The Critics: No new story, but with Oasis that's the glory

You'd think there would be plenty to say about Oasis. Wednesday's show at Newcastle Arena was one of their first in the UK since their gigs- cum-refugee camps in Knebworth and Loch Lomond last summer, and in the meantime they've stumbled to the verge of splitting up, before rushing back with an album, Be Here Now (Creation), which has already sold as many copies as a product can without promising to donate a portion of its profits to the Diana Memorial Fund. You'd think their tour would merit the reddest of red letter days on the rock'n'roll calendar.

On the other hand, when you go to see Oasis in concert, you don't have to be psychic to know what you're getting for your money (eg, no spontaneity, no radical changes of direction, no tapdancing). So, from the viewpoint of a cosseted journalist who didn't even have to pay for his ticket, let alone sit by the phone pressing the redial button for two hours, there wasn't all that much to look forward to. What, in short, was the story?

The first thing to report is that this time around Oasis have made an effort. They've designed a stage set based on their horrible album cover, so the drum riser is a Rolls-Royce with flashing headlamps, a giant clockface looms overhead, and the band open the show by stepping out of an outsized phone box, an idea they took from either Peter Gabriel or Dr Who. They power into the new album's title-track, and it's loud, sexy and fun. It looks as if they might be about to surpass themselves.

They don't - in part because they're thrown off their stride when Noel's amp breaks down halfway through. Still, the gig isn't worse than normal either. It's business as usual. There's Liam, almost bent double, hands behind his back, Groucho Marx in a cagoule. There's the not- excessively-talented Guigsy and Bonehead - surely the luckiest men in rock - turning to face their amps and tune their guitars after every song, like two mechanical mannequins on a town square clock. And there's the material from Be Here Now, sounding better than it does on the record, incidentally, but already fitting in with the songs from earlier albums so snugly that you can't see the joins.

To stray too far from the formula would be to threaten the most important element of Oasis's shows: the community spirit. Their onstage banter may amount to an update of the football score, but they lead singalongs that would put Chas'n'Dave to shame, blasting out tunes so big that everyone can grab hold of them, with the notable exception of the two girls standing behind me. The whole crowd joins in, so the gig is less a remote group performing to its audience, and more a gathering of equals: ironically, it's Noel's extraordinary melodic gift that shrinks the gap between him and the rest of us.

In interviews, Noel says that Oasis are loved for their "ordinariness", and one could see what he meant on Wednesday. It didn't matter that he has taken tea with the PM, or that on the day the album was released, his brother was photographed on a yacht with a topless supermodel. The Gallaghers are still the same people as they were when they led average lives, so they make their fans feel good about leading average lives themselves.

This bond between audience and band is a precious one, but Oasis might do better not to rely on it. Remember, just three years ago, they were seen as aloof and menacing. Admittedly, it's hard to keep up the thrilling me-and-you-against-the-world attitude of "Live Forever" ("Maybe you're the same as me / We see things they'll never see") when everybody bar George Harrison is singing your praises. But on Be Here Now Oasis have moved through the gangshow of "all my people right here right now", to the all-embracing "All Around the World", illustrated tonight with a spinning globe projected onto a circular screen. When you're being this explicit and self-conscious about appealing to everyone on the planet, you can't risk attempting anything which might endanger that appeal.

There are moments when something upsets the cosy inclusiveness: Liam's savage vocals on "Live Forever", Noel's explosive guitar on "Acquiesce", the warped psychedelia of "Fade-In Out". They're the best parts of the concert.

At times, it's hard to pinpoint what makes Oasis more credible than the participants in Music for Montserrat at the Albert Hall on Monday. This was a charity concert organised by George Martin, legendary producer of the Beatles, and was preceded by a fairly predictable share of press snarling. It took two tacks: "Why have they chosen this charity instead of any other deserving causes?" and, "Aren't they all boring old gits, anyway?"

To answer the former question, it seemed absolutely right and proper that those involved should come together in aid of a cause with which they all feel personally involved. The only hint of embarrassment attached to the laudable War Child album arose from the accompanying interviews, in which the contributing bands admitted that they hadn't a clue about the Bosnian situation. Whereas, the stricken island of Montserrat was home to George Martin's Air Studios, and Monday's performers all recorded albums there.

The Old Gittishness of the evening's artistes is a charge that's harder to answer. Paul McCartney, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, Midge Ure and Carl Perkins aren't, I hope, anyone's definition of cutting edge, but it was the audience that was really damning. The rapture that greeted "Money for Nothing" played by Knopfler, Clapton, Sting and Collins suggested that for this crowd, popular music had reached its zenith.

But the fact remains that George Martin always comes across as the most dignified man in the world, and the gracious performers stuck to two or three of their greatest hits each. Besides, it's not often you get to see Carl Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes", or Paul McCartney playing "Yesterday", "Hey Jude", "Kansas City" and, rarest of all, the finale of the Abbey Road medley, complete with orchestra, choir and a gang of superstars. It's worth sitting through a few Elton John ballads for that.

Oasis: Sheffield Arena (0114 256 5656), Mon & Tues; Earls Court Exhibition Ctr, SW5 (0171 373 8141), Thurs-Sat; Birmingham National Indoor Arena (0121 780 4133), 29 & 30 Sept. Next week's Rock column will review the latest record releases.

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