Rock: Let's hear it for the roadie

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why are Wilco so damned likeable? Most pop music is retrogressive these days, and the American country-rockers more than most. At the Shepherd's Bush Empire they evoked a mighty arsenal of comparisons, the most obvious being early-Seventies Stones. But somehow they are always more than the sum of their parts.

Touting their lauded CD Being There, they flaunted their roots in a manner that should have been limiting but wasn't. On the surface, for instance, "Forget the Flowers" is somewhere between straightforward country and "Octopus's Garden" slightly reworked by Gram Parsons, and should therefore be about as appealing as a smelly old cowboy boot. But their laid-back, ramshackle intensity, the lashings of messy guitar, give them an indivuality that makes them timeless rather than dated.

It's also the seductive warmth - it's easy to imagine them using crackly old valve amps for the feelgood electric piano and heavenly slide guitar. At first, though, Shepherd's Bush is hard to impress. "Loosen up a little bit, huh?" lead singer Jeff Tweedy exhorts.

It's difficult to work out the attractions of Tweedy. He's no looker, although in this genre that's hardly a problem. And while in interviews he comes across as a regular guy, on stage he's not especially engaging. "Sunday crowds," he whinges. "You're ready to go read the papers. F*** that." Later he says, "You always sound so snotty, you English people."

"Kingpin" builds up to a rousing "Freebird"-style climax, but as it ends one relic stalks out muttering, "That wasn't Wilko Johnson", and when the band reappear for the encore, Tweedy is railing against some imagined slight. "I'll rub my Yankee ass all over you. I'll shit on your heads," he warns. Maybe it's good ol' Yankee irony.

But there is still something about Wilco that draws you in, asks you round for a drink and tells you its life story, leaving you thinking, "What a good bunch of blokes. I must have them over for a white-trash evening." Perhaps there's a clue in what happens at the end, when Tweedy exits alone. A roadie picks up a guitar, and he and the band, just for the hell of it, strike up lusty versions of "Ziggy Stardust" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs". He should be doing more than just plugging in the guitars.

Tricky at the Hackney Empire (Tuesday) was billed as an unplugged set, but he scuppered that one by sacking his acoustic band the day before, so it was more a case of Tricky plugged back in - except for the lights, that is. Perhaps the poor lad's photophobic, but the entire gig took place in almost total darkness. As the house lights went down there was a dash of drums, a rumbling bass and string synthesiser. But where was Tricky? His mumbled intonations were just audible, but it could as easily have been a backing tape. What was this? Tricky and the Shadows?

After a few numbers, a dash of lime green faded up at the back of the stage for a few seconds, giving proceedings the air of an alternative theatre production from the Seventies. Eventually a sliver of red light popped up over the drum kit, and it was just possible to make out Tricky and his singer, Martina, at the front, the music dubbish, all slow guitar chops and knee-trembling bass. Fifteen minutes in and there was a purple light too. Lights in three colours! Get Pink Floyd on the phone and tell them they're being ripped off!

Early on, much of the material was routine funk, making things dull if danceable (not a great deal of use at the all-seater Empire). Soon, though, the real thing kicked in, Tricky probably doing his own DJ-ing (it was difficult to tell). This was proper trip-hop, with the requisite distortions and sound effects. To these ears, though, that was half the problem. Tricky is not to blame for this - he was pioneer rather than pilgrim - but by now, with its tranquilliser shuffle, film noir smokiness and scratchy- record effects, trip-hop has become a set of mannerisms, the skiffle of the Nineties. At least Tricky and his band invested it with a menace and majesty.

By the time he got to "Tricky Kid" (which raised the biggest cheer of the night other than the moment when the stage was flooded with white light for two seconds) there was a Latin feel to the percussion, and the last few numbers left trip-hop behind for something altogether more powerful - great breeze blocks of distortion and squalling guitar creating a kind of thrash salsa overlaid with a convoy of jumbo jets. The climax was ferocious, the encore frenzied. Then the lights - or rather the light - went out and they wandered off in the gloaming.

We were also left slightly in the dark by erstwhile Tricky collaborators Luscious Jackson (Astoria, Wednesday), four women from New York who are to the Spice Girls what Cristina Odone is to Melinda Messenger. Their new CD, Fever In Fever Out, a melange of rap, funk and singer-songwriter sensitivity, is full of intelligence and sex appeal, but here they expended most of their energy on funk work-outs that merged into a seamless but daunting whole. The sexy subtleties of the records were lost, the smoky melodies blown away. As someone in the crowd observed, "It's just like one long song".

The first real melody rush came from the gorgeous current single, "Naked Eye", though still the light-footed quality of the record was lost. But a party atmosphere prevailed, especially when they were joined onstage by the pogo-ing support band, Bis. Even the security guards were having a good time.

Earlier on Bis all but stole the show, staying up past their bedtime to bring you the ultimate in disposable pop. On record the Glaswegian youngsters' sound is thin; on stage it is filled out and muscled up. Bis make many a nod to pop heritage - which is to say they sound like the Rezillos crossed with the Dickies. Even though there's nothing you couldn't have heard around 1980, they have an engaging energy, with Manda Rin, who contributes Mysterians keyboards and a nice line in shrieks, incontrovertibly the star in her shiny blue dress and fluorescent green trainers. "We are the future and nobody knows," they sing. Maybe. There's always going to be a market for choppy, shouty, punky stuff, and a good thing too. Bis are about to headline their own British tour - coming soon to a creche near you.

Nicholas Barber returns next week.