The night the Stones didn't roll; ROCK

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The Independent Culture
Having seen Mick Jagger in Freejack and the "Dancing in the Street" video, it's hard to get to grips with the idea that he was once worried about embarrassing himself. In 1968, things must have been very different. He had organised the Rolling Stones' Rock'n'Roll Circus, a TV special in which his band shared the big top, mocked up in a north London studio, with The Who, John Lennon, Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal and Jethro Tull. Live performances were filmed, the musicians were persuaded to dress up as dandies and clowns (at gunpoint, by the look of mortification on Charlie Watts's face), and a fire-eater and trapeze troupe were wheeled out of retirement for the occasion. With all this loosely controlled nonsense going on, the Stones didn't start to play until 1am, after a long day's filming, and their performance was so lacklustre compared to that of Townshend & Co that the Ringmaster was left with the choice of renaming his film The Who's Rock'n'Roll Circus, or stuffing it in his attic, never to be seen again. He went for the latter option.

Twenty-eight years later, Jagger has changed his mind. The live album was released this week, just before the latest instalment of the Beatles Anthology - although I'm sure that's nought but a coincidence - and the video is on sale next month. Having attended the British premiere at the Astoria in London on Tuesday, I'd have to say that I'm not sure what the original fuss was about. The Rock'n'Roll Circus is not at all bad.

The production values are not likely to have MTV executives quaking in their editing suites, but it is this innocent tackiness, this guard-down, image-consultant-free mucking about that makes it such a fascinating historical document.

One aspect is just as it has always been described: The Who's rock operetta, A Quick One While He's Away, steals the show from right under Jagger's nose. Even those of us who consider the rock opera to be an unholy hybrid that should be outlawed on humanitarian grounds couldn't help but be blown away by the explosive energy of the band at their peak.

John Lennon is accompanied by the Dirty Mac, a supergroup worthy of the name: Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience is on drums, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and Keith Richards bass (much to Bill Wyman's annoyance, apparently). The group rip into "Yer Blues", followed by a 12-bar jam on which Yoko Ono does a good vocal impression of an amplifier feeding back.

The Stones play six songs (four from Beggars Banquet), and if their performance is too amateurish for some tastes, they sounded exhilaratingly raw to me. Watts's beat is rock solid, Richards's guitar solos are sharp and brutal, and Jagger is a hard-working imp, wagging his finger at the camera and writhing along a catwalk at the front of the stage. Only Brian Jones looks dazed and fazed. The Circus came to town just seven months before the guitarist's death, and here, when the camera strays in his direction, he looks twice the width of any of his bandmates.

Sometimes the fatigue has its effect on them, too, but "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Sympathy for the Devil" show the Stones at their boldest. At any rate, those of us at the Astoria carried home our commemorative popcorn buckets with pride.

On Thursday at the Manchester Apollo, the Fugees made it clear that the rock'n'roll circus was not for them. The trio are "just a buncha little underground kids from New Jersey," Wyclef reminded us at one point. They specialise in "acoustic hip-hop in its rawest ghetto form," he stressed at another. And he told us that "we ain't no stars" at so many points that I lost count. The rapper, I'm afraid, doth protest too much.

The Fugees are stars, ready or not, and they've got the sales figures to prove it. Their breakthrough single, "Killing Me Softly" (Columbia), has sold over seven million copies worldwide, and it is just one of their two British chart-toppers - an unheard-of achievement for a rap act.

Not that their success is entirely down to rapping. Cramming in a record number of tongue-twisting, thought-provoking rhymes per line is one thing, but it's choruses that people can sing that shift those units, especially if they are sung by Lauryn Hill, the 21-year-old former actress with the voice and the looks to be another Whitney Houston, and the intelligence to know better.

She's even managed to make it in the notoriously misogynistic world of hip-hop without stripping down to beachwear. Now that's what I call star quality.

So how do you go about convincing people otherwise? You start songs, then stop them as soon as the audience recognises them. You improvise snatches of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Hotel California" (and how many rappers would admit to those influences, let alone be able to play them live?). You re-do "Killing Me Softly" with a dub bass-line under the first two verses and a funky rock beat under the others. And you are generally a little more shambolic than necessary. That'll teach those fair-weather fans who want to hear the hits note for note. But if the Fugees don't want to be stars, they'll have to learn to be a lot less irreverent, exuberant, unpredictable and stylish than they were on Thursday.

Diamanda Galas, the New York avant-garde veteran, was at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday. Visually, mind you, it was hard to tell whether she was there or not. She spent the whole evening sitting at a piano, in lighting so minimal that we could see no more than her pale Mister Punch profile floating in the darkness. But aurally, she is utterly unmistakable.

She blasted the meaning back into a selection of country, pop and blues songs with all three and a half octaves of her hurricane voice. It is an incredible, screeching, vibrating squawk, highly trained yet without restraint. Galas is Yoko Ono multiplied by Laurie Anderson, to the power of PJ Harvey.

The highpoint was a gripping interpretation of Johnny Cash's "25 Minutes to Go". The lowpoint was when the sudden switches from hyper-intense primal screaming to polite piano waltzing elicited some chuckles from the audience, and put her in danger of becoming a self-parodic freak show.

But the whole event came as a relief. On Galas's new album, Shrei X (Mute), she dispenses with the piano and the tunes, and leaves us with a record so extreme that it's physically impossible to listen to more than once. Her concert was almost a lullaby in comparison.

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