Rock: Loves to be loved: the genie's out of the bottle once more

It Could be classed as a come-down, but that would be a mistake, even if the idea of seeing David Bowie in the intimacy of the Shepherd's Bush Empire does seem a little bizarre. In his sharp, shiny suit at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1983, he was Bryan Ferry with a swagger. This time he's an ageing barefoot Shelley with a dodgy beard, in a flowing white shirt, collar up and cuffs flapping, a wind machine at his feet running its fingers through his hair at strategic moments.

To begin with, it's just him and his 12-string as he launches into "Quicksand", the Aleister Crowley number from Hunky Dory. He takes it very slowly, and every line is cheered. This is hardly surprising; when "Changes" was played before he came on it had provoked an outbreak of community singing, and it's clear that he would have to sever the heads of a thousand orphans to incite anything less than rapture in an audience that spans generations. There are pre-pubescents and pensioners, as well as a legion of clean- cut couples who a quarter of a century ago would have been slapping on the pancake as they dreamed of mutating into Ziggy.

The band amble on and join in "Quicksand", but the treatment is leaden - which, as it turns out, presages the entire evening. There's lots of the squealing guitar that was a hallmark of the post-Ronson sound, but the kilted, shaven-headed Reeves Gabrels must surely have more in his armoury. The biggest disappointment, though, is Zak Alford's drumming - a big, hammering stadium sound that thuds relentlessly through the set, its bouncy tyranny exhuming repressed memories of Stars on 45. Numbers like "Queen Bitch" and "Waiting for the Man" come across as thunderous rockers, but if it weren't for The Man himself, it could almost be ZZ Top up there. Fortunately, The Man is leading from the front, his voice as rich and powerful and passionate as ever.

"Fashion" profits most from the stomp treatment, although its impact is hardly helped by the distracting scenes from an S&M porn video on the backdrop. Going on about the staging at a rock concert is a bit like admiring the floodlights at a football ground, but in this instance you have to admire it - installation artist Tony Oursler draping the equipment in white, and doing strange things with balloons. There are two huge ones painted as eyeballs, which Bowie casts adrift during a meaty account of the recent jungly single, "Little Wonder". Three smaller ones, centre stage, have unsettling, Bjork-like faces projected on them at intervals, contributing to the rich weirdness of the visuals. So too does bassist Gail-Ann Dorsey, with her shaven-head, baby-devil horns, furry hoof shoes and horse's tail.

But adoration, not interior design, is what the evening is about, and Bowie loves to be loved. When he takes a fan's outstretched hand during "Stay", he lets it linger there. It seems like a genuinely tender moment. Bowie might have become the Queen Mother of rock - Gawd bless 'im - but when you get that, "He's smiling at me!" moment (as I did) you know you're still in the presence of a star.

Like Bowie with his jungle jaunts, The Verve (Hammersmith Palais) have transformed themselves lately, and their lead singer, Richard Ashcroft, has lashings of star quality, too. Wigan's finest were shoe-gazers par excellence until a two-year sabbatical straightened them out; now the Gallaghers' favourite band are back with their brand of Northern soulfulness.

Ashcroft does have a touch of Liam about him, the sneering edge replaced by a slightly camp romanticism. "Too much emotion driving me down," he sings on "Life's an Ocean" as he grooves thoughtfully round the stage. Later he projects himself more forcefully as he tells us about the band's past week: "Seven days of madness. The greatest rock 'n' roll tour this country has ever seen. COME ON!" And he patrols the apron, pumping up a crowd that hardly needs it.

The only problem is that most of The Verve's songs are of the stately, floaty variety - big ballads for the Temazepam generation, shot through with the grand rawness of Nick McCabe's heavy-duty guitar. The new songs have a country feel - the Stones circa "Angie", say - allied to that late-Sixties threshing about so beloved of the Stone Roses. It all suddenly makes sense on "Stormy Clouds", whose melancholy is offset magnificently by McCabe's crunching, grinding guitar. Instead of merely floating, it's steamy, drenched in emotion, and rounded off cathartically by McCabe's Hendrix-style coda that mutates into a fabulous chainsaw noise assault.

Then they kick into their gorgeous single, "Bittersweet Symphony", which is so much more distinctive and singular than anything else they've done. Most of the rest of their material exists primarily as co-ordinates on a grid of influences. But it hardly matters at the Palais for the band which reinvented itself. Ashcroft stands at the front of the stage, breathing in the adulation, his arms held out crucifix-style...

For Scarfo (London Water Rats), there are a few more audiences to conquer, but they're getting there. They look sharp in their Mean Streets suits. Lead singer and guitarist Jamie Hince resembles a young Al Pacino, while bassist Nick Prior is Ewan McGregor, albeit with eyes that could stare down Wilko Johnson (upon whom they both seem to have modelled the physical jerks that fit the music so well).

Hince's breathy passion is perfect for the sweet hooks in the band's punky power-pop, which is of the variety that's perennially labelled "amphetamine- fuelled". And as a guitarist he has the handy gift of sounding like he's playing three at once. Songs like "Alkaline" and the exquisite "Don't Let Go" come out in a pure rush, raining razor-sharp chords all over the place. The friend I was with was less impressed. But then she saw Hendrix, Cream and the Doors, so she's hard to please. For me, Scarfo will do for now.

Reading Festival: Scarfo, Fri ; The Verve, Sun 24 Aug (0541 500 044 or 0171 344 0044)

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