ROCK / The Princess and the new queen of pop

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The Independent Culture
IT'S AN unwieldy title for a big night out to carry - HRH The Princess of Wales' Concert of Hope. The separate tensions of royal patronage, pop-icon overload and life-or-death cause pull in different directions before the show has even begun. On a screen high above the Wembley Arena stage, the Princess is the main attraction; beamed from backstage, shaking hands and twinkling embarrassedly first with HIV and Aids workers and then with the stars of the show. When she takes her seat no one quite knows what to do - pop music was never something the royal family was supposed to like - so nearly everyone stands up.

An exquisitely suited David Bowie bounds on. How will pop's greatest narcissist, drafted in at the last minute as master of ceremonies, cope with playing fifth fiddle? Much to everyone's relief, he does not repeat his Lord's Prayer fiasco at last year's Freddie Mercury Tribute. Instead he offers thanks to the Goddess Diana, then introduces k d lang. As if forewarned that she will be trailed as 'the classiest, most stylish performer of the Nineties', the mischievious lang galumphs on stage in biker boots and a Dolce e Gabbana ensemble made from old dust-sheets.

Despite her appearance, she glides and swaggers about the stage with the same beguiling ease with which her voice commands its material. Her set is short but sweet. She opens with the supremely elegant 'Constant Craving', the nearest she has come to a hit single. Two songs from her Even Cowgirls Get the Blues soundtrack show how far she has moved on, even since then. Roy Orbison's 'Crying' is a mawkish sort of show-stopper, but she raises the roof with it.

While lang's coolly immaculate performances are interspersed with heartfelt, stumbling introductions, Mick Hucknall takes a more straightforward approach. Barely mentioning the purpose of the show, he concentrates on what he does best, which is to be suave and cocky and sing like an angel. After a vibrant start with 'Thrill Me', he loses momentum with a couple of non-greatest hits, but soon picks it up again with a gleaming 'Stars' and a full- blooded 'Do the Right Thing', sung with extra emphasis on the saucy bits, as if in pursuit of a royal blush.

After a long absence from all stages but the courtroom, George Michael could be forgiven for being nervous about following such high-grade support acts. But the roar which greets that ski-slope tan and those pearly teeth shows he need not have worried. He does 'Father Figure' and then an effective but puzzling medley of Seal's 'Killer' and the Temptations' 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone'.

His excuse for not doing a longer set - he's 'been busy' - strikes a rather disingenuous note, but two songs called 'Freedom', a not wholly successful assault on Stevie Wonder's 'Love's in Need of Love Today' and a final romp through 'Everything She Wants' secure his place in the hearts of the people. After a long delay for the marshalling of egos, all four stars come back on in a posse. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for; at last, they're all going to do a song together . . . but they don't.

At the same venue the next night, the atmosphere is a good 20 degrees warmer, mainly because the crowd knows what it is here for, which is to see Luther Vandross. The portly Bronx-born soul man is on jolly and imperious form, and tonight it's hard to see why so many revile him as the high priest of blandness. His voice is rich and pliable - far more expressive than, say, George Michael's - and he really knows how to make a phrase his own. When Luther sings 'It's gonna be alright; yes, indeed it is', it's hard not to believe him. Less frenziedly priapic than Alexander O'Neal, Vandross brings real old-world courtesy to his dealings with the crowd. His controversial but undeniably effective cover technique - as demonstrated tonight on the Bee Gees' 'How Deep is Your Love?' and the Carpenters' 'Loneliness' - is to slow down a song until it begs for mercy.