After spending an age or two in the queue at the Empire door, we seemed to have gone back in time. In the band were Patti Smith Group veterans Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, but one old associate stood out (while sitting down). On a chair at the edge of the stage was - tremble at his name - Tom Verlaine. His playing on Smith's comeback album, Gone Again (Arista), is barely audible, but on Wednesday his long fingers tweaked out trebly, floating glimmers and barbed, neurotic noises worthy of his Television albums in the 1970s.
Apart from some silver hair, and a face even more angular and stern than it used to be, Smith's androgynous, boho-hobo look hasn't changed since then. She wore an untucked, unironed white shirt as she did on the iconic cover of Horses 20 years ago. Indeed, judging by the state of it, it could well have been the same shirt. Her cathartic performance reminds you where it is that Polly Harvey is coming from, and where she may be going. Manic and shamanic, Smith shakes her fists like a crazed dictator inciting the masses, except in her case, the message is that "We're all leaders". And she does love a good message. When she wasn't singing she was delivering impassioned lectures on the issues of the day, from Aids awareness to a misleading article in a music magazine to the state of her laundry.
Otherwise, it was more or less a textbook example of how to put on a great concert. First, there was the responsive banter with the audience (for someone who is touring an album in memory of Fred Sonic Smith, her husband for 15 years, she's remarkably perky, always ready to mock either herself or a heckler). Second, she chose songs from all parts of her career, to construct a varied programme of raw, dirty, challenging music. Reggae followed mystic folk chant. All-out rocker - "Because the Night", co-written by Bruce Springsteen - followed poem. Mystic reggae followed all-out rocker with poem read over the top. Third, there was the judicious selection of cover versions. "Smoke on the Water" can be forgiven as a maternal indulgence, especially when we were later treated to a vicious assault on Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger", and the Doors' "Crystal Ship", accompanied by Daugherty and Kaye on acoustic guitars, and with the lyrics subtly adapted - and improved.
Fourth, there was the surprise guest, and we did the timewarp again. John Cale, who produced Horses, joined in on bass for "Land" and "Gloria". The dapper Velvet Undergrounder didn't know the chords, and with four guitarists and another bassist cranking them out, we couldn't hear him anyway, but I didn't care. Seeing Cale, Verlaine and Smith on the same stage was a fan-fantasy that won't be matched until it's legal to clone dead rock stars.
A flawless show? Well, no, there were flaws aplenty, but none which didn't endear Smith to the audience. After repeatedly fluffing a solo rendition of "Farewell Reel", she announced that the concert was being taped, adding wryly: "And I wonder if this song'll make it. No, it'll have to be our private memory." If the rest of the concert makes it on to a live album, it could well be her best record.
The night before, Phil Woolsey, singer/guitarist of Portadown four-piece Joy Rider was embarrassed. Not for the obvious reason that the fans who pushed each other in time to the music were gauche adolescent headbangers in oversized Ned's Atomic Dustbin T-shirts, but because these same fans might disapprove of Joy Rider's current chart success. Even a spokesman from the band's record company calls their punk-pop cover of Jane Wiedlin's "Rush Hour" a "novelty" single, and at London's Splash Club Woolsey dismissed it with Irish irony: "Our material has become dead poppy because we've sold out. Top of the Pops and all that. Robbie Williams, he's our mate."
If you judge Joy Rider by their debut album, Be Special (Paradox), this attitude is understandable. The lyrics seethe with embittered outsider resentment, while the music is encased in doomy thrash metal, and coated in a layer of Bob Mould. But in concert, "Rush Hour" isn't any more poppy than the rest of Joy Rider's material. On each song, sparky verses hurl you towards choruses that spin with teeny-bop melodies and harmonies. For all I know, the lyrics may still be more angst- ridden than joyridden, but the music is as bouncy as a motorised pogo stick, and all the better for it. Woolsey's voice is lighter, too, emptied of the affectedly careworn heavy-metal gravel that drags it down on Be Special. The superbly tight band are reminiscent of the Foo Fighters, especially as they fulfil the hairstyle quota as specified by the Grunge Musicians' Union: one member has bleached spikes and another has a goatee. Joy Rider would seem to have been computer-designed to sell millions in America.
Before they sell millions in Britain, though, they need to develop, in the manner of comparable Northern Irish bands like Therapy? (whose patronage got Joy Rider their record deal in the first place) and Ash. They need to write some songs that don't sound the same as all the others before they will really transport the listener. For now, they transport you in the manner of a skateboard careering down a hill, which is not a bad start.