Rock: Be nice with our feathery friends

Rock `n' Roll has always been about attitude, angst and anomie: upper lip curled in a sneer, shoulders hunched in leather-jacketed rebellion. We know that Counting Crows' lead singer, Adam Duritz, had the requisite wild childhood, and so seems ideally placed to look back in anger. But no. This is rock'n'roll with attitude - a really nice, really friendly attitude.

Three years ago the Crows were caged tigers in the confines of London's Borderline venue; this time round, with their debut album, August And Everything After, platinum six times over, and a critically acclaimed follow-up, Recovering The Satellites, just out, they are more at home in the relative expanses of the Shepherd's Bush Empire.

They are still robbing rock's archives - REM, Springsteen, the Eagles, Van Morrison, Dylan, The Band, all are paid homage to, as well as groups like the less celebrated American Music Club and Miracle Legion. But there's enough that's theirs alone. Their exuberance, the sheer delight they appear to take in playing, lifts them way beyond accusations of unoriginality. Duritz's voice, gruff and tender by turns, breaks up in all the right places, as on the soulful "Anna Begins"and "Rain King", on which he is accompanied by a mass singalong.

On the achingly sad "Mr Jones", Duritz's monumental hymn to aspiring stardom, Charlie Gillingham moves from keyboards to the accordion while drummer Ben Mize whacks a huge bass drum which stands proud centre stage. At least three-quarters of the people in the hall seem to be half of an entwined couple, all standing the same way, the woman in front. They move even closer, bliss on every face, as Duritz sings "Everybody loves me / I hope I never get lonely now".

This is, it has to be said, somewhat unlikely. Duritz has the self-assurance (but not the swagger) of someone who has been out with not just one Friends star but two. He might look less like a celebrity superstud than a crazy on the Tube, but when backlit on "Round Here" he is Bob Marley (with a bald patch lurking amid the dreadlocks, it has to be said).

The charm of Duritz is that he seems to be wholly wrapped up in his songs yet not cut off from his audience. As the pensive, yearning balladry of "Goodnight Elizabeth" rolls to a climax he stands astride his monitor, eyes shining, singing, "Hey, look at the moon". He seems to be doing just that, and inviting us to join him.

If there's one rule of gigging, it is Never Do More Than Two Songs For The Encore, even if one of them is the ecstatically received "Round Here", marred only by the audience handclaps (which sound as naff as they always have done). The Crows did break the two-song rule. But then they redeemed themselves when, instead of the traditional exit shuffle with desultory raised hand, they stood together at the front of the stage, beaming and waving, basking in the adulation, utterly at one with their audience.

The Crows' enthusiasm is clearly shared by their support band, the Sacramento- based Cake, who a couple of days previously headlined their own show at the more compact Dingwalls.

Leader John McCrea looks like Bruce Willis in a pork pie hat - not a pleasant thought, admittedly, but rest assured, he and the band sound an awful lot better than Bruce ever could, with their giddy concoction of soul, funk, guitar rock and country augmented by a soupcon of Serge Gainsbourg and multiple nods in the direction of the musicals.

What really gives them a singular edge is Vincent di Fiore's trumpet. Never does it sound like an add-on, there simply to lend a bit of ersatz atmosphere. Instead, every song feels like it couldn't exist without its spine of brass, such as the gorgeous "Daria", an airy, summery, featherlight confection, or the melancholy "Frank Sinatra".

Like Duritz, McCrea seems like a thoroughly nice bloke. A few songs in, and it is clear that he and the boys are less than happy with the PA; McCrea inquires after our aural health and asks the sound man, "Can we turn it down a little bit?" Maybe he's having a little sarcastic fun at our expense, but it doesn't feel that way. And nor does it towards the end, when he says, again apparently without irony, "You've been listening for so long - your attention span's awesome. We appreciate you have your choices. We thank you for choosing Cake. Have a nice day." And so we did.

Whereas the Americans appeared to be on their holidays, for Supergrass (Brixton Academy, Thursday) it seems to feel like another working day. They're certainly putting their backs into it and generating a mighty noise, hewing power chords from the coalface. They are Stakhanovites with guitars and horns and a synthesiser straight out of "Nutbush City Limits", exuding waves of energy but not much in the way of delight. Still, it is the last date of the tour, so they can be excused a hint of going through the motions.

The band is still camped out in the sunny uplands of the 1960s, when their mums and dads were still kids and a joyous hook could change the world for a day. Times may have changed, but the cheeky chappies still evoke images of the Beatles escaping the fans at Paddington Station in A Hard Day's Night.

It was this quality, present in spades on their first album, I Should Coco, that Steven Spielberg wanted to buy into when he approached the boys with the idea of transforming them into the new Monkees. The follow- up album, In It For The Money, is harder-edged and noisier, and in Brixton they're less like Mickey Dolenz and his manufactured cohorts, much more like pub rockers.

They're not helped by the Academy acoustics, which love guitars but are less friendly to the human voice. Gaz Coombes's falsetto is often reduced to a fingernails-down-the-blackboard screech, though it can't help that his vocal chords are suffering end-of-tour fatigue. The Sixties harmonies and the horn section, Hornography, also tend to get lost in the sheets of guitar distortion.

The crowd don't seem to mind, though. The mosh-pit kicks in from the off as the lads set off at a furious lick. "Caught by the Fuzz", for instance, sounds like it's being covered by Deep Purple. As the gig goes on, though, everything starts to sound a little samey, even the rapturously received recent single, "Going Out".At the end, Gaz gives us a huge smile and a wave as he exits. But you suspect it may be more relief at the end of another tour.

Nicholas Barber returns next week.

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