Music: Heading for a Fall

The Fall, New York City

So what'll we do when he's dead, Mark E Smith? All those ciggies, all those cans in the park, and who knows what he eats - he can't be healthy. Seeing his ruined, gurning face in the flesh is a reminder of how much England will miss her greatest pop lyricist when he checks out.

On an East Village stage not big enough to swing a cat, let alone a microphone stand, The Fall have just kicked off their first American tour for two years. After the support act, the crowd of about 250 suffered an unexplained half hour of tedious drum and bass recordings. Tension grew - had he sacked the band, as he did in Northern Ireland last year? Had he locked himself away in some Bowery hotel? Eventually the band crept on at 1am, Smith sporting a black eye, or possibly a large sty.

Despite these omens, this was a professional performance, unlike some of shambles of the early Nineties. Although he took a few minutes during "Spencer Must Die" (from the last CD, Levitate) to find his balance, by the time they got to the slow-motion pop of "Masquerade" they were quite a unit.

The Fall classic, "Hip Priest", came disguised at 33 rpm and with a new, ugly melody which made it sound like one of Talk Talk's experiments (the downside of the Can connection?), but this is what you pay for. From his vast repertoire of songs (27 albums and counting) Smith is allowed to choose a mixture of whatever will keep him interested and whatever he can remember. Not that diehard fans are easily baffled - in a disturbing development, some have started to applaud the opening bars of reworked songs, like jazz hipsters.

"Lie Dream of a Casino Soul" - another Fall standard - was tight and chunky. Smith had either got the sound right first time, or there was little in the way of knobs and switches to fiddle with. Surprisingly, he stayed on stage for most of the show - possibly because there were no speaker stacks to hide behind, and the backstage area was the size of a closet.

Mostly it was a restrained performance, the most energetic rants being saved for "The Chiselers" and the encore, "Behind The Counter", a song about poor service. As far as service went, it's been a lot worse. But The Fall might not be around forever. "I'll be back soon," said Smith as he departed. "Get a job as a stage hand." England without him is unthinkable, but we might as well start preparing.

`Smith on Smith', a spoken word CD featuring self-penned stories and lyrics is released on Artful on 27 April. The Fall play live: 27, 28 April, London, Camden Dingwalls.