ROCK: A show of two halves, Rod

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Indy Lifestyle Online
OUR first sight of Rod Stewart was not of him in a glittering black jacket and drainpipes, or in a checked Dr Who coat, or in a pale blue suit with black and white loafers - although all these outfits and more would follow. First we saw him in a tracksuit. On the video screens above the stage he was doing his football training, before nipping home to change his baby's nappy, and then wheeling an overflowing trolley out of Tesco's. "I told Rachel I didn't have time to do this," he tuts to the camera, and promises us that he'll get to the concert eventually. It's a testament to his showmanship that even his intro was more entertaining than most artists' gigs.

The stage resembled a giant wedding cake in the middle of Wembley Arena. Stewart was on a podium in the middle, the band were dotted around the layer below, and the audience surrounded them. They'd paid pounds 50 a ticket - a lot of money, even if you count the free footballs which Stewart periodically punted into the crowd - but he was unrepentant: "It's gonna be worth the money, believe me. We're gonna have some fun tonight." Not that Rod could be anything other than unrepentant. Age, nappy-changing and Tesco-frequenting may be able to thin his thatch, but they cannot wither his laddishness, nor weaken his superhuman bonhomie and tongue-in-cheek self-confidence. "It's all go tonight, innit?" he would crow. "Oh, you lucky people!" It was and we were.

No one does this brand of hard-drinking party-time bar-room rock'n'roll better, because no one, it seems, loves the rough edges and gutsiness more. Tonight's greatest-hits show swaggers chronologically from the Jeff Beck Band, through "Maggie May" and "The Killing of Georgie" to, erm, "What Am I Going To Do" and "Lost In You". Yes, it was a game of two halves, Brian. Sadly, Stewart did not draw a leopard-print veil over the Eighties, and the early classics were let down by a series of drab, airbrushed pop songs with pat choruses and game- show theme-tune arrangements.

The tartan tart was irrepressible all the same. He swings his mike stand over his head like a boy playing with a toy plane, and races round the stage. No wonder he needs all that training. The music returned to form with an inspired cover of Edwyn Collins's "A Girl Like You", and Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You", which Stewart crooned with an authority reminiscent of Sinatra. Sinatra after his bitter has been spiked with nitric acid, obviously.

Heather Small of M People was of the same mind as Stewart: "We are all here to have a good time," she decreed, strutting across the stage of the Albert Hall in a floor-sweeping silver dress. "We are all going to get happy." No one disobeyed, least of all the band themselves. There was always at least one M Person grinning, pointing or waving at the audience. Either they had the relatives in, or they really were enjoying themselves.

Actually, there were so many musicians onstage that their families alone would have filled the building. Although there are officially only four M People - masterminds Mike Pickering and Paul Heard, Heather Small (vocals, hairstyle like a basket with a snake wriggling out of the top), and Shovell (manic percussion) - they had a crowd of extras to man saxes, guitars, keyboards and the contents of a reasonably sized drum shop. One defence against the critics who opined that they robbed Blur of 1994's Mercury Music Prize is that they're not just studio-bound computer nerds: they can pass muster as a live band. Right enough, they sound funky, they sound energetic, they sound ... just like they do on their records. Even the gospel choir who joined them for "Itchycoo Park" barely altered the fizzy, glossy disco sound. Small's voice is deep, round, weighty and bolshy - as if her cheeks are stuffed with cotton wool - but not expressive enough to vary from song to song. Then again, the songs don't vary much from song to song either, and M People never exceed their brief as a risk-free dance group. Why change a Mercury Award-winning formula?

Paul Weller didn't promise us that we were going to get happy or have fun. At the Brixton Academy on Monday, almost his only speech to the audience was the two-word, two-syllable, and, metaphorically speaking, two-fingered response to those journalists who have suggested that he's getting dull. To safeguard me from an even worse reprisal - he might stab me to death with those cheekbones of his, for instance - let me just state that at the end of his concert, 3,500 people cheered. The band were proficient, and Weller in particular played with a frowning intensity that left no doubt about how seriously he takes his music.

Even on the comparatively tender "You Do Something to Me", he growled about his love while making the piano chime dramatically like a funeral bell. On "Stanley Road", he growled about what his home meant to him as a child, and the drums whumped an aggressive four-square beat. More of a route-march than a stroll down memory lane. This was not a great night out for anyone looking for subtlety, or, for that matter, anyone looking for a singer who's not frowning and growling all the time.

This is partly because Stanley Road (Go! Discs) is straight and narrow compared to the twisted path through his previous album, Wild Wood, and partly because he no longer has the keyboard player who gave his black moods some shading on his last tour. Without her, it's "Well 'ard" Weller, hitting his guitar.

The most unpredictable elements were the instrumental breaks. Would they last 10 minutes, or merely nine and a half? And he didn't have Rod's excuse that the solos gave him time to change into another waistcoat: he stuck with his black denim jacket all evening. Never mind the RAF roundel projected on the backdrop. The next time someone asks Paul Weller the existential question "Are you a mod or a rocker?" he should admit that he's a rocker.

Rod Stewart: Glasgow SECC (0141 248 9999), tonight & Mon; Sheffield Arena (0114 256 5656), Fri; Manchester Arena (0161 930 8000), Sat; then touring. M People: Brighton Ctr (01273 202881), tonight; Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133), Mon & Tues; Bournemouth BIC (01202 297297), Thurs; Wembley Arena (0181 900 1234), Fri; Cardiff CIA (01222 224488), Sat; then touring.