Misery never made you feel so good

"WHERE'VE YA been?" yelled a hoarsely desperate voice when The Blue Nile took the stage at Manchester's rather rococo Opera House last Sunday. It was a fair question, and one that Glaswegian Paul Buchanan - the band's prime mover - fielded sheepishly. "Ah'm not gonnae tangle wi' any Manchester wits," he mumbled, before explaining: "Ooh - here and there."

In fact, Buchanan's been here and there for about seven years, the gap between the band's last LP, Hats, and this summer's release, Peace at Last (Warners); before Hats, the faithful had waited six years for a follow-up to 1983's exquisite debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops. Buchanan is a man to whom time matters little, however. His lyrics tangle words like "bureau" and "typewriter", "stars", "steeples" and "confetti"; his vignettes could be happening now or somewhere in an ochre-tinted past. The moments of epiphany he paints are more moving than poetry, yet the phrasing couldn't be simpler or less pretentious.

Buchanan, it has been observed, articulates a particularly male need to elevate self-pity to the level of heroic suf- fering. There are those who call him a whining misery guts. What such sad sacks have missed is Buchanan's equally strong sense of joyous abandon to rapture, the possibility of glimpsing beauty in rain, in dirty neon, in a dark cityscape seen from a late-night train.

Which is to say that the set was not brooding, but uplifting. Three guitars, drums and two synthesiser banks proved that, though the songs seem pared to the level of haiku, their deceptive distillation is wrought by layer on layer of faultlessly timed breaks and samples. "Peace at Last" has Buchanan in sensual mood, slurring and crooning almost as viscerally as Marvin Gaye or John Martyn, while there's a deep, calm and funky groove to "Sentimental Man" and the meditative "Happiness".

Buchanan's sojourn in LA has pushed him towards a more acoustic format that adds depth and maturity to his music, and if one or two tracks don't yet sit easily, a fascination with the wah-wah pedal coupled with his grainy voice (half Tom Waits, half Sinatra) turned "God Bless You Kid", for example, into convincing Memphis blues.

But it remained early gems that conveyed the Blue Nile essence - "Over the Hillside", with its lonesome trumpet (synthesised, but who'd know?), drums like the painful systole and diastole of a heartbeat, and a promise that "The ferry will be there/ To carry us away into the air"; or the haunted "Let's Go Out Tonight", a prayer of wishing and hoping. Acknowledging a standing ovation, Buchanan seemed genuinely surprised, modestly assuring someone asking about tickets for Glasgow that after the first night there'd surely be returns.

After the encore - Buchanan's solo, iridescent "Easter Parade" - there wasn't a dry eye in the house. On the way out, amid the jeans and T-shirts, a tough cookie in a dress and bouffant was mopping his face with a tissue, his friend declaring triumphantly, "And t'think, I'ad ter nag 'im ter come".

Like Buchanan, Lyle Lovett has ploughed his own wayward furrow for more than a decade without suffering mass consumption. He surfaced with the crop of mavericks that the Eighties dubbed "New Country", though most turned out to be too sparky for Nashville's chicken-wire enclosure; like kd lang, Lovett's music barely gets played on bluegrass radio. He twists country's cliched schmaltz, taking a wry rise out of those cowboy and Kentucky mamas who treat it as gospel, mixing irony and sensitivity. His sixth album, The Road to Ensenada (MCA), returns him to his roots, with reflections on home and motivation. Though Lovett's long on absurdist humour, he's dealing both with a messy divorce (from Julia Roberts) and his father dying of cancer, so some of that seeped through the hangar-like Hall 4 of Glasgow's SECC on Tuesday. The show began with the separatist hymn "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)", all hillbilly banjo and slap bass, then got loose about love on "One-Eyed Fiona", a howl of passion for a 6ft 9in woman with soft skin, a weird family and a truly singular gaze. The Large Band jived and doo- wopped, though as a dancer, Lovett himself makes a fine clothes-peg, barely moving knock- kneed legs, loose as stilts in his trousers. He dismissed about a dozen players for the starker acoustic numbers, pouring out remorse on tunes like "It Ought to Be Easier", whose earnest words - "I look at you when you're sleeping and think how different it would be/ If you'd open your eyes and just hold me" - surrounded by ghostly fiddle and gently brushed drums, seemed a relevant confession of failed love. Stepping coolly through gospel, be-bop, blues and big-band swing, and winding up with the revivalist "Let's Go Eat", this didn't seem the guy who admitted: "Writing songs is the hardest thing in the world. I feel pretty much dumb as a post."

Mary Chapin Carpenter, on the other hand, is the Ivy League princess of C&W, peppering descriptions of her work with references to angsty novelist John Cheever, and banging on about catharsis. An East Coast liberal, Carpenter followed Lovett on stage to sing about women biting back, about resilience and loneliness and a little lust. On tracks like the redemptive "Jubilee" and a magical "End of My Pirate Days", her rich alto movingly intimate, she proved herself the Candia McWilliam of country. When it comes to melody, however, she tends to lose the plot, one number sounding perilously like another. Tracks like Lucinda Williams's "Passionate Kisses" were a welcome change of tempo, but too often when she pens "upbeat" herself - "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" - it comes out like Belinda Carlisle. And nobody brainy wants that.

The Blue Nile: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (0141 332 6633), tonight & Tues; Edinburgh Usher Hall (0131 228 1155), Thurs; Oxford Apollo (01865 244544), Sat; Palladium, W1 (0171 494 5020), Sun 6 Oct; then touring to 13 Oct. Nicholas Barber returns next week.