The Libertines, Astoria, London

Astoria, London

With their wired innocence, cheeky disdain and flag-waving ideology, the Libertines are the cherubic-faced link between Noël Coward and the Clash: dandies with dirty fingernails, rebels with a patriotic cause. As messy chords swarm around them, guitarists Pete Doherty and Carl Barat sway haphazardly. They are the bastard sons of Britpop: young, shirtless and out to steal the indie throne.

Their timing is impeccable. Following the deluge of thrashy pop from New York City, the Libertines' vision of England - derived from comic strips and kitchen-sink dramas as much as Priestley and Wilde - is a comforting dream. Their image, combining Michael Caine's urbane confidence with Robin Asquith's naughtiness, is a breath of Jack Daniels-infused air. The debut album, Up the Bracket, sees their eccentricity spun into good-time rock'n'roll, full of dizzying guitars and choppy rhythms glued to tender pop melodies. The idea might not be new - the Smiths and Blur can both stake a sizeable chunk of Albion as their own - but rarely has such literacy looked so cool.

Doherty flings himself towards his microphone stand before pulling back as though encountering a naked flame, hunching his shoulders as he spins to the jolting sound of Horrorshow. His scruffy hair and vagabond scarf play up his guttersnipe appeal, but his soft voice gets buried underneath the frenzied guitars. A sample of what could be manic laughter or gut-wrenching tears disguises the odd squeaking chord - and neatly sums up the band's contrary attitude.

In the past, the Libertines have appeared shabby on stage, but determination has eclipsed indifference. Doherty and Barat play to each other, sharing a microphone, shaking their heads wildly. They exchange sideways glances during the Small Faces-esque Boys in the Band, as a jaunty rhythm spirals beneath the shrieking, singalong refrain. Bassist John Hassell, however, barely moves, keeping his distance from the hyperactive, charismatic duo.

Although it is the aggressive cut-and-paste pop of the Jam that the band's music most resembles, especially in the fury and mundane detail of the album's title track, it is the theme tune from the quintessentially English kids' cartoon Rupert the Bear that springs to mind. That might not be exactly what the Libertines intended, but you can bet they would approve.

· At the Leadmill, Sheffield, on February 22. Box office: 0114-221 2828. Then touring.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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