The Critics: The worst concert I've ever seen?

ROCK

For all their bad press, there's a lot to be said for gigs in stadiums. Unlike the average club, a stadium does not persist in reminding us that rock'n'roll is the devil's music by being hot, smoky and teeming. Then there is the buzz of seeing the synchronised waving of 60,000 pairs of arms, a phenomenon which makes the whole venue seem to alternate between two shades of pink. For the reasons above, Bryan Adams's show at Wembley Stadium wasn't the worst concert I've ever attended. For the reasons below, it was close.

"I swear to you/I will always be there for you/There's nothin' I won't do/I promise you/All my life I will live for you/We will make it through/Forever, we will be/Together, you and me." The writer of these words is 36. He makes a substantial part of his substantial fortune penning songs. He marries his limp and stupid phrases to exhausted riffs. To conjoin two metaphors in a phrase that constitutes a traffic hazard, he is abetted by a band who are both pedestrian and middle-of-the-road. He makes music for those who don't like to be troubled by the iconoclastic concepts advanced by Oasis, and for those whose ears rebel at the avant-garde extremism of Status Quo.

He wasn't always this terrible. On "Cuts Like a Knife" and "Run to You" he at least made an effort, but that was before he hooked up with co-writer/producer Mutt Lange (come the revolution Lange will be standing between Diane Warren and Celine Dion, up against the wall) and ended up with Waking Up the Neighbours, and his new album, 18 'Til I Die (A&M), whose title was inspired by its makers' IQ. It comes to something when the most subtle and ingenious song on your record is called "The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me is You". Looking on the bright side, Waking Up the Neighbours came out in 1991, so at that rate of production, if Nostradamus is to be trusted, the world will have ended before Adams releases another album.

As much effort went into the show as it did the songs. "(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear" - love those brackets, Bry - was graced with the show's only visual props: two giant inflatable amputee torsos, clad only in their smalls. Adams's other concessions to the notion that he wasn't rehearsing in his garage were to invite a fan onstage to sing a verse of "Summer of '69", as he has done for the past couple of tours, and to move to a platform in the middle of the stadium for some hackneyed cover versions, as he has done for the past couple of tours.

He gets away with it, because ... he's an ordinary guy. That's what we're always told in mitigation. Adams is just your regular, model-dating millionaire- next-door. If his abilities seem modest, that's OK, because so is he. Well, just remember, it's that specious reasoning that people use as an excuse for supporting John Major.

My sanity was saved by Dar Williams at London's Purcell Room on Monday. Two days after Adams's show, it was a relief to hear the word "you" at the end of a line without being depressingly certain that "do", "true", "through", or indeed "you" would be at the end of the next. However, for the first third of her show (yes, Dar is a woman's name) it was possible to make out only one of Williams's words in three. Her acoustic guitar was amplified too loudly for her nervously wavering voice, and her irritating fanclub showed their appreciation by whooping and clapping even louder. This was particularly criminal considering how evocative and cleverly placed each word is. No review could be as persuasive as reprinting her lyric booklet.

In America, Williams (28, looks 10 years younger) is seen as part of a folk resurgence. A New Englander in a prim, floor-length skirt, she has a multi-octave warble that might remind you of either Alanis Morissette or Joni Mitchell, depending on your generation. Her songs radiate sensitivity and glimmer with humour, and she is drawn to characters who yearn for connection and warmth in a cold world - literally, in the case of "Mortal City", the title track of her new Grapevine album. It's a mesmeric, lump- in-the-throat story, balanced by the unforced comedy of "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed" ("We used to say that our love was like hemp rope, three times as strong as the rope that you buy domestically... ") and "The Christians and the Pagans", which has more generosity of spirit than a stack of Christmas compilation albums, but which is destined not to feature on any until narratives about Pagan lesbians coming to stay for Solstice are perceived as wholesome family fare.

Williams's best compositions are so fabulous that one is compelled to be lenient on the Irritating Fanclub. "Now I can die happy!" yelled one of them after Williams played his request. "That's good," she responded, "that takes the pressure off my next songwriting venture."

The next night at the Purcell Room, it was the turn of Ron Sexsmith, a 32-year-old Canadian who resembles the young Brian Wilson with a worse haircut. Comparing Sexsmith to great male singer-songwriters of history is a favourite hobby among music writers, so I'll add that his cracked groan is reminiscent of Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly. It's a twisted, barbed wire of a voice that snags on the emotions and pulls them along behind it.

Squeezed into a suit jacket that makes him look like a nine-year-old dressed up against his will for his uncle's wedding, Sexsmith bears a strain of anti-macho nerdiness that has passed from Holly, through Wilson, to Elvis Costello. Since Costello nominated Ron Sexsmith (MCA) as his favourite album of 1995, he has been trampled in the stampede of people adding their praises. It was a stampede which I didn't rush to join: after Williams's wordsmithery, Sexsmith's understated, shambling folk-pop can come across as lovely in a vague, simple way, but not exactly auguring a unique personality. Live, though, this simplicity seems more like the classic beauty and emotional ingenuousness of a campfire country ballad. And if the album verges on the morose, in concert the music is unexpectedly cheery, and Sexsmith is a diffidently funny host with all the unique personality we could want.

His acoustic guitar was ably supplemented by a drummer who used the world's smallest kit to create more sounds than you'd expect from a kit three times the size, and who, together with the bopping bassist, provided banjo, accordion and harmony vocals. But as the solo ballads proved, the band was just a bonus tacked on to Sexsmith and his songs. He falls somewhere between Difford & Tilbrook and Neil Young and Costello and Jackson Browne and ... never mind. In years to come, great male singer-songwriters will be compared to Ron Sexsmith.

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