ROCK / Rapid rise of the Apache leader

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The Independent Culture
'STRAIGHT from Delhi on a flying carpet, with a million watts of hockey stick.' Handsworth superstar Apache Indian certainly knows how to make an entrance. His benign and natty Bhangramuffin - a vital fusion of Anglo- Asian concerns and Bhangra flourishes with rough ragga reggae style - has made Apache the leader of a welcome new wave of British-Asian pop stars.

At the Town & Country Club on Friday night he does just three songs from his slick and snappy debut album, No Reservations (Island) - he's warming the crowd up for label-mates Stereo MC's. But Apache is on stage long enough to show why his rise has been so rapid, and why it is he, rather than the tiresomely salacious Shabba Ranks, who is finally bringing the pleasures of ragga's infectious shuffle to a mass crossover audience. Apache is quite at home with someone else's crowd. He's a diplomat and an entertainer, but not afraid to pack a punch. Relaxed in a gentle crouch, he chats his way through his first, fine and funny hit, 'Arranged Marriage'. His next, 'Chok Me', is even better, with a storming chant and a memorable invocation to 'Dip your knee and cork out you bottom'.

A show like this makes a happy mockery of racial separatism. Next up, for headliners Stereo MC's, the vocal interplay of sprite-like Rob Birch and his bedenimmed co-singers Andrea, Verona and Cath transcends traditional front-person/backing- singer apartheid. This is a band whose time has come. After years of making inventive but commercially unsuccessful UK hip-hop, Stereo MC's third album, Connected (4th & Broadway), smoothed out their rough edges with a bit more singing and a lot more structure, and now they are a force to be reckoned with.

Few, if any, other bands have managed a more convincing union of hip-hop technology with live performance. Welsh steam- hammer Owen If, a drummer of many arms, combines with hairless DJ The Head to provide massive, booming beats. The dashingly emaciated Birch - Albert Steptoe with Terry-Thomas's moustache - does his memorable karate dance, based on keeping your legs as far apart as possible to stop your trousers falling down. And the tunes just keep on coming. The message - of taking things higher and getting connected - has pretty much got through after half an hour. But you can't blame the band for carrying on when everyone's having such a good time.

It's a very youthful-looking Mick Jagger - stripped to the waist, and not apparently holding his tummy in - who appears on the cover of his third solo album, Wandering Spirit (Atlantic, out tomorrow). There is something vampiric about the way he has rejuvenated himself with fresh musical blood (the album is co- produced by rap-metal overlord Rick Rubin, and the band includes Courtney Pine, Living Colour's Doug Wimbush and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) but the results are a vast improvement on his two previous outings as a lone wolf.

The album has a much harder edge than expected. The lumbering machismo of the opening 'Wired All Night' sets the tone: defiant and chest-beating. The lyrics of side-one highlights 'Don't Tear Me Up' and 'Evening Gown' will be diversely interpreted by students of Mick's mid-life crisis, but there's no question that these are the most potent songs he's been involved with for many a year. 'Use Me', the obligatory Bill Withers cover, is almost funky - despite featuring Lenny Kravitz - and there is a nice country-blues swing about the title song, too.

Of course, there are lowlights. 'Handsome Molly', in which Jagger affects an Irish accent, is deeply embarrassing, and the single 'Sweet Thing' relaunches that old 'Miss You' falsetto to teeth-grinding effect. But, in general, the Jagger voice is gnarled and guttural and as it should be.

'How do you do that?' an exasperated voice in the Borderline crowd asks Rainer, the greatest slide guitarist to be born in Eastern Europe. It's a fair question - there's just the one of him, sat there in his trucker's cap, but he sounds like about 14 people. Rainer (his surname, Ptacek, has gone the way of the unpronounceable) conjures an extraordinary repertoire of noises from his National Steel guitar; a clatter, then a wheeze, then a whoop.

His formative experience of migration to Chicago mirrors that of many of his blues heroes, but this man is an original talent. His voice is straight out of the Bob Dylan/David Byrne school of white-boy neurosis, and his eerie arrangements of standards such as Robert Johnson's 'Crossroads' and Willie Nelson's 'Time Slips Away' wring new resonance from well-worked material. He writes his own gently affecting songs, too. A retiring personality - he does not project much beyond the front row - Rainer lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife and children, and works in a music shop repairing guitars. ZZ Top sometimes send limos to pick him up to play with them, but only the homelier blandishments of Brentford's Demon Records could induce him to make a new album. The resulting Worried Spirits (Fiend CD723) is parched and beautiful - the true song of the desert.

Rainer, Spilsby Theatre, Norfolk (0790 52936), tonight. Stereo MC's and Apache Indian, Northumbria Univ (091-232 8761), tomorrow and on tour all week (081-741 1511).