Rock: Gary Barlow, the aunties' choice

IT SEEMS we got our predictions back to front. When Take That split, it was Gary Barlow who was supposed to end up as a respected, mature and fairly dull singer-songwriter, while Robbie Williams lived out his days acting zanily on The Big Breakfast. Instead, Robbie released "Angels", one of the past year's biggest singles, and strolled into Gary's jealously guarded Elton John Jr musical territory to boot. And as for Gary ...

He started his show at Hammersmith Apollo last Sunday with other people's songs, Hue & Cry's "Labour of Love" and Madonna's "Love Won't Wait". And they remained other people's songs, too. With his non-voice and his shiny chat-show rentaband, Gary (it's not the IoS's house style to be so familiar, but only Harry Enfield's Self-Righteous Brothers could call him "Barlow") never stamps his own identity on the tunes. What he does is the musical equivalent of leasing someone else's flat and not even getting around to Blutacking up his family pictures. And the sad thing is that he doesn't make himself at home in many of his own compositions either. He doesn't sound like a genuine pop star.

Nor does he look like one. His favourite move is to stretch his arms out wide so his jacket is pulled open, giving us a glimpse of the pectorals that press against his diaphanous shirt. This display earns him a gratifying number of screams, but however much time he spends in his personal gym, he'll always be too cuddly to compete with Robbie's threatening, lock- up-your-pets raunch-appeal.

Two songs later, it clicks. Gary isn't a pop star, and all his efforts to suggest otherwise - the groovy high-fives with the band, the vigorous pelvic thrusting, the Jerry Lee Lewis impersonations at the piano - just make him seem like a TV presenter putting on a pop star act for the evening. He's more Michael Barrymore than George Michael. His destiny, surely, is to be a Shane Richie or a Des O'Connor, still making albums, but fronting his own ITV series too: some songs, maybe a duet with one of his celebrity guests, some saucy flirting with the biddies in the audience. I'm not sure if it has ever been established scientifically that a woman's aesthetic preferences alter when one of her siblings has a child, but, the fact is, Gary is the sort of artiste who appeals to aunties.

I'd tune in to The Gary Barlow Experience. His live show is a tremendously entertaining, feelgood event, and Gary is a hard-working host. As you'll know if you saw him on Clive Anderson All Talk, describing how he vomited in Lulu's guest bathroom, his pre-Take That apprenticeship in working men's clubs has moulded him into a skilled, deadpan comedian.

The only time his showbiz instincts wobbled was when he introduced "Forever Love". Lighting three candles on his piano, he dedicated the song to three people who died last year: his gran, Gianni Versace, and someone called "Princess Lady Diana". Now, I'm sure we all aahed at the slides of Gaz with his white-haired nan; and even Flora margarine is allowed to appropriate a piece of Princess Lady's memory. But Versace? What did he have to do with Gary Barlow? And why does the fashion house's logo linger for so long on the video screens? It looked less like an expression of grief than a sponsorship deal.

Most of Gary's songs could be successive verses of one ballad called "I Hope We Pluck up the Courage to Reveal our Feelings and Love One Another Until We Die": "Never Knew", "Are You Ready Now", "I Fall So Deep", "Everything I Ever Wanted", "My Commitment", "Always". They're sturdy enough in a Radio Two sort of way, but you'd need to have the voice of Celine Dion or Michael Bolton to reach superstardom with them, and Gary's vocals, thank God, are nowhere near so histrionic. He should concentrate on becoming "Britain's top light entertainer ... and singer", as Vic Reeves used to call himself. His plans to be the new George Michael are progressing in only one aspect. Last Sunday, he was showing the first faint traces of a beard.

Matchbox 20's debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You (Atlantic), isn't released in Britain until April, but it has sold four million copies in America, and Matchbox were voted Best New Band in last year's Rolling Stone poll. In second place were the Wallflowers, to whom they are often compared, although to me they're more like the unholy offspring of Alanis Morissette and Pearl Jam, given up for adoption and raised by Deep Blue Something. Rob Thomas sings his vague sub-country stories in an earnest slacker whine, while the band play clean, folk-tinged soft rock. It's grunge with a shampoo and set.

To my disappointment, then, Matchbox 20's show at the London Astoria on Wednesday wasn't too bad. First of all, Thomas looked like Eddie Izzard; and second, the band's sound, enhanced by a keyboard player, was harder- edged than it is on Yourself ..., with the bonus advantage that you couldn't make out what Thomas was singing (the crowd, Americans to a dude, knew the words off by heart). The gig was bearable for a good 15 minutes longer than I expected, and maybe the next time Matchbox 20 play here there will be more than one Brit in the audience. None the less, the album is to be approached only if the line "I don't got no reasons" is your idea of an intriguing lyric.

The gutsy rap'n'riff grooves of the Dust Junkys haven't been groundbreaking since the days when no Volkswagen was safe from Beastie Boys fans, but their funky bassist (with "Dust" marker-penned across his chest) and Hendrix- clone guitarist (with "Junk" marker-penned across his) have obviously played along to their old records with all the dedication of an Ocean Colour Scene member; their DJ has been practising just as hard; and their veteran, shaven-headed vocalist, Nicky Lockett, is as sweatily intent on entertainment in his own way as Gary Barlow is in his. Add the Dust Junkys' headbutt-first-ask-questions-later Moss Side street-gang aura to the equation, and you've got one of the country's best-value live acts, and the band who look most capable of leaving you battered and bleeding in a skip if you don't agree.

Dust Junkys: Stoke Stage (01782 214991), tonight; Sheffield Univ (0114 272 4076), Tues; Glasgow Cathouse, (0141 248 6606), Thurs; Dundee Purple Rooms, (01382 204209), Fri; Aberdeen Lemon Tree (01224 642230); then touring.

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