Cardiff International Arena

Born to play before big crowds, [B]Stereophonics[/B] could hardly fail tonight. All-conquering local heroes, bringing home multi-platinum discs and international plaudits...

Born to play before big crowds, Stereophonics could hardly fail tonight. All-conquering local heroes, bringing home multi-platinum discs and international plaudits, [a]Kelly[/a]’s boys still prefer tight-lipped pride over swell-headed swagger. They’ve got a job to do. They came here to rock.

However much their trad trimmings or smalltown perspective grate, it is hard to argue with 6,000 turbo-lunged Welshmen bawling along to the rolling thunder of ‘Check My Eyelids For Holes’ or the muscular tenderness of ‘Just Looking’. But even three years on, the Stereos have yet to top ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’, which soars and roars down Snowdownia-sized gradients of gruff romanticism. If Kelly Jones truly is a Valleys Springsteen, this will always be his ‘Born To Run’.

There is no chest-beating nationalism onstage tonight, despite a high crowd ratio of Welsh flags and a mass outbreak of ‘Land Of My Fathers’. The dragon-draped beerboys also interrupt their air-guitar solos to chant “Wa-les! Wa-les!” every few minutes, a helpful reminder for anyone too pissed to remember what country they are in, but only a paranoid English tourist could construe this as hostility. This isn’t Kosovo, for fuck’s sake.

All the same, you sometimes wish the Stereos would occasionally [I]deconstruct[/I] their national stereotypes a little more – like the Manics and Super Furries do – instead of reinforcing them. Any mention of drinking or rugby is cheered to the rooftops, the comforting codes of boorish masculinity endorsed. But you, me and [a]Kelly[/a] all know that Wales is not [I]that [/I]big a clichi.

And we have seen the Stereophonics on better form than this. They seem dutiful rather than impassioned, filling the vast spaces between their handful of anthems with middling plodders. Having become so huge so quickly, their slender back catalogue shows the strain. They also played here the night before, which might explain their fatigued air.

And yet only a snob would question the potency of universal snapshots like ‘Traffic’ or ‘She Takes Her Clothes Off’. Here is the essence of Stereoworld, the heart-tugging lyrics which never risk alienating listeners with morbid introspection, the even-handed tempering of metallic guitar blast with rich pop melodies. This is demographic-busting, marketing-man heaven: a singer pretty and sensitive enough to inflame female hormones, but bluntly masculine enough to win over chunky rock dads in brown leather jackets.

But it is the strain of rugged melancholy running through [a]Kelly[/a]’s song book which remains his chief defence against macho triumphalism. Mid-set weepie ‘Is Yesterday Tomorrow Today?’ sounds as rustic and rueful as Buffalo Tom in their prime, brooding on squandered lives with tersely poetic sobriety. The black clouds gather again over a clutch of softly strummed encores, a surprisingly downbeat finale to such a celebratory event.

If only the Jones gang would push this stirringly emotive underside further towards cathartic anger or anthemic defiance. After two albums they still feel too well-adjusted, too wholesome, too good-natured to ever rip your heart open with a song. For much of this show they seem stuck in second gear, self-consciously clinging to their blokey roots, wary of plunging into deeper waters.

Sure, they’ve got this far by playing no-frills boyos who enjoy the occasional pint, but you have to wonder what kind of weirdness and wildness they are holding back. Truly great bands challenge and stretch their audience as much as they flatter and excite them. Emotional complexity might not sell as well as rousing populism, but it’s the first stirring of [I]soul[/I], the foothills of greatness. If you want immortality, Richard Burton used to say, you must find it in the gutter.

Kelly Jones currently stands at a crossroads signposted ‘Bruce Springsteen’ on one side and ‘Bryan Adams’ on the other. We hope he knows where he’s going.