ROCK / Singing and dancing in the rain

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The Independent Culture
BY THE third afternoon of Womad, the event's usual idyllic lustre is in danger of being washed away. Reading's Rivermead site is starting to live up to its name, and even the sensual caress of the crowd's newly-bought yak-wool jumpers cannot soften the impact of the weather. This is the festival people take their children to, but, after a long weekend of dance workshops and non-competitive sports, the little people are beginning to get organised. They would rather be at home watching TV, and to this end set up a formidable keening wail as their pushchairs skate across the waterlogged arena.

This sound, for all its frightening intensity, is but a blackbird's twitter compared to those made by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Khan is the biggest name, and probably the biggest girth, in the Muslim devotional tradition of Qawwal, the gospel of the East. His 10-strong supporting party sit beside him on the stage floor. Some play talking drums; others tinker with strange box-file accordions, which furnish their supple music with an unexpected cajun swing. Over this rippling underlay, disciplined larynxes lay a vocal carpet of great splendour and complexity.

Khan's massive form is anchored at one side of the group like some fabulous paperweight. Between songs he sips mineral water from a plastic cup, surveying the audience sceptically over the rim. The austerity of his demeanour contrasts with the richness of his voice. He rocks gently back and forth as he sings, sometimes reinforcing his Arabic words with graceful hand gestures; switching from guttural chatter or deep howls of anguish to passages of spell-binding Sufi scat-funk.

His main vocal foil is 'pupil singer' Kaukab Ali, a demure little soul with a higher register of extraordinary purity. The master at one point challenges him to a duel - much as Richie Blackmore and Ian Gillan used to pit guitar against voice for Deep Purple. Moments after the dazzling bout of vocal pyrotechnics which follows, Khan offers Ali out again. The younger man shakes his head. He's had enough, but he can comfort himself on having been bested by a true superstar.

Going back to pub and club roots is the megadome rocker's last remaining means of self- aggrandisement short of an early death. INXS's 'Get Out of the House Tour' cunningly combines cross-promotional kudos with the rare pleasure - for band and fans alike - of being able 'to see and smell each other again'. The Astoria is nobody's lounge-bar, but INXS's stadium stomp wouldn't fit anywhere smaller, and neither would their audience. The hyped-up crowd is alarmingly gelled of hair and huge of torso, the band's regular fan-base having been fleshed out by a posse of Antipodean male strippers called 'Australian Manpower'.

INXS's chunky lumpen-funk sounds crisper than usual in this confined space but, excepting the odd big tune such as 'Need You Tonight' or 'New Sensation', there is not much else to recommend it. The green shoots of dynamic and textural subtlety which showed through on their most recent album, Welcome to Wherever You are, are brutally trampled in live performance. The rest of the band - even emotively-named bassist Garry Gary Beers in his fetching Balinese sarong - work hard to make Hutchence look charismatic, but can't quite manage it.

Entertaining new LA kook-rap quartet The Pharcyde make a well-received London debut at the Jazz Cafe, a favoured launch-pad for visiting hip-hoppers. The group's fine album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (Delicious Vinyl, released on 9 August) is not even out yet, but people already seem to know the words to standout numbers such as the gleeful maternal diss-fest 'Ya Mama' ('She's got a peg-leg with a kick- stand . . . an afro with a chin-strap') and the self-explanatory 'Oh Shit'.

If there's one star, though, it's Little Richard look-alike Romye 'Booty Brown' Robinson with his infectious helium squawk of a voice. But the four Pharcyders all live in the same house, and it's the tightness with which their contrasting vocal styles hold together that makes them stand out as a group. There's an ease and a grace about their music and movement that reaches back further than breakdancing, which is how three of them started out, all the way to vaudeville.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Party play Oldham QEH, 061-678 4072, tonight, and Nottingham Royal, 0602 482606, Sat.