Roads, runes and loony tunes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I'VE been to Newbury and I've been bringing a bit of glamour to that scene," said Julian Cope, his grin as wide as a motorway. You have to take your jester's cap off to him, it takes a special man to bring glamour to a woodland bypass demo. Just look at Ozric Tentacles, Cope's support act (although with Cope-ish logic, he went on first) at this fundraising gig at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. They need a psychedelic light show to distract attention from their crusty beards and draggled dreadlocks. None of that for Cope. He stands and dances alone, a scraggy imp with a long Mohican (which he describes, perfectly, as an inverted Neil Young haircut), and a reflective yellow jacket with the word "polite" in place of "police".

He needs no band to augment his songs, either. Cope played a 90-minute solo acoustic set of oldies ("Julian H Cope", "Trampoline"), newies ("Try Try Try") and brand newies ("The Battle for the Trees"). Even if his material is busked, it's strong enough to - well, cope. He sounds like a fired-up Lou Reed; or Bob Dylan, even - except that Cope wouldn't revisit Highway 61, he'd protest against it, and he has succeeded in losing his marbles without losing his talent.

But that's a cliche: Julian as the rocker off-his-rocker, the tree-hugger out of his tree. It seems that all you have to do is mention ley lines in a few interviews, and you get marked down as a few runes short of a stone circle. Isn't madness being confused here with rampant creativity, the flamboyant persona of a dandy, and the libertarian boldness to wink in the face of convention? Is Cope to be labelled a loon because he spurns traditional Hello-Cleveland-do-you-wanna-rock banter in favour of the more individual "Do you want another rant against monotheism?" Or because he recites his Sting poem ("I must defend Sting, as a former member of the Police myself. No, a former member of The Teardrop Explodes")? Because when he presented Top of the Pops the programme received more complaints than it had ever done before? Or because he can work a crowd so assuredly, and if all else fails, he can kiss the people in it, one by one? Yes, I was right the first time, he is a loon, and whatever planet he is on is a better place for it.

The Saw Doctors started their "Same Oul' Town" tour on Monday at the Reading Hexagon. It was the same oul' thing: sturdy rock/folk songs that are the musical equivalent of a few pints of Guinness in a County Galway bar. They give you the urge to hug someone, tear off your green rugby top and call out for that track about fancying Susannah Hoffs from the Bangles. In among the romance and nostalgia there are political lyrics - about women sailing to Britain for abortions ("Everyday") and the iniquities of fish farming (erm, "Fishy Fishy"). But even these songs are so rousing, good-natured and richly lyrical that the audience is buoyed up on waves of happiness.

The audience is a key part of this show. The Doctors themselves are five casual, jeans-wearing fellows from Tuam, "the smallest city in Europe", who do without a magnetic, megalomaniac frontman. But their ceilidh music is critic-proof. It's beyond fashion (the Doctors will never be "in"), just so long as the fans can football-chant along, note for note. And they do, even on the songs from the album released on the day of the concert. This may be because there's no great change in style from one song to the next, but that in turn may be down to the consistency of the group's writing. When they're good, they're very very good, and when they're bad, they're very very good, too. One pint of Guinness is not that different from another, either, I suppose. And with the Saw Doctors you don't have a hangover the next morning.

The Mutton Birds are often compared to Crowded House, in part because of their melodious choruses, but mainly because no one can think of any other band that comes from New Zealand. The second recurrent analogy is early REM, and at London's Borderline on Tuesday, this one made more sense. The Mutton Birds have the same overlapping, drifting vocals and that brittle, trebly, banjo-like guitar. The main difference is that their lyrics are vastly superior to Michael Stipe's. Don McGlashan would be an estimable storyteller in any medium, and the characterisation and poetry of "A Thing Well Made" are as deep as those of any rock lyrics I can remember. The music rarely equals the words, but judging by REM's progress, the Mutton Birds will make up the gap in an album or two.

Oh, sorry, you wanted to know about the concert? Well, it was fine. They played their songs well enough. They're unencumbered by charisma, but they do have a theremin and a euphonium, and you don't see those every gig of the week. The Mutton Birds weren't much to look at, but I'm looking forward to their next-but-one album already.

Saw Doctors: Aberdeen Music Hall (01224 632080), Mon; Newcastle City Hall (0191 261 2606), Tues; Nottingham Rock City (0115 9412544), Wed; Shepherd's Bush Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), Fri; Portsmouth Guildhall (01705 824355), Sat; then touring.

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