ROCK : Music for people who prefer mush to Pulp

ANYONE who has read The Ice Opinion, the thoughts of Ice-T, will know that the controversial rapper is a liberal spokesman for leniency and understanding. But at least once in the book, his tolerance becomes intolerable. To wit: "People accept it if it's real. Michael Bolton wins best r'n'b artist because it's not about colour to a lot of people. It's a matter of if you accomplish what you say you're going to accomplish, and Bolton sings his f---ing heart out." Not even a mention of his long- back-and-short-sides, a haircut that even Andre Agassi has given up as a bad job.

I can almost see Ice-T's point, though. At Wembley Arena on Wednesday, Bolton grunted and growled through "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" with so much heart that you'd think that sittin' around wastin' time was the most intense and emotionally draining of all human experiences. His voice is technically impeccable, but the lyrics might as well be in a foreign language for all the distinction he draws between one song and another. (No wonder he mastered an aria from I Pagliacci so easily.) Whichever classic falls into his grasp - "When a Man Loves a Woman", "To Love Somebody" - it will be mushed into MOR soft rock.

Bolton is the Kevin Costner of pop, the male Celine Dion. Hair aside, he is as innocuous as a cardboard cut-out. One song in this Greatest Hits show seemed to hint at a less bland side: "I Said I Loved You But I Lied". What's this? Bolton's square-jawed face twisted in- to a callous sneer as he slings out some groupie who fell for the oldest line in the book? Nope: " 'Cause love could never ever be this strong." Should have guessed.

In place of soul or showmanship, Bolton wheeled on the concert standbys. There is, for instance, an old cabaret trick of enlivening a song by changing key halfway through. The music moves up a tone, and the sudden rise in pitch brings about a concomitant rise in excitement. Corny, but all well and good in its place. Bolton used this rousing gimmick no fewer than six times.

Tick off the other cliches. Popping up on a tiny plat- form halfway down the arena, so that those at the back who had been watching a tiny dot for most of the show could see a slightly bigger dot for one song. A choir of foreigners in their colourful ethnic robes trooping on to add some gospel harmonies to "Time, Love and Tenderness". The fizzle of giant sparklers at the close of the set. So, he made an effort, and his fans got their money's worth. But I yearned for the danger and and imagination of Phil Collins.

"Anyone here heard of Baby Bird?" asked Steven Jones. "One or two?" At most, was the response, but more people have heard of Baby Bird than have heard them. While there are only 3,000 copies of their CDs available, each of these copies seems to have generated another column inch of press coverage, probably because each contains almost as many musical genres. They are the lo-fi, shoestring work of one man, the aforementioned Mr Jones, who combines the voice of Vic Reeves with the looks and manner of Eddie Izzard. Three-fifths of the way through his programme of releasing five limited-edition CDs in under a year, he writes an album in the time it takes the Stone Roses to do a photo-session. So far, they have spilled over with cracked brilliance, thrillingly silly rhymes and dreamily minimal music.

Now Jones's one-man band has hatched into a bona fide pop combo. On Thursday, they were in a north-London ballroom, supporting another group who consist of one person on record and five people live, the Lightning Seeds (the Bird-Seed Show?). Unfortunately, you get more sonic variation and better production from his four-track demo tapes than from five musicians. Part of Jones's stage persona is to act as if he doesn't care about the songs, but the effect was lost somewhat: the crowd, waiting for the Lightning Seeds, didn't care either. "You sort-of kind-of sort-of-ish enjoyed Baby Bird," he said at the end of the set, and he was right.

Pulp are just about the only band whose quality of performance is in direct proportion to the dimensions of the auditorium, so we knew we were in for a fine evening at Wembley Arena at the end of their first mega- venue tour. But no one could have known just how fine it would be. Jarvis Cocker is simply the most charismat- ic British pop star of the Nineties, whether chatting drolly, singing songs which are already classics, or dancing like a short-circuiting robot playing keepy-uppy with an invisible football. The other members of Pulp (yes, they do exist) seemed happy to stand back, look vaguely weird, and let him get on with it. None of them is as flash on his or her instrument as anyone in Blur, say, but the orchestration is ingenious and the whole is greater than the complicated sum of the parts. See Pulp now or be prepared to explain to your children in a decade or two why you passed up the opportunity to witness one of the best bands ever.

Michael Bolton: Newcastle Arena (0191 401 8000), Mon; Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133), Wed & Thurs; Manchester Arena (0161 930 8000), 19 Mar; Glasgow SECC (0141 248 9999), 20 Mar.

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