28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 41

Gig deficit

Charles Spencer

Towards the end of his life, John Betjeman, by then in the cruel grip of Parkinson's disease, was asked in a BBC documentary if he had any regrets. Not enough sex,' he replied with devastating candour.

I'm pretty sure that, when the grim reaper comes for me, a similar thought will be echoing bleakly round my brain, always provided, of course, that I still have a brain that works. But there will be a second, lesser regret — not enough gigs.

I got off to a flying start when it came to pop concerts. As I have written here previously, my dear old dad bravely took me to see Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd when I was still at prep school and I have almost equally fond memories of The Who playing at a cinema in Kingston (yes, Keith Moon did destroy his drum kit at the end of a blinding, deafening set); and of Blind Faith in Hyde Park.

During my time at Charterhouse and Oxford. I was a pretty regular gig-goer. My memories of many of the shows are blurred by a fog of booze and sometimes dope, but Captain Beefheart at the New Theatre, Oxford, Family at the Lyceum, and Jeff Beck at the Roundhouse all stand out in clear definition. The Faces and Ten Years After at the Reading Festival were pretty fab too. I particularly welcomed the arrival of pub rock, which let you see decent bands up close and personal, with a pint of beer in your hand. There was a cracking outfit called Racing Cars who regularly played the Nashville in west London (if memory serves, Martin Amis was a big fan), and a smashing group from Southend called the Kursaal Fliers, led by the spivvily charismatic, pencil mustached Paul Shuttleworth. I bought their `best of' album the other week and it's still tremendously entertaining.

But when punk arrived I felt far too old, at 22, to cope with all that spitting, pogoing and general unpleasantness, and, apart from occasional pilgrimages to shows by such idols as Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, the Stones and the Grateful Dead, I have since largely confined my pop pleasures to the CD at home. My night job finds me out of the house four or five nights a week, and by the weekend, I find I've had enough of watching stuff, preferring to lounge in my leather reclining armchair with the CD player on, tea and Golden Virginia to hand, and the mind drifting in neutral. Sheer bliss.

Yet whenever I do drag myself to a gig, I usually have a smashing time. In the last year I've seen Dr Feelgood, Steve Earle, the Australian Pink Floyd tribute band, the Pretty Things and Robyn Hitchcock and enjoyed them all greatly. And last month I schlepped along to two concerts at the Barbican's excellent Beyond Nashville season, a celebration of what it bills as the twisted heart of country music'.

At all these events, I expected to feel very old, bald and fat, only to discover that the venues were crammed to the rafters with fat old baldies just like me. Indeed when the Flatlanders were playing at the Barby, I felt downright youthful compared to some of the crinkly country-music fans.

I'd particularly hoped to review Ralph Stanley, the 75-year-old bluegrass legend who was supposed to be playing at the Barbican. Unfortunately his plane was grounded by a snowstorm in the Appalachians, but Gillian Welch played a fabulous double set of her excellent modern take on bluegrass and country, and, at the other show, I discovered my new favourite band.

Los Lobos are an Hispanic outfit from

Los Angeles who got together back in 1974 and play terrific Tex-Mex rock and roll. They are strongly influenced by blues, country, jazz and traditional Spanish and Mexican music, with hints of dub and psy-chedelia chucked in for added spice, and their thrilling set blew me away. It's true that many of the audience who had come for the amiable but disappointingly bland Flatlanders made for the exits when Los Lobos turned up the volume, and the band seemed disappointed that people weren't up on their feet and dancing. But what a pleasure it was to see such seasoned and original musicians playing with such rollicking flair and passion. Perhaps best of all, the two fabulously weathered frontmen, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, are even older, and fatter, than me. Who said you needed to be a skinny young kid to rock 'n' roll, or a skinny old one like Keith Richards come to that?

For those who like their music rootsv and real. I can't recommend Los Lobos too highly. Their masterpiece is Kiko (1992), a wonderfully weird, dense and haunting album, and there is a splendid career overview, Just Another Band From East L4, displaying their astonishing range and panache on a generous double CD set. Do yourself a favour and buy them both.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph,