The Meltdown Festival should be full of surprises and musical discomfort, but those offered up tonight are not necessarily the good kind. The setting is perfect: Yoko Ono has taken charge for this year’s musical ego trip and the ’60s monstrosity of the Southbank Centre has its concrete blocks softened by the Festival of Neighbourhood, a collection of art installations that include an alien house (which whispers paranoid messages in children’s voices to those who wander inside); cheery yellow banners decked with inane across-the-garden-fence natter snippets; a 50-foot high Beano cover to celebrate the comic’s 75th birthday; and some nice fake grass hillocks to sit on while sipping over-priced wine.
It would all be perfect except that no-one seems to be sure exactly what’s going on inside – or when – at the gig. The tickets say ‘Doors Open 7.30pm, Body/Head (Kim Gordon and Bill Mace) ft. Ikue Mori and Mystical Weapons‘. So, are Ikue Mori and Mystical Weapons support acts, or part of the show? No-one seems quite sure, though the fact that they’re all asking one another is an unexpected success for the Festival of Neighbourhood’s heartfelt aim to get everyone to know each other better. Though in a slightly less annoyed and exasperated way, probably.
Most decide to risk heading in for the beginning and seeing what transpires: which is Mystical Weapons (Sean Lennon and Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier) doing a standard support slot. This is good. Sean Lennon is a woefully under-rated musician, who is never given credit for the considerable talent he possesses. Critics should close their eyes, listen to him without the legacy of his father looming over the night and realise that – despite the fact that he grows to look more like Lennon Sr every year, and more so tonight, when his choice of military jacket and his hairstyle can’t have been arrived at accidentally – as art noise goes, he really is the crown prince. In front of swirling mystical images of Tarot characters, Aztec gods and astrology wheels, he and Saunier complement one another to provide the best part of the evening.
They’re followed by an interval, during and after which no-one is still sure what to expect, but it starts to become clearer when Kim Gordon, Bill Nace and Ikue Mori take to the stage – Mori completing a trio of discordance behind the two screeching guitars. It’s only the fact that Gordon and Nace are now semi-regular collaborators, while Mori is making her first live performance in 25 years, that gives her ‘ft’ billing rather than sharing the spotlight. Gordon, in white mini-dress and silver ankle boots, still looks like the rock goddess supreme. But in terms of performance, she’s done better. It’s shouty, it’s bassy, it’s mismatched chords and art noise, but it doesn’t quite push the boundaries in the way she, and Meltdown, are expected to.
This means that no-one’s entirely sure how to react when her set seems to last little more than twenty minutes. Has she gone off for an interval? Is this a post-encore pause? And do the audience want more anyway, or was what she’s produced just about enough? These questions are (semi) answered when back out she and Nace come with Yoko Ono in tow, who is surprisingly tiny and surprisingly loud for a woman in her 70s, but who adds a sparkle and energy to the show that has been missing so far, and allows it rise towards its expectations. All too soon now, it’s over – at barely 10 minutes past nine and less than an hour since Gordon took to the stage. The lights go down, the audience looks slightly bemused and a little cheated, especially those who rolled in at around 8.30pm (ie. normal gig-starting time). They might not have caught much, but at least what they did get was the best 20 minutes.
All in all, an odd evening. Ultimately satisfying, but only just. Tantalisingly short but any longer and it would have outstayed its welcome. Challenging, confusing but somehow rewarding. Isn’t this Meltdown at its best?