Rock: What Bernard Butler didn't see

The Critics: Suede go leather: Brett Anderson & Co punk it up in Glasgow, while Gene Wilder makes his British stage debut in London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Reports that Suede are planning to change their name to Leather remained unconfirmed when the Independent on Sunday went to press, but given Tuesday's showing at the Glasgow Barrowland, I wouldn't bet against it. The band have taken their blazers and frilly shirts back to Oxfam, and now favour an all-black regulation rock'n'roll uniform, and a boost in volume and tempo to go with it. Brett Anderson has taken to hopping on and off the monitors, strangling the life out of microphone stands and swinging mike leads round his head, endangering his colleagues and their instruments in the process. Leather it is: as in "hell for".

Suede road-tested this approach on their last tour, when they were promoting the harrowing, majestic Dog Man Star (Nude); and they have multiplied it accordingly for their high-kicking, high-volume glam-pop album, Coming Up. However, this all-out attack is not necessarily an improvement, just as Simon Gilbert isn't necessarily doing himself any favours by pounding the drums as if he's beating time for the oarsmen on a Roman slave ship. It seems as if Suede are so intent to let the world know that they are still a force to be reckoned with (which they are), that they have opted for force where once there was lush and oblique balladry as well. Their punky perform- ance is like the desperate jollity of party guests covering their disappointment that the person they came to talk to won't be attending after all.

And in Suede's case, that person must be their former guitarist and songwriter, Bernard Butler. When he left, he took with him the heart of the band, leaving behind the pelvis and the guts. For a band in concert, of course, these latter two are vital parts of the anatomy, and Suede put both to good use. Butler's teenage replacement, Richard Oakes, is proving his worth, and in their new, fifth member, Neil Codling, they have an absolutely fascinating presence. Looking like Performance-era Mick Jagger, he sits behind a keyboard, aloof and inwardly amused, and when he does make a reluctant movement, it is slow, slight and reptilian. Suede deliver the goods, all right. It's just that they no longer, as it were, deliver the greats.

Suede must be sick of the name Bernard Butler, but surely even they would agree that it would be unrealistic to expect a key member's departure to make no difference whatsoever. This was especially apparent when Oakes duplicated Butler's guitar parts on "The Wild Ones" and "Animal Nitrate". Oakes himself has yet to come up with anything as distinctive. Still, it's to Suede Mark II's credit that they don't shy away from their pre-Coming Up material, even if they sometimes come close to trashing it. If only they realised that they would appear more confident if they played to their strengths, instead of playing with brute strength.

The Lemonheads, too, lost their guitarist/ songwriter in 1994, which could have been even more damaging for them than it has been for Suede: the guitarist/songwriter is the Lemonheads' only member. A band in name only, they consist of Evan Dando and whoever else is around. Dando was made a star by the befuddled sensitivity and effortless prettiness of It's a Shame About Ray and Come on, Feel the Lemonheads, and reacted to this dread predicament by testing how many different narcotics it was possible to ingest at once, for no obvious reason except that he was linked with the grunge scene, and that's the kind of thing that grunge people do.

But the latest Lemonheads line-up has their guitarist/songwriter back, and together they have produced car button cloth (EastWest), a varied and accessible happy-sad postcard from the edge that could be a collaboration between Jonathan Richman ("Outdoor Type") and Kurt Cobain ("Break Me", "Something's Missing"). Dando's voice is better than ever - the unguarded, cracking tones of a man rubbing the sleep from his eyes - and even when the sound darkens it retains his goofy, lopsided, puppy-dog character.

This is what you would have wanted Keanu Reeves's band to sound like (but then, you'd want Keanu Reeves's band to sound like anything other than it does).

So it's unfortunate that, live at the London Astoria on Thursday, the Lemonheads were a mess. Utterly different songs, such as "Outdoor Type" and "Losing Your Mind", were played to the same low, murky lighting, with the same murky arrangements: drumming too busy, guitars too fuzzy, as if the group were oblivious to the mood of the material. And if the Lemonheads were sloppy enough while they were playing, they were worse when they weren't, when they subjected the audience to repeated pauses for tuning, false starts, and chats among themselves.

These feel like uptight, stuffy complaints to make in the face of Dando's easy-going persona. "This is, like, a relaxed, unbuttoned atmosphere," he shrugged during yet another tuning break. "You'll have to get used to it." He is the sort of musician for whom putting on a show means showing up.

An awkwardly, huggably hunched figure, his clothes, his mike-stand and his guitar seem all to have shrunk in the wash. His hair is a 360-degree fringe with two cheekbones poking through so you can tell which way he's facing. For a minute during "Rudderless", he stood with his feet planted far apart like a real rock star, until he noticed what he was doing and quickly crumpled to his usual knock-kneed upright. Dando is just about charming enough to get away with this sort of un-performance, especially when he is on stage alone, accompanying the sweet, countryish ditties, "Big Gay Heart" and "(You Can Crash Out on) My Divan", with his own strummed guitar. But when the other guitarist, the bassist and the drummer are mucking things up, it's just dull. If Dando can't be bothered to rehearse his band, he should ensure that the next time a Lemonhead goes AWOL, it should be one - or all - of the others.

Suede: Leeds T&C (0113 280 0100), Mon; Hull City Hall (01482 328732), Tues; Kilburn National, NW6 (0171 328 3141), Thurs; Norwich UEA (01603 505401), Sun 13 Oct; Birmingham Que Club (0121 212 0550), 14 Oct.

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