MANY'S the rock concert when you find yourself sardined in the middle of a club at 10 at night, legs aching, support band a distant memory, headline band still scaling the lager/cocaine/ groupie mountain in their dressing room, and you wonder whether gig-goers of the Fifties and early Sixties might have had it better. Back in them days, concerts started at seven o'clock prompt, and the acts would zip on one after another: Jerry Lee Lewis, the Supremes, the Beatles, Cilla Black. You'd buy a bag of chips and your bus ticket home, and you'd still have change out of a farthing.

So, I'm quite fond of the NME sponsored Brats shows, particularly the line-up which buses around the country, and which parked at the London Astoria last Sunday. You get four bands for your money, and if none of them are stars of Cilla's stature, they all have potential.

First group of the evening was Theaudience. If Elastica and S*M*A*S*H surfed the New Wave of the New Wave, or NWONW for short, then Theaudience must be NWONWONW. Their songs are refreshingly neat and controlled: a reaction, maybe, against the sprawling expanses through which Oasis and the Verve slog. And they're reminiscent of Blondie before they play a note. Five men-in-black mill around behind a mini-skirted, high-heeled woman who is destined to be described by music critics as "an indie-kid's poster girl" (that way they can suggest that some people consider her attractive, without admitting that they might agree). The woman in question is Sophie Ellis-Bextor and she is the daughter - prepare to feel old - of Janet Ellis, golden-age Blue Peter presenter. So it's perhaps not surprising that, while she has the physique to be a new Debbie Harry, she doesn't quite have the persona. When she's not singing, she glances around sheepishly, hands clasped, and looks less like a rock chick with attitude than a nervous girl waiting for either a bus or a kerb-crawler.

Her voice doesn't remind you of Harry - or Janet Ellis - but of Chrissie Hynde. It's clear and honeyed, and gives Theaudience a distinctiveness that might be missing otherwise, for all their Elvis-Costello-and-the- Attractions-era textures. If none of the other songs is as memorable as the title of the current single, "If You Can't Do It When You're Young, When Can You Do It?", the overall sound is still a beguiling one. It must be, because after a while the band's name doesn't seem so off-puttingly terrible after all.

The Warm Jets are another NWONWONW band, who bounce through a hard-to- pin-down fusion of US grunge and Squeeze-style Britpop. They also have a female keyboard player and bassist. I know this should be irrelevant, but try to imagine how noteworthy it must seem to someone who has seen 60 musicians play in the last fortnight, of whom a grand total of three were women. Besides, when there's a female instrumentalist in a male-dominated band, whether it's Sonic Youth, the Pixies, the Velvet Underground or Talking Heads, it usually means there's some spark of intelligence and skewed sophistication in there.

Anyway, Warm Jets are a value-for-money, equal-opportunity, three-pin- up band. As well as the two women, there is Louis Jones, a peroxide singer/guitarist who was, until recently, going out with Zoe Ball. Interestingly enough, he resembles the guitarist from Dodgy, who was, until recently, going out with Denise Van Outen. If those couples ever went on a double date, they would have risked forgetting who was who.

Each of the evening's bands comes complete with an introductory piece of trivia. Theaudience's nugget is that the singer has a famous mum, the Warm Jets' is that the singer had a famous girlfriend. More enviably, the one thing that anyone seeing Asian Dub Foundation for the first time will know is that Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie named them as the best band in the country. Whether or not he would sit down and argue this with Radiohead or Spiritualized or Pulp, there's no doubting that ADF do a remarkable job of making most of the bands you see in concert look like a waste of money. The keyboard player boogies like a robot practising karate, the guitarist legs it up and down the stage, eyes rolling and mouth open, as if he's racing to the rabies clinic. In fact, ADF's high-energy bombardment of sirens, scratching, sitar samples and shouted slogans is so uplifting that none of the band can resist dancing to it, and even the Warm Jets' bassist runs onstage to join in.

Saddled with the task of following ADF are the Stereophonics, and if you've heard their top-10 album Word Gets Around (V2), you'd think they were more than up to the challenge. Word Gets Around is a tremendously assured debut. Its songs are superbly crafted vignettes, with each literate line pressing hard on the heels of the last one and hurrying towards a grand, chantable chorus. Even if the band weren't a trio from Wales, you'd still feel justified in labelling them the Manic Street Preachers With Good Lyrics.

But compared to the other acts, the Stereophonics seem ponderous and samey, weighed down by a chugging bass, a strenuous, mid-Atlantic bawl, and a guitar that gives you a headache. And their approach to live performance doesn't help. There are some nights when you can get away with being unassuming ordinary boys, proud of having no image, whacking out one song after another, your mind on less superficial things than the frills of presentation. But when Asian Dub Foundation, Warm Jets and Theaudience are on the bill, it's not one of those nights.

Maybe that's why there aren't many multi-tiered gigs these days. The more bands there are beneath you on the bill, the more chance there is that at least one of them will come across better than you.