ROCK: Ex-Blondies have more fun

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FIRST THERE was Debbie Harry. Then there was Deborah Harry. Now, as Deborah Harry and the Jazz Passengers, the original rock babe has become ... the Baroness von Swimmingbag.

On Tuesday, Harry shared the Jazz Cafe's stage with three men on saxophone, trombone and the only five-string violin I've ever seen, men whose selection of bald patches, beards, jackets and ties is straight out of the English professors' fashion bible. Harry herself wore a slightly punky black dress with lots of zips, and her dark brown hair up in little Bjorkish twists. With those cheekbones and that coyly curled smile she could easily pass (casting directors take note) for Michelle Pfeiffer's big sister. Three more men, who looked to have been drafted in from a younger, funkier band, were on drums, double bass and vibraphone. As well as contributing a variety of wisecracks and silly vocal noises, the men played cheerfully avant- garde jazz like a group of expert musicians tuning up their instruments and happening coincidentally on the same tune.

Blondie had quite a few intricate songs themselves - even "Heart of Glass" went into seven-eight time - but Harry's vocal technique is still a revelation. It has grown lower and huskier, a string instrument instead of a brass one, and she can find her way around melodies which most pop singers would need a map to negotiate. She takes on the ensemble's terrifically entertaining "love songs for the wretched and depressed" with fearless panache. She is a Passenger, not a passenger.

On last year's album, Jazz Passengers in Love, Harry sang just one track, while the rest of the vocals were shared among the likes of Mavis Staples, Jeff Buckley, Freedy Johnston and Jimmy Scott. But on Tuesday, it quickly became heart-of-glass clear that when the Passengers were choosing a guest singer for their live music/comedy shows, their fellow New Yorker was the only choice. Absolutely in her element, she scowled, joked, rolled her eyes, banged her head, wagged her finger and hammed it up in as many other ways as she could think of. Ex-blondes have more fun, all right, and no film has yet made enough use of her comic talents.

It was the saxophonist and leader of the Jazz Passengers, Roy Nathanson, who addressed her throughout the evening as the Baroness, and who commented, among many more lunatic asides, that Blondie would have been more interesting if they'd had a trombone player instead of a singer. And yes, we were treated to two imaginatively arranged Blondie songs: "One Way or Another", which was introduced as a German folk song, and "The Tide is High". On the evidence of the cheers that welcomed them, it seemed that Blondie fans outnumbered jazz fiends 100 to one. But the cheers after every song showed that the Jazz Passengers managed to pick up a few fans along the way.

I wasn't looking forward to seeing Frank Black at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, probably because I was too busy looking back. Back to the time when he called himself Black Francis, when he was leader of the Pixies, and when the Pixies were the untouchable leaders of American alternative rock. Since then, the group's bassist and backing vocalist, Kim Deal, has gone to somewhere not far from fame and fortune in her bands, the Breeders and the Amps. Black has ended up somewhere not far from irrelevance.

His new album, The Cult of Ray (East West), is a grower, but I can appreciate how my parents must have felt when a new Wings record came out: good as it may be, it's neither as experimental or as tuneful as the Beatles. Most of the songs on The Cult would have fitted into a Pixies album, it's just that they would have been squeezed in between songs that were even better.

However, even though Black didn't play any Pixies songs live this week, amazingly, I didn't miss them. Judiciously mining his solo albums, he mined a good haul of gems from the dull rock. He's still possessed by a particularly divine madness. He can still make your head reel with disorientating time-signature changes and epi-leptic riffs whose notes come in on the beat you least expect. He plays with a vicious, wrenching intensity not always found on his records, and sings with a voice that is still unique. I should say voices, plural. Casting directors take note again: if you're filming a Clive Barker story, Black could save you money by playing all the mon- sters. He's got the looks for the job, too. He has shaved off the remains of his hair, leaving him looking very much like the bouncer at the front of the stage, and rather like George "Big Baby" Dawes from Shooting Stars. But in the spooky green lighting, he's more like the Martian we've always suspected him of being.

He is a dynamic, magnetic performer, with a charming line in exegetic intros. "I used to think it was a paranoid myth," he says before "Men in Black", "but a guy I know, actually it's Joey from the Pixies, he's been followed by the Men in Black for years. Kinda cool." Alas, his backing band is not the Pixies, and the bassist and guitarist's inability to sing in tune is barely compensated for by their energetic rampaging. None the less, I emerged a born-again Frankophile. Kinda cool.

The Northern Uproar paradox is that they play pub rock, and yet none of them is old enough to buy a pint. Safely assuming, then, that the chaps are teetotal, they must be fueled by adrenaline, and singer/ bassist Leon Meya must have got that ripped-up voice naturally.

The Uproar are four pudgy, unattractive Next Big Things from Manchester, who keep their anoraks on even in an overheated club like north London's Garage. They specialise in yobbish pop with 1980s heavy- metal guitar solos, and many of the same influences as Oasis (Noel Gallagher was in the audience, showing parental concern), ie, the Stone Roses, T Rex, the Stones and the Beatles. Meya even has Paul McCartney's head-wobble. And you know how the Beatles were called Mop Tops even though their hairstyles were too tidy actually to resemble mops? Northern Uproar's aren't.

In short, it's far from grim up North. Northern Uproar have indecent confidence and decent tunes: live, they have already surpassed their singles, "From a Window" and "Rollercoaster" (Heavenly). So far, they haven't tried to stretch themselves beyond their influences at all, but give them time and they'll be great. When they're 18, perhaps.