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Good? Bad? A Tricky question

Being the bass player for Tricky must be the most bor-ing job in the world. At least the drummer, at the deceptively named Brixton Fridge on Monday, got to muck about with some disorientated, stumbling beats. For the bassist, each song meant repeating the same simple pattern until exhaustion set in, while the guitarist's contribution to each song was to tune up.

Not that the musicians had any right to feel hard done-by. Vocalist Martina, her hair in Bjork-ish bunches, had few melodies to work with either, and Tricky's own raps sounded like long, Bob Fleming-style attempts to clear his throat. You need Tunes, mate - in more senses than one.

The dark prince of trip-hop had rearranged his songs for a new live band (tapes and samples were still left to do most of the work), but this concession to the medium could go only so far, given that there wasn't much there to rearrange in the first place: he seems to have made most of the noises on his new album, Pre-Millennium Tension (Island), by muttering to himself while banging and scratching a rusty pipe. Play the record at night with your headphones on, and at least half of the mantric songs will sound like claustrophobic, addictive soul music for the damned. Hear those same songs live, and they sound like some sort of steam-powered lawn-mower grinding to a halt. When he wasn't playing something from his stunning, seminal debut, Maxinquaye, the audience's mutter- ings nearly drowned out his own.

But Tricky doesn't care about his audience. Proving that the influence of the Gallaghers knows no bounds, he has replaced his dress and his make-up with an anorak. He rocks back and forth on his heels, both of his hands gripping the microphone for dear life, his eyes scrunched shut, focused completely on whatever strange beasties lurk inside his head. He follows his vision with total commitment - which is why he can be so thrilling, and also why he can be so dull.

Being in Sheryl Crow's band, on the other hand, must be quite fun. They get to play some decent bluesy-country rock songs. They get to try differ- ent instruments: a keyboard player can have a shot at percussion, a guitarist can switch to mandolin. And even though they're a shower of wet-behind- the-ears rent-a-musicians who chat among themselves all evening, they were rarely upstaged by the star of Tuesday's show at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Maybe Crow spent too many years as a backing vocalist for the likes of Michael Jackson and Don Henley, but I did find myself wondering how a woman could have the longest legs in pop, a Judge Dredd jaw and hair that should star in a shampoo ad, and yet could still have no stage presence whatsoever; and how someone who writes deeply felt eulogies for people who have been cheated and let down by life can seem so distracted as she sings them.

Crow came to life only when she put down her guitar and ripped into an emotional "Run, Baby, Run", complete with a cod-jazz extended cadence to finish. Three songs later, however, her ennui returned, ensuring in the process that the show could never be more than fairly satisfactory. In future she should play fewer songs, and try to look as if she's enjoying herself. Oh, and she should ask that Clapton bloke, who livened up the encores, to play for the whole set.

Erasure, finally, didn't have any band at all, a pair of backing vocalists excepted. Vince Clarke just pressed a button on his Tardis-like control- console every now and then, and the spangly techno pumped out of its own accord. No change there, then. The surprise was not the absence of musicians from the Forum on Wednesday, but the absence of swans, giant Venus Flytraps, hot-air balloons and inflatable snails. This was Erasure's low-key, low-budget "Tiny Tour" (they're back in venues the size of caravan sites next year), which meant that we had to make do with a mirrorball, a kaleidoscopic lightshow, a bubble machine, a tangle of light-emitting cables and an under-rated soul singer who wears, in turn, a clinging, strappy evening dress (which should really stay in the wardrobe until he does something about that stomach), a pair of camouflage pyjamas, and a floor-sweeping, yellow fake-fur coat.

Moving as if someone had poured half a dozen eels down his trousers, Andy Bell quickly whipped up the Forum into a festive office party, and "Oh, L'Amour" and "A Little Respect" acquitted themselves admirably against Erasure's versions of disco's finest moments: Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass" ("I Will Survive" would have completed the triumvirate). All in all, a triumphant return to the days when it was club records that had the big, singalong melodies and indie records that took a while to get used to.