Rock: To the Lighthouse Family, via the middle of the road

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Indy Lifestyle Online
An Interesting fact about the Lighthouse Family is that they've never had any alternative, artistic credibility, they've never starred in London's Burning or Soldier, Soldier, and they've never been in a manufactured teen band. According to my calculations, this makes them the only act of the Nineties to decide to make smart-but-casual, middle-of-the-road music at the very start of their career. They play this sort of wholesome pop because they love it - and somebody has to.

Another interesting fact about the Lighthouse Family is that every single one of their songs finishes with two minutes of Tunde Baiyewu repeating the refrain over and over again. Another interesting fact about the Lighthouse Family is that ... well, no. I watched them for 90 minutes at the Albert Hall on Tuesday, and two interesting facts is just about my limit. The men in suits did their stuff - Baiyewu, with a few drops of Seal-like charisma, and Paul Tucker, with a few drops of Rodney Trotter-like charisma - as did the usual selection of backing musicians (never trust a band with a percussionist, as I always say). Together, they played songs that anyone can buy at a motorway service station and enjoy: the mild, New Labour soul-funk of a less ambitious Simply Red.

When Phil Collins's last album bombed, and it was Oasis and Alanis Morissette who produced the albums that made the whole family sing, it looked as if this kind of deliberately inoffensive wallpaper music was on its last legs, but the Lighthouse Family prove that it's alive and shuffling. Ocean Drive, their first album, has sold 1.5 million copies, and its follow- up, Postcards from Heaven, has sold 600,000 since its release last month.

It would be easy to sneer at the audience responsible for these incredible figures, but I don't believe in hitting a man who wears glasses, a jersey and a suit jacket. Instead, some constructive criticism. For all the Family's indisputable skill and sincerity, many of their tracks are so similar that the band themselves probably couldn't tell them apart in a blindfold test. If only all their songs were as distinctive as the best ones - ie, the ones used in TV commercials - then the Lighthouse Family would be the clear leaders of their genre - and somebody has to be.

In an interview with Q Magazine this month, Noel Gallagher reports that his manager thought Be Here Now was a flop because it had sold only six million copies. Noel, the living embodiment of the phrase "harsh but fair", replied: "Go and tell that to Echobelly." Indeed. Echobelly and Oasis were two of the first inhabitants of the Britpop ghetto in 1994, but while Oasis grew so enormous it couldn't contain them, and the rest of the original tenants moved elsewhere, Echobelly signed a 10-year lease.

It's starting to look like negative equity. Glenn Johansson is never going to be thought of as a great guitarist as long as Graham Coxon and Bernard Butler are making records, and while Lustra (Epic) would have been a sparkling Britpop debut a couple of years ago, it's over-familiar stuff now. The six million mark is a long way off.

Still, if the show at the London Astoria on Thursday was anything to go by, Oasis's manager misinterpreted Noel's instruction, and he told Echobelly that they are outselling the Gallaghers. I'm not sure how else you could explain this celebratory performance. Onstage, Echobelly turn themselves into stomping punk-pop heroes, with Sonya Aurora Madan's prim, flutey voice only just making itself heard above the curling guitar riffs.

It's her all-singing, all-dancing stage presence that turned this into such a charmer of a concert. In a black vest and army trousers, GI Sonya gave the impression that she'd really been looking forward to entertaining an audience, whereas so many other lead singers give the impression they're really looking forward to getting home in time for Babylon 5. Even the stroppiness that usually lets her down was sublimated into infectiously happy enthusiasm. Mind you, turning three choruses of "Great Things" into audience singalongs was probably overdoing it.

It was hard to know which was more frightening to see at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Monday: the banners which announced that the evening was sponsored by Country Music Television, or the members of the band themselves. Steve Earle looks like Meat Loaf's drop-out younger brother, and his bassist and co-guitarist look like men Thelma and Louise would shoot on sight: they'd be naked without denim and baseball caps. No wonder Earle has never been as successful as Bruce Springsteen.

Of course, his commercial ups and downs could have something to do with his problems with excess drink and drugs and marriages (five different wives, although my rock reference books are a few months out of date, so it's possibly six or seven by now). Currently, he has solved the first two problems, at least, and he was able to deliver a show which, although basic, reaffirmed his title as the king of hillbilly rock. His melancholy smalltown tales are stained with sweat and engine oil, and have a rough layer of scar-tissue courtesy of Buddy Miller's buzzing guitar. Earle is the patron saint of country rock, the man whom Son Volt, Wilco, the Jayhawks and the other youngsters must measure themselves against - just as long as they get their wardrobe ideas elsewhere.

Lighthouse Family: Brighton Ctr, 01273 202881, tonight; Cardiff International Arena, 01222 224488, Mon; Birmingham NIA, 0121 780 4133, Tues; Dublin Olympia, 00 3531 677 7744, Thurs & Fri; Belfast Ulster Hall, 01232 323900, Sat; Midland '97, 0870 9080 888, 15 Dec. Echobelly: Manchester MDH, 0161 832 1111, tonight; Glasgow Plaza, 0141 423 3077, Mon; Newcastle Univ, 0191 261 2606, Tues; Hull Univ, 01482 445361, Wed; Northampton Roadmenders, 01604 604603, Fri; Liverpool L2, 0151 707 0925, Sat; then touring.