Not a very good year for the Roses

The Critics: ROCK

Everyone cheered when the Stone Roses took the stage last Sunday night at the Reading Festival. I'm not sure why. They took five years to come up with their second-rate second album, and since then they have gone from weakness to weakness. First their drummer left, and now their guitarist (who was also the principal songwriter) has gone too. With the arrival of his substitute, Aziz Ibrahim, and a keyboard player, Nigel Ippinson, the band may still be called the Stone Roses, but fewer than half of its members have appeared on the records that bear that name on their sleeves. The enthusiastic reception at Reading was that of a crowd of Beatles' fans who didn't realise they were at a Wings concert. However, as it turned out, the trouble wasn't that there were too few original Roses present, but that there was one too many.

"I Wanna Be Adored" tumbled and rolled towards us for one blissful minute. Then the singing started. People gaped at each other in disbelief, quickly covering their mouths to hide their grimaces and stifle their laughter. Ian Brown, sadly, did not cover his. The comments began soon after, of which "I wanna be in tune!" and "It's karaoke night!" best captured the mood of the crowd. Brown wasn't too bad when he kept his vocals down to a murmur, but when he bellowed the refrains of "Adored" and "I Am the Resurrection", out came the most appalling, flat bawl to lurch from a speaker anywhere since, well, the Roses' last tour. This could explain the gap between albums. I can well believe that it took them five years to obtain an LP's worth of vocals that didn't blow up the tape machine.

Ibrahim - unbelievably, once of Simply Red - did a proficient John Squire impersonation, and omitted the hour-long solos with which Squire overburdened his songs the last time round. And what songs they are. If nothing else, the show reminded us that "She Bangs the Drum", "Waterfall" and "Made of Stone" are simple, mysterious, spiritual, rapturous pieces of music, which not even the counterfeit Stone Roses could sully completely.

It was all quite sad. People would applaud whenever a signature introductory funky beat or volcanic riff enabled them to name that tune, but those beats and riffs were devised by someone else, and devised nearly a decade ago. A new song, "High Time", was a fairly encouraging slice of springy country-rock, and there was some attempt to pep up the show with another new member - a mini-skirted disco dancer. Mani supplied distinctive, economical bass, but, harsh as it may seem, at the end of the day, he is just the bassist. Brown reaffirmed his place in pop history as the proto-Liam: a tambourine man with glazed cool and cheekbones pushing their way through his skin. But he, at the end of the day, is a singer, and by definition a singer has to sing, and a band has to release albums, or else they become a joke. People cheered when the Stone Roses left the stage. I'm not sure why.

Friday's headliners were The Prodigy, whose computer-generated, rave- derived take on heavy rock is not really summer-festival fare. In these surroundings, they don't sound either loud or frightening enough, and don't look it, either. Maybe we've seen Keith Flint in one too many magazines, but now his troll-guise - horns of green hair, tartan suit and more body piercings than Saint Sebastian - comes across not as provocative but as endearingly silly. The group's other rabble rouser, Maxim Reality, who confines his metal to his teeth and a gauntlet on one arm, spent an hour snarling: "Rock! Rock'n'roll! We are here to rock!" Perhaps you are, Max, but it's a stadium cliche to keep informing us of the fact, however advanced the techno textures behind you. Only "Firestarter", fortified by Flint's delirious vocals and a cartoon punk guitarist, was as truly berserk as the rest of the set wanted to be.

Still, The Prodigy deserved their promotion over the band that had been due to top the bill, Rage Against the Machine. RATM's agit-prop funk-metal has some inventive guitar work that places it beyond the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but still, when the crowd all roared along with the slogan "F*** you, I won't do what you tell me," it did remind me of the communal shout of "We are all individuals" in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Ice T knew that a muddy field in the afternoon sun - and a bit of afternoon rain - wasn't the time or place to be grave and atmospheric, so he proceeded to have a laugh, with a winningly self- parodic hippy-gangsta pantomime performance. Introducing himself as "your host, O J Simpson," he rapped a greatest hits set over stark, minimalist beats; he rewrote "We Are the World" as a proudly sophomoric sexual brag; and he shamelessly got the crowd on his side by claiming that we British were "crazier than niggers in South Central" - I bet you say that to all the Rage Against the Machine fans. He was later to be seen playing Scalextric backstage. Oh - and this is as important as it may sound trivial - it was the only rap show I've attended where I've been able to make out all the words.

And so, without further ado, we come to the moment you've all been waiting for, the Independent on Sunday's Reading Festival Awards.

Best Mud-Throwing Fight with the Audience: the Butthole Surfers.

Best Impromptu Beatles Song in Response to the Weather: Kula Shaker, who easily outclassed Dodgy's a cappella couplet from "Here Comes the Sun" with an unrehearsed run through "Rain".

Best Description of the Weather: Billy Bragg. "It's like the Labour Party, it might go this way, it might go that way, it can't make up its mind."

Most Dramatic Transformation: Moby, the former techno-meister, now a Black Sabbath-covering thrash-metal demon, complete with swear word scrawled on his bare chest.

Least Suitable Name for a Twinkling, Sexy Guitar Band: Catatonia.

Best Dancer: The boy in the comedy tent, convinced by a hypnotist that he was Michael Jackson.

Least Satisfied Customer: Mark Thomas, booked for the comedy tent at precisely the time that his very favourite band, Sonic Youth, were on the main stage.

Worst Guest Appearance: Black Grape. Indulging Keith Allen's rock-star fantasies is one thing. Marring one of your most gloriously rowdy shows by sharing a stage with Chris Evans, though...? Shaun, you have done some disreputable things in the past, but this one takes the gingernut.

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