THE CRITICS: ROCK AND POP: All the world's a stadium for Dolores

The Cranberries Shepherd's Bush Empire, London Fun Lovin' Criminals Forum, London
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The Independent Culture
On Monday, Dolores O'Riordan shouted "Sing it" 11 times, "Put your hands in the air" once, "Hello London" once, and "Wooh" twice. She pointed her microphone towards the crowd three times, and she combined "Sing it" with the microphone gesture on an additional nine occasions. She shook hands with fans. She made Victory V-signs. She did the Liam lope and the Jagger swagger. And she did all of this in a mid-sized theatre, and not in a 30,000-seater basketball arena as you might have supposed.

The girl can't help it. The Cranberries are a stadium band. Since Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? came out in 1993, they have sold 27 million albums, a sizeable percentage of those in the US. And sales would have been even higher if the intensive touring such figures required hadn't taken its toll. In 1996, after the release of their third album, For the Faithful Departed, the Cranberries burnt out, fell out, broke down and nearly broke up. When they cancelled all the remaining concerts on their schedule, O'Riordan's weight had dropped to six stone, not because she had an eating disorder, she avers, but because she was too stressed to think about food.

O'Riordan's physique seems to have mysterious links with her band's music. When the Cranberries began, they were an awkward indie combo from Limerick who made jingling, apple-sweet music, and she was average woman-sized, as far as you could make out through the layers of frumpy dress and denim jacket. Then she was possessed by the spirit of MTV. She swapped cardigans for rock-star costumes - she got married in her underwear and a roll of gauze - and as her body grew leaner and harder, her music grew more strident. The single which really transformed the Cranberries into superstars was the anti-IRA anthem, "Zombie". But it also turned them into zombies: bony and inhuman.

"Zombie" was the bombastic template for much of the Cranberries' subsequent music. O'Riordan was now a frowning, self-righteous scold. Her soft, sated sighs stiffened into painful yodels, and her ego stiffened until she believed that she could pontificate intelligently about politics in her lyrics. She was wrong. Imagine Alanis Morissette's last album, except without the long words.

After the Cranberries' crisis in 1996, they had a two-year sabbatical, and O'Riordan had a baby. The comeback album is called Bury the Hatchet, so I was hoping that motherhood might have taken some of the sharp edges off her figure and her music. As it is, the Cranberries sound as if the hatchet is still being brandished - and O'Riordan is still skinny. Not worryingly thin, thankfully, but not exactly a vision of feminine sensitivity, either. She wears shiny black trousers and a sleeveless black T-shirt with a silver Union Jack on the front; her hair is long and bleached, with a fringe. She looks a bit like Limahl from Kajagoogoo.

The other Cranberries look like they always did: an awkward indie-combo from Limerick. O'Riordan, it seems, is a stage-presence black hole, sucking the charisma from those around her; the more she stamps around like a toddler pretending to be in a brass band, the more her sidekicks appear as if they'd rather be playing from behind a curtain. Despite their international fame and fortune, they are still barely competent musicians. They can manage the older, gentler, Smiths-based material, but when they move towards aggressive rock, they stumble and fall. Noel Hogan gives up on intricate arpeggios and just thumps away at the chords. This is especially ill-advised when his brother Mike, the one-note bassist, is incapable of adding any melodic colouring of his own.

To be fair, the fans were as happy to act as if they were in a stadium as the band were. But the songs that prompted mass outbreaks of swaying were all five or six years old. If the Cranberries don't recover some heart and soul, they'll be back in theatres this size full-time.

Last Sunday, the Fun Lovin' Criminals didn't think they were in a stadium. They thought they were in a New York nightclub, playing to their oldest friends. Huey, the singer-guitarist, tells us jokes and anecdotes, and even comments on refugees from Kosovo. "Give 'em a little love," he advises. "Don't make fun of them 'cause they can't speak English. Be cool with 'em."

There's not much the Fun Lovin' Criminals don't know about being cool. All three of them are models of sharp-dressed charm, including their trilby- wearing new drummer, Mackie (his predecessor is "in Peru getting shock treatment"). But Huey is the dapper Don - even his eyebrows arch suavely. His street-tough handsomeness is balanced by a gentlemanly humility that has him apologising for the price of concert tickets. "I gotta give you something extra," insists the goodfella, "Not money per se, not another bad joke, but ... Huey's Acting School!" He proceeds to perform a scene from Scarface, which is not something you see at many rock concerts. And later on, he does give us money per se, tossing crumpled bank-notes into the audience. "I gotta look after my people here," he shrugs.

The effortless Rat Pack cabaret is so winning that the music is almost extraneous. Huey knows his BB King and Bo Diddley licks, and the Criminals' patchwork of rap, rock, blues and easy listening is unique. But it wears thin over a whole evening. The FLCs' second album, 100% Colombian, didn't have the spark of their debut, and in concert the songs are out-of-focus, perhaps because the murky PA renders the chatty rapping incomprehensible, perhaps because so much of the trio's work is delegated to backing tapes. The gig might have been even more fun if they'd done without music altogether.

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