`I don't just feel nervous at the beginning. I feel nervous all the way through': Judie Tzuke hits the comeback trail

Serena Mackesy In my week
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It's not been a week when showbiz has shown itself in its most attractive light. Chris Evans throwing his weight about, and Brian Harvey yet again thinking that pretending his hands are pistols in publicity stills makes him intelligent enough to open his mouth in public, know what I mean. Meanwhile, a nice girl from Weybridge has been packing her backing singers into the back of a Vauxhall Vectra and covering a stack of motorway miles in a bid to make a lot of people very happy.

Judie Tzuke may not have the Gallagher brothers' capacity for assuring their audience that they are witnessing history, but at 36 she's a little slice of it in her own right: someone who was big in the Seventies, who can still pack 'em in in the Nineties. And what's more, the blonde balladeer hasn't even had to resort to self-pastiche, like many of the acts still on the road. She's done it by keeping things small. The car is on loan for the month from BSM, one of her singers is something by way of a stepdaughter, and much of the audience has been in love with her since her biggest single, "Stay With Me Till Dawn", echoed round their bedrooms the first time they got their hearts broken. Going to see Judie is like going to see your hippie sister and realising she's been pretty cool all along.

At the Jazz Cafe on Sunday, they were hanging from the rafters. The blue- lit well of the main auditorium seethed with the genteel anticipation of bottled beer drinkers who'd turned up with their mates and their girlfriends. The night before I'd been in a club in Balham where you couldn't turn round without impaling yourself on a goatee. This crowd sported no peculiar facial hair of any sort. And they were doing things like smiling and talking to their neighbour, a breach of gig etiquette on a par with saying "excuse me" or admitting you paid for your ticket. This sort of thing has got to stop: heaven knows what sort of state the country will get into if everyone starts being nice.

On the balcony, people leaned elbows on the tables and broke bread together. This just ain't London. A plate of chips prefabricated in a factory and poured from freezer to frier, maybe, or a saucer containing 12 marinated olives with a few bits of garlic that costs pounds 3.50, but the clatter of knives and forks and the murmur of voices? No. I was so disconcerted I found myself tempted to try a smile on the woman next to me. I did. She smiled back. Truly bizarre.

The band made their way out of the dressing rooms, down the stairs and onto the cramped stage. People whooped a bit and shouted things like "Hello, Judie!". Judie, long, white-blonde hair and black Ghost coat, grinned shyly. Genuine shyness: nearly 20 years since Elton John discovered her, she still has to be hypnotised to get out there.

We have had a bit of a chat and she's completely sweet: no side to her at all, no evident arrogance, though God knows you'd have thought you'd need some arrogance to get through a career spanning seven record labels and setting up one of your own. "I don't just feel nervous at the beginning. I feel nervous all the way through. And the next day I just feel completely drained. I'm not good at judging how it's going, to be honest. I was watching this video of myself the other day and I'm furious at the audience in it, because I think they're not standing up enough. But they were a fantastic audience. It's just my music is not exactly leaping up-and-down stuff."

She's right. They don't leap up and down. What they do is sway. Looking down on the crowd from above is like watching a wave machine. It starts with the people at the front, but the people at the front of any gig are the most willing to go into trance. Halfway through the first song, the front row is well-settled into the hardened fan's head-bob. It must be very disconcerting to look down from a stage and see lines and lines of people looking like they're sitting on the back shelf of a car along with the Kleenex box. Halfway through the set, they're all at it.

What is also evident is that everybody knows all the lyrics. Fiftysomethings and late teenagers stand side by side, mouthing, closing their eyes or fixing them on Judie's face, and they're all word-perfect. As someone who has been known to do the same to everything Van Morrison ever wrote, down to the "ma-ma-ma"s, I can respect this. "I think," says the friend who's with me into my ear, "that quite a lot of these people have bars in their living rooms." I think that's a bit unfair. They're more Indian print sofa-throw than bar stool.

Later, after a couple of encores and a load of cuddling, Judie sits, still shaking, in the dressing room. The fans are trailing out happy into the Camden night to go home and mouth the lyrics along with the record- player. I ask what it's like to have everyone join in like that. "Ooh," she says, "it's great. Some of them know my stuff better than I do. Sometimes I can't remember the words, but they'll fill them in for me. There's a lady who comes to all my gigs and stands at the front; I can always look at her if I get stuck."

Tour continues to 11 Feb; call 01932 859472 for details