All pictures courtesy of Tim George – click them to see more

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Patti Smith has proved to be an inspired choice as this years Meltdown curator, eclipsing the previous years slightly tired predictable selections by Morrissey. Smith has not been afraid to not only pick some less obvious acts, but also try some “concept” evenings. Tonight’s theme is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, broadened slightly to a general remit covering anything “for and about children”. Whether the evening really worked as a concept or quite made an overall point is arguable but when you get a bill of almost casual extraordinaryness, featuring three and a half hours of the finest (mostly) female talent of the last 40 years…who cares!?

The first minutes are engaging and mysterious. Bob Dylan’s recorded voice ghosts on to the empty stage, sounding both ancient and fresh as he sings “Million Dollar Bash”. Silent footage of a little boy capering to a record follows, the crowd giggled along at first, charmed, but it did perhaps last a little too long.

Miranda Richardson strode onto stage and delivered a beautiful Blake poem (Tilda Swinton does the honours later), but to honest she has a gift for delivery so magical she could read a bus timetable and made it sound like an angel whispering in our ears.

Then Patti Smith appears, to try to kick-start things in style. In her fifties, she looks like a grey-maned street urchin, still with most of the band that drove her on as one of New York punk’s first voices in the ’70s. Singing “Birdland”, from her debut Horses , she plugs right into this occasions themes, mentioning fathers, sons, abandonment and peeled vision, her own words suggesting Blake’s. She pumps her fists and speeds her voice till words are smashed together.

Next up an honorary male, Billy Bragg, breathlessly en route to his own Meltdown gig next door. I’d actually been torn between going to this gig or Billy’s so I was ecstatic to see the Bard of Barking appear. Before starting a Guthrie cover, Billy explained the songs subject matter: “This song is about being a child and wetting the bed…which reminds me of a dark winters night I spent at Morrissey’s house.” Apparently this refers to a tale about staying over at Morrissey’s and when he went to bed it had a blue, medical plastic sheet on it which you use if you’ve got a habit of wetting the bed? Maybe it suits Morrissey’s sense of humour to have them fitted to a guests bed without any explanation?
Either way Bragg went down a treat with his banter drawing as much applause as the song itself. He failed to rouse the audience into singing along about bedwetting, but a joy as always nevertheless.

Bragg, Richardson, Smith, and we’re only 20 minutes in. Part of the thrill of this gig is you’re never sure who is going to stroll onto stage next.
I’ve always wanted to see or more importantly hear Eliza Carthy’s & her incredible voice. First up Eliza lent her mesmerising voice to a song about a woman burying her late child & husband in the soil. Cheery stuff, but her voice really is beautiful. At one point she joked about doing requests, and one member of the audience shouted out “Give us your t-shirt”, perhaps referring to a very tight fitting t-shirt that Eliza was shall we say filling very well. I didn’t hear what the next shout was but Eliza replied “what was that? Sing a happy song?!”
“What’s the chances of that?! Slim to none!”

Beth Orton soon follows with another Guthrie song, explaining that she’d been bricking herself backstage when Billy Bragg said he was going to do a Guthrie track…What would she do if he did her one! Her version of “Don’t Push Me Down” was one of the highlights of the evening, and not having seen her live before I was blown away by the power and emotion in her voice. Film footage of children in a street market, lost in their own worlds, added to a spine tingling 5 minutes.

The previous evening I had for some reason decided to go to another Meltdown evening with Yoko Ono. That gig is an entire blog entry in its own right, but suffice to say she is at the very least…different. Performing “Rising” one of the better songs from her 1995 album, she prowled the stage emitting guttural yelps and screeches. Half the audience sat with jaws open in shock, the other half giggled. She was backed by Patti Smiths house band, as I think she had been the previous night.

The next person on stage Tim Booth got a great response, especially when he joked:
“How on earth do you follow that”…Gesturing to an exiting Yoko. “It’s like I’ve been let into an oasis of female icons!”
I have to admit I couldn’t think where I knew Tim from but it soon became clear. He started with a track called “Lullaby”, a song about child abuse to tie in with the theme of the evening, but it wasn’t great to be honest. Next up he explained he was going to do his most famous song “Sit Down” for the first time since he left James. I have to admit I was never a great fan of the song, but it got the biggest responses of the evening and had shivers running down my spine. I would never have expected to be so moved, but it was truly an awesome version of the song stripped of its Manchester bagginess to reveal an aching explanation of adolescent awkwardness. He also claimed to have been inspired by Patti Smith when writing the song.

