ROCK
Although it's just a few years since kd lang came out of the closet, nowadays she wouldn't know the closet if it slammed shut on her nose. First there was the Vanity Fair cover which depicted her sitting happily in a barber's chair, with Cindy Crawford as the undressed barber. Then on Tuesday she floated and sashayed across the stage with a sultry confidence that Cindy couldn't work up on her best day. The opening songs were from her latest album, All You Can Eat (WEA), and the titles were enough to let you know what's on her one-track mind: "Sexuality", "I Want It All", "Get Some", "Maybe". Lock up your daughters, indeed.

"I know it's a new venue [the Birmingham Academy, a curtained-off slice of the National Indoor Arena], but I want you to feel free," she said in one of her many comedy monologues. "Tonight's show, it's not just about the complete entertainment package. It's a convention. A convention for the unconventional. It's a church meeting, really." And so on and on.

And yet, there are parts of herself that she can't come to terms with, a few skeletons in the aforementioned closet. "I was," she admitted, "a country singer in a former life." Her new songs have a sliding, supple, Oriental chromaticism - a country 'n' eastern feel - and she seems embarrassed by the more obviously melodramatic material from her yee-hah days. Suffering from mad cowgirl disease, she can't sing country without covering it in hammy irony and a rhinestoned toreador's jacket. In a film of her life, Darlene from Roseanne should take the lead. Still, for someone with her tongue in her cheek, she has an unstoppably powerful, steely voice, tempered with a longing ache.

As she romped through "What's New Pussycat?", fans bombarded her with underwear, which brings us to the other aspect of herself that makes her uncomfortable: stardom. While saluting its benefits - "swimming pools, movie stars, the occasional date with a model" - she continually derided her status. "That's one thing that fascinates me about celebrity," she said to the huddle at the front of the stage. "People adore your shoes."

The arch humour made for, as promised, the complete entertainment package. It did tend to exclude graver emotions, though. Before her last song, she suddenly announced: "In this world where lovers and friends are dying, remember that love is the most precious thing we have." Where's the smirk, we wondered? Where's the punchline? It's hard to take lang seriously, when she takes herself so lightly.

The next time Eric Clapton lectures you on gaudy gimmickry being anathema to the spirit of the Blues, tell him to see Rufus Thomas. As well as having the honour of being the oldest person ever reviewed in this column, Thomas had Sun Records's first hit single, well before they signed up that Presley chap. Now 79, the Memphis legend looks like a black Santa Claus, minus the subtle dress sense. At London's Rhythmic Club on Monday, he wore silver sequinned jacket, matching shorts, and black boots. As if that weren't purist-scaring enough, he grinned, gurned and pelvic-thrusted through the show with a mischievous charisma that's only been enhanced by age. He still does "Walking the Dog" and "The Funky Chicken". This man knows neither meaning of the word "retiring".

Thomas has just released the unambiguously named Blues Thang! (Sequel). Eschewing the Old-Bluesman-New-Album stand-bys - contrived modernisation and guest spots by a Rolling Stone or two - it is an effortlessly stylish delight. If you buy just one Blues album this year . . .

His show is not quite as entertaining, because he sometimes forgets the Blues altogether, in the midst of interminable instrumentals, and even longer vocal rambles. But when he is not chatting, or revelling in the responsive precision of his band, he sings with a crackling, gurgling voice that would do Screaming Jay Hawkins proud. He's no spring chicken, but he's still funky.

Hip-hop fans will tell you that their pet sound is a risk-taking, ground- breaking genre which leaves rock in the Stone Age. But after seeing some rap shows, most recently Los Angeles's Cypress Hill at the London Forum on Wednesday, I'm starting to feel that many hip-hoppers have simply replaced heavy metal's worst cliches with a set of their own. The mating call of the long-haired guitar-strangler - "Hello Cleveland! Do you wanna rock?" - has been merely modified in rap gig after rap gig to "Throw your hands in the air!" and "Make some noise!"

Did I say a new set of cliches? Like the saddest gang of textbook hard rockers, Cypress Hill address the audience as Oedipuses (or an English slang translation of Oedipuses, anyway). They decorate their albums with horror-film imagery, and they have the same juvenile pseudo-rebellion (there is a rumour, which remains unfounded, that one of their songs does not mention cannabis), the same thuggish machismo, even the same veneration of percussion solos.

These factors could explain why Cypress Hill cross over to the hip-hop- phobic market. On the other hand, it could be down to the rapping, but it's hard to be sure. You can just about hear the clucking, constipated vocals over the bass throb, but you can make out precious few of the words. Their success couldn't be attributed to imagination or energy, anyway. You won't see many stage routines as old as the Hill's.

kd lang: Manchester Apollo, 0161 242 2560, Mon & Tues; and touring. Rufus Thomas: Norwich UEA, 01603 505401, tonight; Sheffield Leadmill, 0114 275 4500, Mon; Cheltenham Town Hall, 01242 521621, Tues.

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