ROCK / Tales of the unexpected

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The Independent Culture
AT THE Festival Hall, Lyle Lovett asks us to join in with the chorus of his next song. Then, with one of the best voices around, a forlorn, tremulous tenor that coaxes every last speck of emotion from the lyrics, he sings: 'Fat babies have no pride / That's okay, who needs pride?' No one joins in. 'I should explain further,' Lovett says. He and a friend were pondering what they hated most in the world, and when singalong songs came at the top of the list, they decided to compose the kind of song, 'that if anyone did sing along, they'd feel really stupid'.

That's Lyle Lovett for you. He never seems entirely at ease on stage, and he's not about to let his audience get comfortable either. A master of deadpan humour, he follows every seemingly serious statement with a pause, and every pause with a twisted, unsettling punchline.

The whole show is a tale of the unexpected. Lovett begins in semi-darkness, his grey suit and gravity-defying haircut barely visible, accompanied by a double bassist, a cellist, an acoustic guitarist and two percussionists. Just when you are settling down to some understated Texan country, he wheels on a string quartet, three horn players, and four singers. In the two-and-a-half hour show, various combinations of the above cover everything from 'Penguins', a jazz-funk number, to 'I've Got the Blues', which is self-explanatory, although it wouldn't be out of character for Lovett to apply the title to a

Viennese polka.

His lyrics are bitter, droll, frank, and always sung without a hint of irony. In one song he asks his beloved if she realises who will care for her even after her lying and cheating. The punchline: 'God will, but I won't / And that's the difference between God and me.' And, from his new album, I Love Everybody (MCA), there is the aforementioned paean to penguins, a subject chosen for no obvious reason other than his own passing resemblance to said birds.

When Julia Roberts had just married Lovett, she told the press that her husband looked like a beardless Abraham Lincoln, but to be honest he is more Easter Island than Mount Rushmore. It isn't fair to mention Roberts - Lovett deserves enough glory of his own to do without any that is reflected off his spouse's Hollywood smile - but he started it: 'I'd like to send this one out

to my wife,' then the pause, 'wherever she is this evening.'

Later he sings 'Creeps Like Me': 'Look around and you will see / This world is full of creeps like me.' Not true. This creep is one of a kind.

On Friday, the King is alive and well, sporting his sequinned white jumpsuit, strumming his guitar, swivelling his hips. This monarch, though, is not Michael Jackson's father-in-law, but King Sunny Ade, bringing royalty to the Festival Hall on the last night of an 87-city tour. As well as being prince of the Yoruba tribe, he is the king of 'juju', a frenzied Nigerian calypso. Eight of the 16 musicians in his band, the Africa Beats, whack out percussion, creating a complex jigsaw of rhythms that would have Paul Simon sprinting for his tape recorder. Sometimes there are solos on the synthesiser or on Ade's twangy guitar. More often, though, the tuned instruments stick to rhythmic riffing, while the rhythm instruments have all the best tunes. In most bands the only purpose of maracas is to give the mini-skirted glamour girl something to waggle when she is not singing harmony. Here they are a vital element in the ensemble.

'We play party music, music for dancing,' says Ade. (At least 15 people are dancing in the Festival Hall, which must be the venue's record.) He and the four other singers shuffle through steps which appear to have been choreographed by Michael Jackson and the Shadows. In between times, all the singers chant in unison, or Ade leads the others in a call-and- response routine. The words, never in English, preach love and togetherness. A wild time is had by all.

Juju's closest Western cousin is rave, a style which it influenced, indirectly at least. But rave music is always pushing back its boundaries, while Ade, a famed innovator, has not advanced for years. The King has the same trouble as any member of a royal family in the Nineties. He is still drawing crowds, but you have to wonder if he is contributing anything new.

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