The Critics - Rock and Pop: He's gonna step on you again

Happy Mondays Brixton Academy, London Cardigans Royal Albert Hall, London

Because you demanded it - "you" being the Inland Revenue and "it" being pounds 400,000 - the Happy Mondays are here again. They've just completed a UK tour, and a brand new single is on its way: appropriately, it's a mauling of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town", although the Beatles' "Taxman" might have been more appropriate still. And if all that weren't enough, they've even got a brand new line-up. Which, if you think about it, is a curious thing for a reunion to have.

Let's start from the beginning. The Happy Mondays: doyens of the late- 1980s "Madchester" scene; took drugs; mixed indie guitars with dance rhythms; had genius/gibberish lyrics, written and drawled by Shaun Ryder; had one member - Mark "Bez" Berry - whose sole job was to have boggly eyes; released Pills'n' Thrills and Bellyaches in 1990, one of this decade's most influential and exuberant albums. Their crack-assisted crack-up followed in 1993.

Ryder went on to assemble Black Grape, still with Bez in tow; two albums later, they too disbanded. Now, the odd couple are together again in the rehabbed and reformed Happy Mondays, along with the original bassist, Shaun's brother Paul, and the drummer, Gary Whelan. But Mark Day and Paul Davis, who were the Mondays' guitarist and keyboard player respectively, have told journalists that the reunion doesn't interest them - coincidentally, neither of them were invited. Instead, Ryder has brought in Paul Wagstaff on guitar, who was last seen in - yes - Black Grape. So while this band does include four members of the Happy Mondays - five if you count Rowetta, their part-time backing singer - it also includes three members of Black Grape. I suppose that calling themselves Happy Grape or the Black Mondays or the Shaun Ryder Experience wouldn't have sold as many tickets.

This is not just bellyaching. A rock band's reunion is supposed to take you back to an earlier era, with people you haven't seen together for a long time playing music you haven't heard for a long time. But the Mondays called it a day a mere six years ago and Black Grape picked up where they left off. Even in the nostalgic 1990s it's hard to get dewy-eyed about a band who were last seen, essentially, in 1997.

Like any Black Grape gig, Tuesday's show had Bez, glazed and grinning, doggy-paddling up and down the stage; it had Ryder, chewing his lyrics into an incoherent mush; and, for good measure, Ryder had a young black sidekick. This is not to denigrate Kermit, whose Black Grape vocals were so vital, in both senses of the word. But when he was ill, Ryder simply slotted someone called Psycho into Kermit's place. And in the current edition of the Shaun Ryder Experience, Psycho in turn is replaced by - I kid you not - Nuts.

In what sense can this be called the Mondays' second coming? Well, it does have the original bassist and drummer, although not for long if Ryder keeps abusing them as enthusiastically as he did on Tuesday. The reason for his outbursts was that the click track - rock parlance for a metronome - had broken down and Whelan didn't want to continue without it. "Fookin' hell, guys, just play the fookin' drum," moaned Ryder. "I could play this one!" He had a point. If we're supposed to be excited about the return of a classic rhythm section, it should really be able to keep the rhythm.

There is also Rowetta, whose soul-mama hollering seems at odds with her dainty skipping and her schoolgirl pigtails. And if you stretch the point, you might add that Ryder is in better shape than he has been since the Mondays' heyday. He wore an athletics vest for the gig, which would have been a nightmarish sight a year or two ago. The reappearance of his neck was as evocative of bygone years as anything else the show had to offer.

Finally, there are the songs. "God's Cop" and "Hallelujah" get the party going, click track permitting. And there is no denying the buzz of hearing the battling piano and guitar riffs of "Step On" - never mind that those riffs were created by someone else. Other sections of the show tend to biodegrade into a funk-rock mulch. None of the musicians shine particularly, which wouldn't matter if we had some sentimental attachment to them. As it is ... well, you know my feelings on that score. I doubt the Mondays' reunion has made anyone very happy except the tax collector.

The Cardigans are a band of contrasts. Their early music was as soft and woolly as their name, but they've always covered Black Sabbath songs. Their tunes can be as bright and summery as blossom, but their lyrics are weighed down with pain and disappointment. These contrasts are personified by Nina Persson (no pun intended). She sings in the most pleading, heart-dissolving tones imaginable, but her persona (still no pun intended) is one of robotic emotionlessness.

On stage, the most marked contrast was between her attitude and the rest of the band's. The men would have rather been hard-rock berserkers; Persson would have rather been elsewhere. Even before the end of the first song, Peter Svensson was on his knees, ripping at his guitar in the manner of a man who had been to many a Radiohead concert in his time. And Bengt Lagerberg compensated for his stiff drumming by trying to headbutt his cymbals. Persson, meanwhile, like a teenage girl embarrassed by her hyperactive little brothers at the school disco, maintained her frosty, let's-get-this-over-with reserve, despite having borrowed her clothes from Suzi Quatro.

My judgement could be swayed by Persson's possession of the best dimples in pop, but I was on her side. Her colleagues' heavy-metal approach flattens the delicate structures of the Cardigans' songs, while still failing to project them across the cavernous Albert Hall. It's the quieter, slower material, and the perfect, pure pop of "Lovefool" and "My Favourite Game", that work best. A band of contrasts, then. Parts of Thursday's show were a delight; and parts of it weren't much cop at all.

Cardigans: Botanic Gardens, Belfast (01232 383000) tonight; Dublin Castle (00 353 1 456 9569), Monday.

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