out, and we have to make do with no headbanging, no jumping and not much hairbrushing.
Delakota are retro, too, but only half as retro as Idlewild. Their spiritual home is in 1994, the year when Primal Scream and the Stone Roses both released disappointing albums. If these bands had been on form, and if they'd teamed up to make a record, the result would have resembled Delakota live.
So, yes, the singing would have been terrible - and Cass Browne's croaks certainly brings back memories of Ian Brown and Bobby Gillespie. But there would also have been an inspirational collision of contemporary and classic, a whirlpool of rock, soul and country, loose-limbed funk beats, samples, and uplifting gospel chords.
Delakota's album, One Love (Polydor), can sound like two people playing with a sampler in their bedroom. In concert, expanded to a full-band line- up, Delakota have purpose and guts - not to mention a very pretty female vocalist with a voice like the Cocteau Twins's Liz Fraser. Cass Browne's vocal technique may not be much better than Ian Brown's, but his showmanship more than compensates. When he's not mashing lyrics by Wyclef Jean and the Doors in with his own, he's playing the bongos or dancing like a dervish. And he does what no other frontman does this evening: he interacts with the crowd. In a former life, Browne was the drummer of the Senseless Things, and he radiates the elation of being back in business on his own terms. This was, I think, the first time I'd heard a saxophone solo introduced with a delighted cry of: "He's going to blow his stupid horn now, look!"
The tour's headliners are UNKLE. Well, sort of. It's all rather complicated, but in theory, UNKLE are James Lavelle, the founder of Mo Wax records, and DJ Shadow, the Californian boffin who made Endtroducing, one of 1996's most acclaimed albums. Together, they assembled last year's Psyence Fiction LP. Except that most of the work was done by DJ Shadow and an alt-rock Who's Who of guests, among them Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Beastie Boy Mike D, and Richard Ashcroft of The Verve. With me so far? Good, because on Tuesday, neither DJ Shadow nor any of the vocalists were present. The men from UNKLE were Lavelle and two other DJs, the Scratch Perverts. They should have renamed themselves Second Kousin.
Just as I was getting ready to sue them for breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, I was interrupted by a revelation: this branch of UNKLE was original, stimulating, courageous, and a marked improvement on the one that made the album. Psyence Fiction, its sleeve says, was "a billion years in the making". It can seem like a billion years in the listening, too. Impressive as it is, the tracks are stretched to breaking point, and on Tuesday, Lavelle seemed to acknowledge this, by ripping them up and stapling together the best bits. For instance, Richard Ashcroft's contribution to Psyence Fiction was "Lonely Souls", a cod-philosophical ramble which was juvenile even for him. But on Tuesday, his recorded voice was stuttering and fragmented and hidden behind the elegiac string part, giving it the small-hours sadness of a distant radio broadcast. And after a couple of minutes, it was tossed aside in favour of a turntable duel between the Perverts.
Three men standing behind record players do not make for an arresting spectacle, but the film collages projected on the backdrop were integral to the performance. Each track had its own cleverly themed images, from an endoscope's view of the heart to Space Invaders graphics, magnified to vividly beautiful effect. Pop artists in more sense than one, UNKLE do for vintage video games what Andy Warhol did for soup cans.
Cardiff Univ (01222 387421), Mon; Bristol Univ (0117 929 9008), Tues; Oxford Brookes Univ (01865 741111), Wed; Leicester De Montfort Univ (0115 934 2060), Fri; Norwich UEA (01603 505401), Sat; Astoria, WC1 (0171 434 0403), Sun.Reuse content