ROCK / She belted me with her hits, and I loved it

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The Independent Culture
AS foregone conclusions go, the Pretenders' concert at Brixton Academy on Wednesday ranked with the Labour leadership contest. Last of the Independents (WEA) is one of their best albums and Chrissie Hynde has put her political concerns on the backburner in order to hot up her musical career. She wasn't likely to screw up her first major tour for eight years, and she didn't.

With a snarl of, 'Are you ready for us? 'Cos we're ready for you,' the band launched into the lascivious rocker 'Night in my Veins'. Like Elvis Costello's shows earlier in the year, this was one of those joyous cases of a band being confident that their new songs can soar with the albatross of their legendary Early Material, and therefore shying away from neither end of their career. Among such classics as 'Talk of the Town', 'Back on the Chain Gang' and 'Stop Your Sobbing', the evening's highlight was the controversial new love song '977'. The backing vocals were sweeter than on the record, the keyboards - often obsolete tonight - came into their own, and Hynde trilled up and down the scales of the melody, slamming her tambourine on to the stage over the line: 'He hit me with his belt.' Her performance is made by her acting as well as her singing. And I can exclusively reveal that in an as yet unbroadcast Comic Strip series, Hynde plays the part of Bob Dylan, complete with painted-on stubble.

Like Costello, Hynde was back with her original band, or the next best thing. The seminal Pretenders line-up featured, on guitar and bass respectively, James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, who both died in 1983. At last they had viable replacements, Adam Seymour and Andy Hobson. Seymour got the job because he plays like Honeyman-Scott, and he looks eerily like him, too.

The original drummer, Martin Chambers, has returned after a leave of absence now that his fearsome sideburns have returned to fashion. In between bouts of expansive, flamboyant drumming, he did his whale impression, swigging from a bottle then spraying mouthfuls of water above his head. It's a simple - and fairly distasteful - trick, but spectacular under stage lights.

There is no doubt who the Great Pretender is. At 42, Hynde may be getting long in the fringe, but she is lean and athletic in her white shirt and spray-on silver trousers. Her voice is stronger and more sensuous than ever, and she knows every pose from Jagger to Madonna. She remains one of the few singers to combine femininity and indomitable toughness. When she bellowed: 'I understand blood and I understand pain . . . I'm a mother]' the band skulked in the shadows.

In fact, only Hynde herself would argue that the latest album's title refers to the whole group and not to her alone. At the end of the set - and after three encores - the Pretenders assembled at the front of the stage to take a bow, arms over each other's shoulders, just like the Stones. Back in a gang, Hynde is once again unchained.

Success can change a man, but it hasn't done much for Ian McNabb. He's had quite a year, reaching the Mercury Music Prize shortlist with Head like a Rock (Quicksilver), and working with Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot from Crazy Horse, the archangels of the man he refers to as Neil 'God' Young. Time for a stadium tour, maybe? No. On Tuesday he was at London's Borderline club, sitting on a tiny platform, looking like a rumpled chipmunk in cowboy boots. The tea chests stacked behind him still bore the name of his old band: 'Icicle Works, L/pool, UK'.

It was a low-profile, high- volume gig. McNabb accompanied himself on guitar, stamping on a tambourine to mark the beat, and playing a harmonica which made Bob Dylan sound like Larry Adler. Although a keyboard player joined him for a few songs, the bass and drums were sadly missed. But even without Crazy Horse, McNabb deserves the name Neil Younger. His songs are extended, crashing guitar work-outs worthy of his rock'n'role-model. And while Young has a creaky squeak, McNabb's voice is rich and deep.

In this ironic age, it is a jolt to hear his relentlessly positive lyrics. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. In the bombastic 'May You Always', a crib of Bob Dylan's 'Forever Young', which, just to be confusing, is covered by the Pretenders, he sings: 'May you always be contented in everything you do/ May you always have the strength to see it through.' It is only one effects-pedal away from the jingle of a bear-hugging, shoulder- punching advert for men's razors. In McNabb's defence, he means it. He is a warm and affable host. But going home and listening to the album again, you can't help wishing that he had had Crazy Horse with him, or any band for that matter. Maybe he couldn't fit them on the stage.