THE CRITICS : Charlie Watts - the question is: Why?


A rustle of brushes on a snare. The clop of a high hat. The fizz of a ride cymbal. The ... no, that's everything. That was the eponymous drummer's contribution to the Charlie Watts Quintet's concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday. He didn't arrange the songs, he certainly didn't write them, and the crooning was left to the suave Bernard Fowler, a sometime Rolling Stones backing vocalist. Watts, in his Humphrey Bogart tuxedo, sat in the middle of the stage but in the background: white hair, dimples like trenches, hooked nose, dark, watery eyes. He flicked glances from the pianist and double-bassist on his left to the brass players on his right, with a wariness resulting from years of never knowing when a giant inflatable dog, a galaxy of fireworks, or Mick Jagger might burst into view. He was safe from such shocks tonight - much to my disappointment.

Ultimately, Watts's main contribution to the evening was his name. The 347th richest person in the country, he has emerged as the best-loved member of the Rolling Stones, because he is the only one who has kept his dignity, and the same wife, through the decades. His reputation also benefits from a well-worn piece of pop mythology that says he doesn't belong in the band at all: he's a jazz drummer who sold his soul to rock'n'roll and has been after a refund ever since. If nothing else, Tuesday's show refuted this old chestnut. Don't give up the day job, Charlie. I know it's only rock'n'roll, but try to learn to like it.

If he doesn't have the technique for jazz, he certainly has the hots for it. His new album, Long Ago and Far Away (Virgin), can hardly be called new at all. The songs are by Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong and the Gershwins, and on Tuesday Watts treated them so reverentially that you wondered if he wouldn't have been happier just putting on his favourite old 78s for us to hear. The Metropolitan Orchestra's arrangements had some prickly discordance, but Fowler was restrained and Watts dared not interrupt the flow by acknowledging the audience or by changing the pace from slow, sentimental ballads - let alone by inviting Ron Wood onstage to blast through "Satisfaction". After 30 years with the Stones, Watts must have enjoyed hitting the snare on beats of the bar other than the second and fourth, and compared with marrying schoolgirls or trying to be a movie star, playing in the Quintet is a harmless enough extra-curricular activity. But it's less a case of Charlie Watts than of "Charlie, why?"

Winning a Brit has done wonders for Eddi Reader. On her last tour she was, if not an ugly duckling, certainly an awkward ostrich, but at the Empire on Thursday, she was more of a peacock. Where once were the trademark specs, there are now specks of glittery eyeshadow. The crusty dress has been replaced by spangly leggings and a pink top like a fluffy toilet- roll cover. The stage, too, had had a makeover, and was adorned with drawing- room furniture, plus fairy lights on every available surface - including, we were to discover, Reader's toilet-roll-cover top.

However, as she hopped, skipped and jumped onto armchairs and off pouffes, all the diva-ish glamour seemed embarrassingly unsuitable. She's still the class clown, as much as she pretends to be a class act. And her music, apart from the brassy torch song "Town Without Pity", is still lilting ceilidh pop, all acoustic guitars and brushes tippety-tapping on the drums.

Reader specialises in pointed, poignant vignettes, mostly co-written by tonight's guitarist, Boo Hewerdine. He's a worthy talent but tends to spread a verse of ideas over a whole song, and as a consequence, there is lots to like on the new album, Candyfloss and Medicine (Blanco Y Negro) - or at least to appreciate - but little to love. Reader has become an easy-listening act for an audience aged thirtysomething, and rising. On the other hand, she played a rockabilly version of "Perfect" and she has a magical voice, as pure as a penny whistle and as expressive as a violin. She has a future as a Celine Dion if she wants it. For now, she can't seem to make up her mind what she wants.

With only the sleeve photos of Me'Shell Ndegeocello on her new album, Peace Beyond Passion, to go on, I was quite surprised that she was wearing any clothes at all at the London Forum on Wednesday, and I was particularly surprised that those sober garments included a scarf wound round her neck and a pair of bookish black-rimmed glasses. True, the iconoclastic poetry she sang and rapped marks her down as an unusually intelligent pop person, but her music is sensual, too: a dramatic, unruly funk with Isaac Hayes overtones. Ndegeocello is on Madonna's label, Maverick, whose biggest triumph is Alanis Morissette, so maybe her boss likes to sign up kindred spirits: physically small, multi-talented, multi-syllabic women with a grudge against the Church.

Eddi Reader: Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (01705 863911), Wed; Leeds Irish Ctr (0113 274 2486), Thurs; Cambridge Corn Exchange (01223 357851), 5 Aug; Manchester Univ (0161 832 1111), 6 Aug; Aberdeen Music Hall (01224 632080), 13 Aug; then touring.

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