ROCK / Still in the vanguard: Suede

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The Independent Culture
ONLY ONE man has emerged from a duet with Cliff Richard with his credibility intact. Only one Celtic soul brother looks like Ron Atkinson after a nasty brush with a car-crusher. Ladies and gentlemen, fold away your copy of Watchtower and shake out your trouser creases, because Van Morrison is in the house.

Morrison is an inspired booking for the last night of the Town & Country Club. Not only because his exemplary Irishness cocks a snook at its landlords and new promoter Vince Power (who will reopen it shortly under its old Irish dance hall name, The Forum), but also because one of the most powerful features of Van's work has been its sense of community - exactly the feeling that was mobilised by the threat of the T & C's closure. Tonight, however, is not to be a night for the audience to cry into its beer. Outgoing manager Ollie Smith sets the cheerful tone by announcing the imminent opening of three new venues.

Van himself trundles onstage on the dot of eight, a far cry from the grumpy misfit of legend. His voice, though, is as gruff and sweet as could ever be wished. From the safety of his sunglasses he leads a sympathetic band through a fine set, selections ranging from the distant Astral Weeks to the current Hymns to the Silence. What Morrison knows how to do better than anybody is to strangle the life out of a song and then gently bring it back to life. His band have the essential bar-room swagger, but real delicacy, too. They are equally at home with the Gaelic sway of 'Star of the County Down' and the jazzy strut of 'Moondance'.

The latter heralds a slew of fan-friendly encores, including a boisterous assault on Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say' and a triumphant 'Brown-Eyed Girl' which has the audience - a burly assemblage of hard-drinking snooker club owners - singing the sha-la-las with impressive vigour. The garage-band classic 'Gloria' brings the proceedings to a suitably raucous conclusion, with Van barking out 'G-L-O-R-I-A' - the elocution lesson that inspired Patti Smith.

The vultures have been gathering over Suede. This was bound to happen, but it would be a shame if the eagerness to get the backlash underway stopped their excellent album getting the respect it deserves. Suede (Nude) is much further from being a disappointment than the first Smiths album was after a similar build- up. Anyone acquainted with the hormonal frenzy of the band's live shows will know roughly what to expect, but if you're only familiar with the uptempo swirls and flounces of the three singles, the number and quality of their swooning ballads will come as a real surprise.

'She's Not Dead' is the first - a sordid tale of sexual shenanigans in exhaust-filled cars which is lent unexpected beauty by the remarkable guitar-playing of Bernard Butler. It would be overstating the case to say that Butler is the real star, but Brett Anderson's impassioned quaver would be naked without him, and both play an equal part in maintaining the vital balance of cruelty and compassion. In 'Moving', Bernard rampages off at an impossible speed, while Brett uses the phrase 'she's a lovely little number' as a step-ladder to new heights of pronunciatory daring, before both unite to turn the song into 'Ferry 'Cross the Mersey'.

I think it was a mistake to print the lyrics, because it's more intriguing to guess them. With the exception of the maudlin epic 'Sleeping Pills', Anderson still tends to write more complete lines than he does songs, but so long as he doesn't fall into the trap of overestimating how interesting drugs are, there is plenty of time to put that right. Vitriol-drenched phrases such as 'the canine in an A-line' will do very nicely in the meantime. This would stand as a mighty debut in any year. Those who accuse Suede of revivalism miss the point. What this band have got, like Happy Mondays and The Small Faces before them, but unlike The Auteurs and the unspeakable Denim, is the vital sense of coming from a particular place at a particular time. If that place is a miserable southern English suburb and it's raining outside, you can't blame them for trying to make the best of it.

Whether Suede will prove as durable as Duran Duran is another matter. Back with their best single in years, if not ever, they show their mettle by playing two 'acoustic' shows in one night at the Dominion theatre. The main point of interest for the crowd is not Simon's outfit (an ensemble midway between Bacofoil and snakeskin), or the music (which is disappointingly brittle and colourless, novelty string section notwithstanding), but the presence of Yasmin and an infant Le Bon in the royal box. Mother and child dance and wave loyally for a while, until forced to leave early by a fearsome interloper called Juliet, who has somehow blagged her way on to the balcony and keeps trying to grab Yasmin's arm. Be afraid, Brett, be very afraid.

'Suede' (Nude, all formats) is out tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

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