Accusations of smugness and over-complexity used to dog Sting's solo career, albeit more in critics' circles than record shops. The music press never quite forgave him for using the money he earned from The Police's direct, melodic hits to make pilgrimages to the Amazonian rainforest and gild his lily-white pop talents with expensive jazz musicians. But now there is a backlash against the backlash, prompted by Sting's partial return to pop with last year's album, Ten Summoner's Tales (A&M). His four-night Albert Hall residency opens against a backdrop of awards, not ridicule.
As Sting's four-piece flow into his 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', and he wraps his voice around the words with a new ease, any remaining reservations seem like carping. Maybe the critics were just jealous that he'd aged so well - 41 now, he's cropped and lean, black clothes against a slight tan, and relaxed too, rocking his bass with the confident, thumping rhythm. When the song ends Sting gives a swooping bow, then shouts 'thaaaankyou' stadium-style, showing how deftly he can play both the artist and the rocker.
The components of Sting's solo fame don't fit automatically, however, and they soon begin to quarrel. 'Love is Stronger than Justice' starts with a furious jazz-rock clatter, continues with a couple of hurried verses as philosophical as its title, then squeezes through a succession of asymmetrical tempos. Sting fights valiantly to keep the melody afloat. The band lean into their instruments with musicianly grimaces, reminiscent of those indigestible Miles Davis fusion extravaganzas filmed for French TV in the Eighties.
The evening then veers between noisy style ('King of Pain' played as a blundering rocker) and quiet substance (a stealthy bounce through 'It's Probably Me'). In general, the more of Sting himself there is, the better; a few flashes of improvisation aside, the others are about as predictable as the guitarist's skin-tight trousers.
Sting's lyrics can be too obviously clever - one song's chorus plays with the names of playing cards, another arranges its verses by days of the week - but he sings them less fussily than he used to. He yelps and half-screams through a charging 'Synchronicity 2', confident enough to smile as the guitarist messes up the opening chords. He doesn't talk about the rainforests. And he throws an unexpected shadow over the encore celebrations, singing 'Fragile' ('We forget how fragile we are') to a slow acoustic strum. 'Thanks for listening,' he says at the end; his mockers at Viz would have choked.
Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs isn't self-aware so much as self-loathing. 'Tonight I go to hell for what I've done to you,' he rasps raw-throated at an Astoria crammed with pale young men. Thick-set and formal, with side-parted hair, black shirt and black jacket, Dulli comes from a long line of Americans born to manhandle guitars on stage without a trace of irony.
The Afghan Whigs play soul music, not in the Alexander O'Neal bedroom sense, but rather a reinterpretation of Motown through the kind of agonised underground rock popularised by Nirvana. Marvin Gaye with powerchords doesn't seem like an appealing innovation, but as Dulli croons James Carr's 'The Dark End of the Street' over a dramatic drum thud and scudding clouds of feedback, it's immediately clear that their fusion is born of conviction not contrivance. His own 'When We Two Parted' follows (from last year's LP, Gentlemen, on Blast First), and it's every bit as doom-laden as that ancient adulterer's anthem.
All Dulli's songs are about his part in bad relationships. 'You think I'm scared of girls / Well maybe, but I'm not afraid of you,' he sings on 'What Jail is Like'. And the Afghan Whigs let you hear him. Unlike the grunge bands to which they're superficially similar, they've learnt to leave space and vary dynamics: grinding out a skeletal funk loop for Prince's 'When Doves Cry', then letting their guitars off the leash to chase a steadily panicking Dulli through 'Fountain and Fairfax'. All this intensity seems genuine - Dulli's so wound up that he can't stop mocking himself and the audience between songs - and explains the Whigs' sudden popularity:
you don't get the same red- blooded drama on ambient house records.
Kristin Hersh is exorcising demons too, but hers spill out over an acoustic guitar and cello in the respectful hush of the Bloomsbury Theatre. 'It's so quiet in here,' she says, as another three minutes of her piercing, quavering vowels dissolve into polite applause.
But the sparse musical setting - far removed from the cat's cradle of electric guitars and drums of her band Throwing Muses - lets Hersh's words hang in the air. 'Oh don't put me in that box / You know what you can do with those locks,' she wails on 'Houdini Blues', 'Bet your life I'll come crawling out again / You'll have to deal with me then.' Hersh's voice belies her cherubic face: rising from a croon as sweet as Stevie Nicks' to a shriek to scare P J Harvey, sometimes in the same verse. Her singing reflects her life: from Sixties commune childhood through tormented adolescence to traumatic motherhood. Her solo career may seem calmer than Throwing Muses' harrowing self-examinations - the words 'finally it's alright'
end her new album Hips and Makers (4AD) - but even Hersh's happy songs tremble
at the edges.
She tells us about her baby in a folksy New England twang, then treads gently around a dead relationship for the single 'Your Ghost' ('I can't drink this coffee 'til I've put you in my closet'). Minutes later, she's dropped an octave and is biting off the end of her lines, faster and faster, as the cello scrapes. She may smile modestly at the end in her patterned cardigan, but she's not fooling anyone.
Kristin Hersh begins a full solo tour in March.