Time for one more act before the interval, and a baby grand was lugged onto stage followed by Tori Amos sweeping to the piano in a flowing concert gown, she squats on its stool, legs braced as if ready to run right through it. Private groans, growls and roars punctuate a set starting with “Silent All These Years”. Tossing her red mane back, saying nothing, she is extreme and initially magnetic.

Silent All These Years
Mother Revolution
Pretty Good Year

After a while though her choice of material that had no allegiance to the event, the fact that she didn’t say a single thing to the audience, and the general similarity of each track to the next left me craving an interval beer. Others obviously felt the same, as people started to wander in and out to the bar during her set. Save for a bow and a gesture at the end, she stayed aloof not saying a single thing to the audience unlike everyone else who performed. Her Ego however could have filled the South Bank all by itself.
At the end of her set people were getting really very weary and when she finished, en masse the audience leapt up and headed for the bar.

The second half gets off to a rip roaring start as Marianne Faithful strides onto stage in the tightest corset ive ever seen. She reminded me of a chieftain tank rolling onto stage, and her fantastic version of Working Class Hero had the audience on their feet, roaring and cheering. Truly breathtaking but, blimey, that corset must hurt! She also covered “God Bless The Child” and read Blake’s startling “The Little Black Boy”.Kristin Hersh was a bit affectedly whiny, and did too many songs. She got a good response but to be honest after Marianne it was like being starved after feasting.Apart from reading Blake’s poems with aplomb, Miranda Richardson also made a singing debut and boy is she blessed with a stunning folk voice. She said she was embarrassed to sing with a virtual Who’s Who of revered women singer-songwriters of the past 35 years that had been assembled using what she called “Patti Power”…but she had no reason to. Outstanding.

Sinead O’Connor is someone I’ve always wanted to see live, and as tonight was her first outing in three years I was on tenterhooks. The highlight of her acoustic performance had to be a simply beautiful acapella version of Scarlet Ribbons. She did have a habit of mumbling stuff about “Well, we’re all kids aren’t we?”, and boy did she bang on about God, but overall it was a joy to hear her unique voice, although I can’t help feeling I wasn’t seeing a vintage O’Connor performance.It was hard to tell where the show ended and the encores began, but at one point Patti’s daughter was brought out to play piano, while her mum sang along.

Finally, Patti dragged the somewhat shy women on stage together like a nervous girls’ school choir for a initially faltering and obviously unrehearsed encore. The song ‘Inchworm’, which many will know from ‘Hans Christian Anderson’, built and built with everyone singing the repetitive mantra of multiplication as a backing to Patti’s impassioned verse denouncing among other things the loss of childhood innocence, children working in factory’s, and being armed for war.

What started out as shambolic gradually built up until by the end, with Sinead and Yoko hugging each other while backing Patti’s verse, audience and performers caught up in what was a truly magical evening.

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CD 1:

Auguries Of Innocence – Miranda Richardson

Birdland – Patti Smith

Dry Bed – Billy Bragg

Young But Daily Growing (The Trees They Do Grow High) – Eliza Carthy

Someone’s Daughter – Beth Orton

Don’t You Push Me – Beth Orton

Nurse’s Song – Tilda Swinton

Instrumental Intro – Tori Amos

Silent All These Years – Tori Amos

Mother Revolution – Tori Amos

Winter – Tori Amos

Pretty Good Year – Tori Amos

The Lamb – Tilda Swinton

The Tyger – Tilda Swinton

CD 2:

Rising – Yoko Ono

Lullaby – Tim Booth

Sit Down – Tim Booth

The Grey Cock – Eliza Carthy

Gumby – Patti Smith

The Jackson Song – Patti Smith

The Little Black Boy – Marianne Faithfull

God Bless The Child – Marianne Faithfull

Working Class Hero – Marianne Faithfull

Peckham Rye – Michael Clark

Dolphins – Beth Orton

Down In The Willow Garden – Kristin Hersh

Banks Of The Ohio – Kristin Hersh

The Cuckoo – Kristin Hersh

CD 3:

Scarlet Ribbons – Sinead O’Connor

Dedication To Patti Smith – Sinead O’Connor

Days Without Number – Sinead O’Connor

I Long For You – Sinead O’Connor

Daughters Of Jerusalem – Sinead O’Connor

The Bitter Withy – Miranda Richardson

Closing Comments – Patti Smith

I Heard You Crying In Your Sleep – Patti Smith

Cradle Song – Patti And Jesse Smith

Inchworm – The Assembled Cast