Julian Cope

London Astoria

Pop's Tony Benn looks at the faithful with a self-mocking smirk. Like the MP, has been cut loose from the main party, marginalised for consistent dissent. Briefly a rival for Duran Duran when he fronted The Teardrop Explodes, Cope doesn't have a contract now. He ripped up the pop star rule book so long ago, he must have seen it coming.

Like Benn, his principles have always gone a step too far for the general public. More directly committed to political battles than any current star, he's been prominent at road protests and associated struggles in the '90s. But it was his last Top of the Pops appearance, wearing only a nightshirt, too strange to stomach, that did for him. That, and the self-indulgence that creeps into albums when only your fans are left listening.

There aren't many new converts tonight. Ex-punks and pop fans glance at pockets of dreadlocked protestors, but really, this fringe meeting is one of unified souls. Cope seems freed by the knowledge. He shakes hands as he strolls on, recognises almost every individual. He knows that while the charts may be barred to him for now, his faithful are enough to let him do what he wants - like this impromptu tour, finishing tonight, just him and a couple of instruments. He talks almost as much as he sings, bursting with news not of records, but of the book he's almost finished, about standing stones. It's those pagan, ritualistic qualities that he relies on tonight. With no preordained set, everything depends on us. He's walked out on a high wire, and we have to keep him up.

It doesn't always seem worth it. With full licence from fans who, when he takes a sip of water, tell him to turn it into wine, Cope's wit sometimes lets him down. It feels like a folk meeting, casual banter amongst friends, less than most people want from pop. It's an old Teardrops song, perhaps inevitably, that first lights the touchpaper. "I'm not singing any of my old choruses that make me sound like I have a low IQ," he claims. But for Beautiful Love, beautifully sung, he makes an exception. The crowd step in when he falters, and the night starts to make sense.

Then, on Upwards at 45 degrees, Cope reminds us what he can really do. His acoustic guitar stops halfway through, then suddenly it's electric, and his voice is a howl, the first song treated seriously enough to cast the spell he must always intend. When Cope one day returns from his fans-only break, and pop fans turn back to him, magic like that will be the reward.

Nick Hasted