These feet are made for shuffling

ROCK
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You wouldn't think that Suzanne Vega had attended New York's High School for the Performing Arts. I watched every episode of Fame, and I don't remember any prim, thoughtful folk singers among the legwarmers. Yet Vega was a dance student there - and not only did she attempt some stiff shuffling at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday, she repeatedly ticked off the rest of us for not following suit. "You have to be cool," she chided sarcastically, "because this is London."

She's one to talk. Cerebral reserve is her trademark, after all. Vega defrosts a little on her new album, Nine Objects of Desire (A&M), thanks largely to some warm production by her curiously named husband, Mitchell Froom. The result is a typically consistent collection of articulate and pretty - if slightly flimsy - songs. But despite the presence of Froom on keyboards and the Attractions' Pete Thomas on drums, her live band failed to recreate the record's organic feel. They didn't meld. Slouching anonymously behind Vega, they had all the versatility you'd expect from seasoned session musicians - but then they also had their harshness and steril- ity, too. For all the tapes and samples filling in the gaps, the band still sounded as if not everyone had turned up.

Perhaps La Vega should concentrate less on moving our feet and more on moving the rest of us. The atmosphere intensified only when the band's backing was either minimal or non-existent, and we could concentrate on Vega's urgent whisper and her simple acoustic guitar. The best songs, then, were unplugged renditions of "Small Blue Thing", "Neighbourhood Girls" and "The Queen and the Soldier". A sudden loud strum during that last song was all it took to make the heart twinge: and that was the most physical effect that Vega elicited all night.

To see how easy it is for some bands to get the audience dancing, we turn to Audioweb at the Hanover Grand on Monday. Martin Merchant, their vocalist, possesses both the womanly croon of McAlmont and the manly muttering of Shaggy, not to mention the build of an American footballer and the confidence of a champion boxer. "I can sing soul," he bragged, mid-tune. "I can sing reggae! I can sing rock! Easy! Lemon-squeezy!" So as not to appear too big-headed, he included his colleagues in his rodomontade, too. "We're a world-beating band! The people have woken up and smelt the coffee!" And who would argue with that? No one who didn't fancy their chances in a punch-up, that's for sure.

You'd have to be foolhardy, as well as a little cruel, to comment that Merchant's boasting was based on one thing: the news that Audioweb's cover of the Clash's "Bank Robber" had scraped into the Top 20. If that's enough to qualify you as a world-beater, Menswear must rule the galaxy. Still, the shaven-headed "Afro-Saxon" is justified in his opinion that there is more to Audioweb than their current single, as anyone who owns their eponymous debut album will know. With Black Grape beats, full-throttle John Squire riffs and the Gallaghers' attitude, Audioweb are woven from some of the strongest threads that Manchester bands have to offer.

As yet, though, the four-piece don't have songs or musicianship as distinctive as those of their fellow Mancunians, and their unique rock-reggae-dance hybrid is possibly too multicultural for its own commercial good. Still, Merchant seems destined to become a star through sheer force of will. "Let me tell you something," he bellowed, holding the crowd in a stern glare. "It's not easy being in a group on stage! It's frightening! But I'm not frightened of nothing - 'cept King Kong." Having witnessed the ferocious hurricane of indignation which Merchant directed at someone in the audience who spat at him, I wouldn't put my money on the giant ape.

Finally, Phish, who should be as terrible as their name. But the evidence is stacked against them. They played at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Thursday, but in America they sell out stadiums. They look like four ex- hippy college professors, 10 years after Woodstock. And their endless, complex, improvisational jazz-rock has elicited one too many comparisons with Santana, Steely Dan and the Grateful Dead. (Their fans, inevitably, are "Phish-heads", although I'd cast my vote for "Phish- phingers".) Phish will never hook a British audience, Mojo subscribers excepted.

And yet, if you do brave their new album, Billy Breathes (EastWest), its symphonic richness, its diversity, its exploration and - for all that - its well-structured, unpretentious tunes, might just have you thinking the treacherous thought that these chaps are more like the Beatles than some of our boys.

Audioweb: Hull Room (01482 323154), Mon; Sheffield Univ (0114 272 4076), Tues; Liverpool Univ (0151 794 4116), Wed.

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