POP REVIEWS / It's finger-licking hip: The absence of the main men makes the musicians appear rather like puppets cut free of their masters

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The Independent Online
One of the few points of convergence between BBC 2's Late Review and commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken must be the music of US3; finger-licking portions of their catchy 'Cantaloop' can be heard in both. While it may be a testimony to the success of the music's formula that it has managed to appeal to such different audiences, it's tempting to feel that its main purchase is with the commissioning media execs, who get to feel cool by proxy.

But these days even cars are being sold against the background of jazz-rap soundtracks, and US3 have shifted far more chicken than could ever have been predicted from their initial cult success. The operation has a lot of corporate credibility, too: the two men behind the concept, muso Mel Simpson and disc jockey Geoff Wilkinson, having perfected the brand, now franchise it out to the rappers and jazzers who go on tour without them. Who knows, if demand persists, perhaps further groups could be employed, like the multiple touring casts of popular musicals, to take the product around the world.

Like Becker and Fagen of Steely Dan, whose greatest hits provided the pre-gig sounds for this concert, Simpson and Wilkinson are the production-house brains behind the music. But at least Becker and Fagen turned up. The absence of the main men makes the musicians appear rather like puppets cut free of their masters yet still tied, frustratingly, to the original script. In an early gig, eight months or so ago, the band sounded rough, the gap between recorded concept and live performance glaringly evident. Now, with a lot of shows and a couple of personnel changes behind them, they sound slicker but the gap is still there; where one expects the changes to kick in with the sleek dependability of a sequencer, there's a clunky gear- shift's jump instead. As they play the album and nothing but, and there is little evidence of departure from the guiding template, this is a serious flaw. Only with the subliminally familiar 'Cantaloop', late in the short set, does the show really take off.

Visually it's a rap gig, with the Brooklyn duo of Kobie Powell and Rahsaan criss-crossing the stage with radio mikes in hand, pumping up the audience with braggadocio phrases, though they come across as nice boys really. It's left to the third rapper, Tukka Yoot, from Hitchin, Herts, to make the show. On the Horace Silver-derived 'Eleven Long Years' - whose theme was also cannibalised by Steely Dan for 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' - he animates the static stage picture with rude-boy dance moves that push the by now tired act on to a new level. For the musicians, Ed Jones on saxes excels, but so he should - he's perhaps the best British player of his generation, though here the strain of having to sound funky all the time robs him of his true range.

The concept remains engaging; the album was great and the new disc of jazz mixes is a very good remould, but US3 live is a bit of an ersatz experience, like hearing old Top of the Pops albums where studio musicians attempted to recapture the feel of real chart hits.