Rock: The more calamities, the merrier the Charlatans

It was a very young crowd that threw itself around at the Reading Rivermead on Wednesday, so young that a casual observer might have thought that the band on stage were the newest kids on the Britrock block. It's sometimes hard to believe, then, that the Charlatans have notched up five albums, three of which - even harder to believe - have been number ones. The latest is called Tellin' Stories (Beggars Banquet), and by now they should be able to live up to its name. Over the years since they shuffled onto the Madchester scene, they've seen one member suffer from depression, another leave the band, and Rob Collins, their organist, go to jail, having been caught up in an armed robbery. And then, last year, the jinx peaked: Collins was killed in a car accident.

But that's not the story told by their music. Whether the Charlatans turn away from their woes deliberately, or whether they're just incapable of sounding downbeat, their mood swings all the way from sunny ("Tellin' Stories") to jubilant ("One to Another"). These are songs of innocence, not experience, unless that experience is of one long, drunken, funky party.

Tim Burgess is the personification of this spirit. A twinkle-eyed, snub- nosed, wide-grinned urchin, he is always somewhere between a swagger and a stagger, and he drawls "North Country Boy" so cockily that one could almost imagine that the lyrics made sense. His enthusiasm stretches even to the tangle of coloured light bulbs that hangs above him, turning the stage into a Mediterranean harbour taverna. "Christmas lights ... every night," he slurs. It's his only comprehensible statement of the evening.

The Charlatans' bassist and guitarist leave the movement to their cagouled leader, but they play their unruly, Dylan-Stonesy swirl-rock with dizzying dynamism, as does Rob Collins's replacement, Tony Rodgers. It's only by jumping merrily from keyboard to keyboard that he gives himself away as not having been in the band since the beginning.

The trouble with this relentless positivity, and the prioritising of groove over tune, was that no single song offered anything that all that the others hadn't already provided, and the Charlatans came dangerously close to becoming the James Taylor Quartet with attitude. A band with their history should have more to communicate. Their facility for swatting away fortune's slings and arrows is their greatest weakness as well as their greatest strength.

Rock sights you thought you'd never see: Geri of the Spice Girls fully clothed; Michael Jackson with a nose enlargement; and last Sunday, Henry Rollins with a spare tyre. Not much of one, admittedly. Barely a spare racing-bike inner tube compared to the bulk displayed by some of his fans at the Brixton Academy (please note: just because you take your top off doesn't mean you have Henry's sculpted World Wrestling Federation physique). Still, it was enough to make you wonder whether Rollins, at 36, is quite as angry and intense as he used to be.

The show started well, with a parodic language tape playing over the PA. "My luggage was stolen, the toilet won't flush," intoned a robotic voice to a disco beat. Then the Rollins Band stomped into view. Of the four men on stage, only one wore a top, and only one wore long trousers. Rollins, of course, wore neither. All the better for seeing the snake tattoo crawling up his leg, and the evil-faced sunburst, beneath the words "Search & Destroy", etched across his mighty back. He immediately adopted the Rollins Squat: bare feet planted far apart, body bent double, elbows at calf level, military haircut brushing the floor. Three songs of juddering punk-funk-metal later, he picked up a monitor with one hand. "Do you wanna get the feedback off this very expensive amp before I break it?" he asked the venue's technicians. This is the kind of behaviour you hope for when Rollins is in town.

In retrospect, however, this was the show's climax. There was nothing else as funny as the tourist tape or as physical as the amp tossing. An intense "Starve" had the band spontaneously combusting, but few other songs stood out from the ponderous metal dirge. Rollins's monotone bellowing didn't help, either. He can lift 400lbs, but he can't carry a tune.

His lyrics are more interesting. A drink- and drug-free, insanely disciplined author-editor-raconteur-actor (if they ever remake The Incredible Hulk ... ), he is driven by a need to share his severe, uncompromising weltanshauung. "I kiss my fear on the mouth/ I make my blood burn," may sound like your average hard-rock hard-man bluster, but Rollins lives by it, and if it's an attitude that must make him less than ideal as a dinner party guest, it justifies the existence of music this fierce and this loud.

Except that tonight, it wasn't fierce enough, and the lyrics were obscured by the din. Apart from when the band quietened down on "The End of Something" and "Liar", the only comprehensible words were "My luggage was stolen, the toilet won't flush." For Rollins, it could be time for more searching and less destruction.

Paul Rodgers has had two claims to fame in the Nineties. The first is the advert in which a sexy blonde man romantically shares his chewing gum with a sexy blonde woman on a bus, to the strains of Free's "All Right Now". The second is our beloved Prime Minister's comment that if he'd had Rodgers's voice, he would have chosen rock'n'roll over politics.

So, what if Tony Blair did have Rodgers's voice? I expect he would have modernised himself by now, staying true to the values that Seventies rock gods have always held, but adapting them to fit into a completely different world. Rodgers, though, would as soon tour with the Spin Doctors as he would change his image. At the Albert Hall on Monday, he was Old Rocker and proud of it, black shirt wide open to show off a furry torso, mic stand twirled above his head. Likewise, his band comprised long-haired, balding men who had been kicked out of Spinal Tap for being unfashionable. (Rodgers, incidentally, keeps his thinning hair short, a tactic which Blair should consider.) Why did nobody have a word with the guitarist about the neatly ripped knees of his pre-faded jeans?

Fashion aside, the show was a workmanlike run through all your Free and Bad Company favourites, plus tracks from Rodgers's new solo album, Now (Kotch). The Free-and-easy blues-rock sound, currently favoured by Reef, had given way to gleaming heavy metal riffs and guitar solos that dated back to the last Labour government. But all the material was reasonable enough, while "Can't Get Enough" and a singalong "All Right Now" recaptured the old style. Besides, Rodgers' archetypal virile rock voice was almost as supple as ever. There's nothing wrong with him that Peter Mandelson couldn't fix.

Charlatans: Cambridge Corn Exchange (01223 357851), tonight; Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 312030), Tues; Doncaster Dome (01302 370777), Wed; Academy, SW9 (0171 924 9999), Thurs & Sat.

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