When small is no longer Beautiful

THE CRITICS Paul Heaton would require considerably more surgery than Paula Yates to look like Michael Hutchence; Tonight, Ian Broudie's tunes were as out of place as a Pet Shop Boys' T-shirt at a Black Sabbath concert

WHAT happens when a band designed for intimate venues - as intimate, in fact, as a bedroom with a record player in it - suddenly becomes popular enough to fill the Wembley Arena?

For The Beautiful South, a stadium was no more than a place to see Hull City until their Best Of collection, Carry On Up the Charts (Go! Discs), became last year's surprise smash-hit album. It has now sold in excess of two million copies, but that doesn't mean the group are INXS. Witness Paul Heaton's strip-tease: "D'you mind if I take me shoes off? Bit like Michael Hutchence when 'e takes 'is top off. So let's have a cheer when I take 'em off." He kicked his white trainer in the air, skilfully failed to catch it, and padded around in his stripy socks for a few songs, before slowly putting his shoes back on again. Slimmer and more mischievously mobile than on their last tour, he'd still require considerably more surgery than Paula Yates to look like Michael Hutchence, and he's not about to pretend otherwise.

Witness also his songwriting partner, Dave Rotheray, who, while twanging the polite guitar solo of "Song for Whoever", plodded to the front of the stage and methodically placed one foot on a monitor amp (Government Approved Rock Star stance No 3) to a parodic scream of Beautimania from the crowd.

The Beautiful South spit beer in the chiselled, lightly stubbled face of stadium rock. Heaton's heckler-baiting gets less and less comfortable as the concert goes on, his smoking gets more and more incessant (which makes it amazing that his voice is so robust), and he introduces two songs as "shit" (they're not).

TBS's gift is to set exquisitely ugly words to gorgeous music, to be both ironic and heartfelt, romantic and cynical, lovable and misanthropic. But despite a tight, perky brass section and a set of singalong favourites, they tipped too far towards ugliness, irony, cynicism and misanthropy tonight. It didn't help that one of the three vocalists, Jacqueline Abbott, was off being pregnant somewhere, thereby shrinking the band's range. Often they still sounded beautiful, but overall they were just

The support band had a rather more conventional approach to arena rock. The Lightning Seeds, to stick with band-name puns for a moment, added some thunder to the mix.

A burble of bass lays a foundation, a synth wow arcs over the top, there's a tension-building scramble round the drum-kit, and they whack into "Marvellous" as if their live reputation depends on it. It's raw, it's rocking, and it sounds pretty dreadful.

The Lightning Seeds used to be no more than a name Ian Broudie gave to his solo studio tinkerings, and they germinated into a proper band only last year, playing their first gig at London's Borderline club, a cantina about the size of one of Wembley's toilets. Then as now, they had exuberance and attitude. But on Tuesday it seemed that the guitar, bass and drums had got together and decided to form a heavy metal band, and no one had told the vocals - or the songs. Broudie favours a hollow, sleep-talking voice, and his last album, Jollification (Epic), is stuffed with twinkling, honey-coated electro-pop tunes. Tonight, those tunes and that voice were as out of place as a Pet Shop Boys T-shirt at a Black Sabbath concert.

When Garbage came on at the London Forum on Thursday, the crowd went mad. This could have been because they'd been kept waiting until 10.15. But a more likely cause was the perfectly named Shirley Manson, formerly of Edinburgh's Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. Dressed in more eyeliner than clothes, and barely fatter than the feather boa-wrapped mike stand in front of her, she intoned "Bow down to me" in one song, purred "You can touch me if you want" in the next, and growled "My only comfort is the night gone black" in the one after that. She is Morticia Addams as played by Kate Moss. She is every indie kid's fantasy. Most of them, though, would rather touch the drummer.

Last year Manson was recruited by three American musos who never quite made it in their own bands, so paid the rent by producing other people's records. In the case of drummer Butch Vig, these included Nirvana's Nevermind, probably the best rock album of the Nineties.

He and his colleagues, in various stages of hair loss, have taken to live performing with born-again zeal. At their first UK gig, they made use of an extra guitarist and some keyboards, samples and percussion tracks to recreate their eponymous debut (on Mushroom), an album with that consistent Nevermind feel of a Greatest Hits compilation. There's disco grunge with crafty lyrics and vicious hooks, moody darkness free of any real gloom or angst, and a singer with a shapely forehead and better legs than the pair that showed through the rips in Kurt Cobain's jeans.

I hope I've succeeded in getting across the idea that I was wise to Garbage's calculating, polished, producers' little game, and that I was able to smirk at the feckless saddies who let themselves be fooled. It's a completely false idea, but I hope I've got it across. If not, I'll have to admit that Garbage were sensational. The moment of dead silence after the first bar of "Supervixen", the pounding chorus of "Not My Idea", the searing laser guitar ...

I don't think they'll have any problems adapting themselves to arenas, which is where they'll be playing very soon.

The Beautiful South, with the Lightning Seeds: Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133), Mon; Manchester G-Mex (0161 832 9000), Tues; Glasgow SECC (0141 248 9999), Wed.

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