ROCK : Ow! It's a woman's woman's world

Let's forget the Spice Girls, just for a moment, and turn instead to the mature females of rock: the Spice Women. Four of these were in concert this week, starting with Neneh Cherry, 32-year-old mother of three, whose unconventional tactic for career longevity has been to release very few records, but to make sure those records move with the times. She emerged as a hip-hop star in the Eighties, and she helped to found the current Bristol scene - but last weekend she had come to the Shepherd's Bush Empire to rock. Hard as it was to work out what an "Andrex song" might be, or why Cherry would want to play one, that's what one of her introductions sounded like to me. Twenty seconds of Motorhead-style thrash later, all thoughts of Labrador puppies had been blasted from my mind. I decided that the word had probably been Anthrax.

Cherry's defection to rock, she claimed, had already roused some protests. Marching around the stage beneath a sinister arrangement of stalactitic ropes and mirrorballs, she declared, "I can only play what I can play," a statement which means even less than usual, when you bear in mind that Cherry can play almost anything. Andrex song aside, her latest brand of rock is subtle and contemporary, complete with DJ and trip-hop beats. The songs, mostly from her new album, Man (Hut), were rearranged boldly by a colourful band: for instance, "Woman" (which Cherry owes to James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's World" as surely as she has taken to his throaty "Ow!") was refitted to incorporate echoing reggae guitar and thick, sustained Hammond chords. The poor guitarist had the job, not only of adapting Bernard Butler's solo on that song, but of impersonating Youssou N'Dour's Senegalese accent on "Seven Seconds". I left the Empire thinking that it is only Cherry's refusal to produce more albums than children that prevents her being as big a star as Bjork, say, or any of the other women in this column.

The first of these is Belinda Carlisle, who was opening for Tina Turner at the Birmingham NEC on Wednesday. She seemed unsure of why she had accepted the job, and of what her purpose was except to prove that even in a frumpy brown dress and with her hair pulled up in a bun, her cheekbones and her cleavage can still work their magic. They nearly can. She'd make a very sexy librarian, true, but as a pop star, she's as stiff and disengaged as a mannequin, while her band appear to have been ordered from a catalogue: "I'll have one funky, dreadlocked bassist, one keyboard player wearing a long coat to signify that he's classically trained, two slim backing singers in black sheaths ... and make sure they can reproduce the album note-for-note."

Some of the tracks from A Woman and a Man (Chrysalis) - "In Too Deep", "Always Breaking My Heart" - are user-friendly, easy-access pop songs, but Carlisle is no longer young, dumb or energetic enough to convince herself that they're worthwhile, let alone to convince the audience. If she wants to stop herself sliding further down the bill, she should sing more songs that suit the brittle edge that her wild years in the Go-Gos have given to her voice. At the moment, the only such song is the disillusioned "California", which starts with a pithy indictment of Los Angeles: "I remember I was in the tanning salon / When I heard that River Phoenix was gone."

Maybe Carlisle was doomed from the start, considering whom she had to support. Tina Turner was reviewed on these pages earlier this year, but I don't mind repeating that she is an exuberant force of nature, and that her show is a no-expense-spared blockbuster. Her songs are stadium- sized, and every element of her concert - band, special effects, camerawork for the video screens - contributes to the ultimate arena-rock gig. And if her gutsy gargle wasn't at full strength on Wednesday, then you have to remember that this was the 132nd night of her tour. So, don't come to me with your "nervous exhaustion", Oasis.

Chrissie Hynde's strategy for long-term survival in the rock business has been to stay pretty much the same: she keeps to dignified and intelligent rock songs, she never puts on a pound of weight and she keeps her fringe over her eyes. The biggest innovation in the Pretenders' lifespan was last year's acoustic album, The Isle of View (Warner), which was recreated on Thursday, in London's Union Chapel. The venue was as serene and atmospheric as ever, with the Pretenders sitting in front of the stone pulpit, candles ranged all around them. None the less, after the fifth or sixth mistake, you had to agree with Hynde's own evaluation: "We're not really an acoustic outfit, y'know. We're much better as a rock band."

The format came into its own only on the slower songs, especially "Kid", on which the Duke Quartet provided a stately, Pachelbel's Canon-style accompaniment to Hynde's yearning, nasal voice. Otherwise, it was Adam Seymour who shone: his chiming guitar and harmony vocals (that were higher than Hynde's) were more than enough to compensate for a haircut, beard and sunglasses that gave him a worrying resemblance to Dave Stewart. And to complain about any concert that included such jingly, twinkly arrangements of the festive songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the Pretenders' own "2,000 Miles", would be to invite the ghost of Jacob Marley into your bedroom.

Tina Turner and Belinda Carlisle: Wembley Arena, 0181 900 1234, Wed to Fri.

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