Hitting the notes with a Sledge hammer

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BY THE looks of Percy Sledge's band, I'd be surprised if they'd all left school - primary school in the case of the trumpeter. Sledge himself, though, is now 55: a compact teddy bear squeezed into a tuxedo, with a bowl of tight curls so apparently fake that you end up thinking that they must be real. His voice is showing its age, too. At the start of the show it's constricted, almost nasal, certainly not the nimble, expressive instrument that you hear daily in jeans commercials and film soundtracks. But it expands throughout the eve-ning, and reveals subtleties that are more than a match for most other singers' voices - if not for its former self. If you do see Sledge in concert, I urge you not to mar the experience by listening to any of his old records beforehand.

Despite the tiny audience (it was Monday, the first of his six nights at the Jazz Cafe), he sings with gleeful warmth. On "Take Time to Know Her", he delivers the lines, "I came home early one night/ there she was kissing on another man," with such a beaming face that you'd think he'd been trying to get shot of her for years.

But not much of the material belongs to him. The first song he recorded, in 1966, was "When a Man Loves a Woman". For Sledge, it's been downhill all the way since then. A few tracks from his reasonable new album, Blue Night, get an airing, but the whoop that greets them is less a sign of their popularity than of the number of Virgin Records employees in the building.

And so he has to tick off the tracks on your Essential Soul Collection CD. Preceding each number with, "I want to pay tribute to one of the most greatest friends I ever had", be it Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett or Ben E King, he sings "My Girl", "At the Dark End of the Street", "In the Midnight Hour", "Stand By Me" and "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay". Some of the century's best popular songs interpreted by a mature and distinctive artist, or a hasbeen's revue? Sledge knows his limitations, and restricts himself almost entirely to tried and tested, steady, hymnal classics. He is one-trick Percy, and while that trick is always entertaining it only becomes truly magical with "When a Man Loves a Woman". On that, he hits the notes with such power, authority and accuracy that they are left in no fit state to be sung by anyone else again.

He also performed "A Whiter Shade of Pale" - basically "When a Man Loves a Woman" on acid - which is a bit like George Harrison covering an Oasis song. As the coda wended its stately way, Sledge flipped through a mental atlas: "Belgium! Sweden! Canada! Africa! America! Yeah, I guess I musta sung it all over the world! So many memories ..." All told, this was a show more intent on bringing back memories than on making them.

Cast stand, tap their feet, and, on occasion, move around, in front of a banner that reminds us that their concert heralds the Brat Awards. The Brats were instigated by the NME in disgust at the industry's own annual champagne-quaffing session, the Brits, but this year's Brit and Brat nominations are so similar that the only way you'll be able to tell the award ceremonies apart is by seeing which one Chris Evans presents. British indie music is now as mainstream and commercial as production-line disco.

Cast are a case in point. Their singles, "Finetime", "Alright" and their current bisyllabic hit, "Sandstorm", are as wonderfully catchy as those of, say, Kylie Minogue back in her girl-next-door phase. The only differences are that the chirpy tunes on All Change (Polydor) are wrapped in Seventies rock guitar and Sergeant Pepper harmonies, and the leader of the group, John Power, used to be in the late, lamented La's. Kylie's lyrics were probably better than Power's, though: "Let me take you by the hand/ Try to understand/ Walk me to a land," etc. (Always tricky finding words that rhyme with "hand", although "bland" springs to mind for some reason.) Cast may be a Liverpudlian four-piece with an abrasive-voiced singer-songwriter- guitarist called John, but they are the Monkees to Oasis's Beatles.

When Kylie was described as the girl next door, people said they wished she lived next door to them. Cast, however, might well live next door to you; you just won't have noticed. They're lads in baggy jeans and untucked shirts who hardly speak to the crowd, or even have the good grace to snarl contemptuously at them, as Oasis do. Engulfed in white smoke and strobe lights, they still don't look like rock gods: they look like the boys next door with toast burning and a dodgy bulb socket. You expect them to put on a show? You should be so lucky.

"Who's Charlie Dore?" a woman asked a bouncer at London's Borderline. "Is he like Jim Door, I mean, Jim Morrison?" Not exactly. For a start, he's a she. The reason you haven't heard of her is that her last hit, "Pilot of the Airwaves", was in 1979. Since then she has founded a comedy club, acted alongside the likes of Eric Idle and Jonathan Pryce, and knocked out some lucrative songs along the way, including Jimmy Nail's number one, "Ain't No Doubt" - and a track for Celine Dion. This may be a crime that warrants banishment from the music business, but even when writing for the Canadian warbler, Dore is more thoughtful than other, more credible artists - Cast being just one example.

Wednesday's show marked the completion of her first album for 13 years, Things Change (Black Ink), a collection of tastefully crafted, grown-up pop songs, with twists of country, funk and reggae. It's not often that you hear so many new songs that could make it into the Top 15. If she had the right name and the right marketing, she would nearly outsell the dread Dion.

On stage at the Borderline, Dore is lean, with heavy eyelids and sharp features, like a computer-generated composite of Chrissie Hynde and Cher, and the voice of a chorister. Her band are middle-aged men in black T-shirts, but we can forgive them on the grounds that they, like their leader, know exactly what they're doing. She may seem to be a fantasy dreamt up by Q magazine, and her songs may not quite touch your heart ... but just try getting them out of your head.