ROCK / Wanted: for dancing in the aisles

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The Independent Culture
THE SECURITY forces at Hammersmith Odeon, whoops, Apollo, seem to have been warned of an imminent attempt on the life of Suzanne Vega. They prowl the aisles, shining torches in any face which threatens mobility. Two women wearing print dresses, obviously hired killers, fight their way along a seated row. Reaching the aisle, they execute a poignant half of a dance-step before being forcibly returned to their berths by aggrieved musclemen.

In these circumstances, Vega's mildly caustic imprecations to her fans to enjoy themselves more conspicuously seem somewhat disingenuous, but she's got a point - the atmosphere is on the frosty side of funereal. Her fans are not people who like to rock at the best of times, but there's a trace of 'Bob Dylan goes electric' hostility in the air tonight as well. Spurred on by new musical helpmeet Mitchell Froom, Vega has sidelined the soppy acoustic piffle that made her famous in favour of a more eclectic and gritty approach. The results have been an artistic success - her latest album, 99.9F (A&M), is easily her best - but a commercial disappointment. Soppy acoustic piffle is what these people want from Suzanne Vega, not novelty instruments and barking through a megaphone.

These heresies emerge amid the agreeable Tom Waits lite clutter of 'Blood Makes Noise', one of several surprisingly spirited pop songs from which Vega and her band, particularly long-term guitarist Marc Shulman, derive understandable pleasure. Old loft-angst favourites like 'Luka' have perked up too under the new regime. Not quite passive-aggressive but certainly insouciant, the star of the show is commendably unperturbed by the crowd's lack of response to these obvious improvements. By the subtle expedient of leaving the stage after only an hour, she provokes them into demanding their money's worth - and returns shepherding a herd of woolly liberal encores, of which 'The Queen and the Soldier' is by a good distance the most unspeakable.

The 'Putting Our House in Order' concerts, organised at venues around the country to coincide with Gimme Shelter, Channel 4's season on homelessness, have been refreshingly free of the backslapping and condescension which attend so many higher profile rock charity affairs. At the Islington Powerhaus, hundreds are left out in the cold - queuing to be a part of the Wiiija Night, a cheap and mostly cheerful showcase for a thriving independent label. Blood Sausage (I'm sorry, but that is their name) set the tone with shambolic garage buzz-pop apparently played backwards. Mambo Taxi, riot grrrls with a smiling face, are diverting and even tuneful until they swap singers and attempt to emulate Diamanda Galas. Jaunty East Anglian sludge-harmony trio Jacob's Mouse prove themselves the night's outsiders by virtue of a passing familiarity with their instruments. Sadly, however, no band called Jacob's Mouse is ever going to make it.

And then come Huggy Bear. You'd think that any band who have made themselves so widely hated in so short a time must have something pretty good going for them. Alas, no. As Allen Ginsberg proved all those years ago, there's nothing like bad poetry (and make no mistake, Huggy Bear's poetry is very bad indeed) for making a repressive consensus look attractive. Unlike reluctant headliners Cornershop, who even tired and emotional at the end of a long evening are a vastly preferable proposition, Huggy Bear have no sense of fun, and no appreciation of how ridiculous they might be. They just come across as self-righteous and irritating.

Admitting you're off to see a French rapper is still a fast track to a sympathetic look, but, if the rapturous reception accorded to MC Solaar at Subterania is anything to go by, that will soon change. The crowd's enthusiasm is only partially explained by the large Gallic presence. This svelte Parisian of Senegalese descent is not the Johnny Halliday of hip- hop; he is a talented wordsmith with a low, bubbling rap style all his own and a more than capable DJ in the portly Jimmy Jay. Solaar slouches well-educatedly about the stage. His dancers and energetic co-rapper Ulunga (from the unprepossessingly named 501 Posse) cavort suavely about him as he rifles through the jazzy grooves of his debut album, Qui seme le vent recolte le tempo (roughly translated as 'it's a strange apple that falls far from the tree'). At the end, jovial UK rappers Force n' K-Zee join him on stage for a surprise freestyle affirmation of the entente cordiale, and insist that 'this is MC Solaar's show' in a bold but vain attempt to steal it. There is certainly considerable comic mileage in French language renditions of time-honoured rap cliches ('en plein effet' and 'faites maximum de noise' are silly enough; 'le sucker MC' is the clincher) but the real irony here is the number of fashion-conscious Brits present who wouldn't dream of turning out to see home-grown rap talent.

Suzanne Vega plays York Barbican (0904-656688), tonight; Newcastle City Hall (091-261 2606), Tues; and tours all week. Information on 071-736 3311.