Live Music + Gig Reviews

Marianne Faithfull @ Barbican, London

24 May 2011

It’s been a while since Marianne Faithfull served up new material. Her previous album, 2008’s Easy Come, Easy Go, was mainly cover versions. So, after a significant period of ill-health, including a diagnosis for breast cancer, tonight is all the more impressive as she proves her worth once again as a songwriter as well as a mesmerising performer.

Once described as ‘looking a million dollars in used notes’, Faithfull’s adherence to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle across nearly five decades has taken its toll, but the result is a voice so ravaged and lived in she has no qualms in covering performers as diverse as Gutter Twins Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli (The Station) and The Decemberists (The Crane Wife) in a set that begins largely with the new songs from her current album Horses And High Heels.

The album’s title track, as well as others such as Why Did We Have to Part? and Prussian Blue return to two of her favourite themes: Paris and love that’s not going quite the way she might have planned it while others, including Back in My Baby’s Arms, co-written with Alain Toussaint, take influences from further afield – in this case, New Orleans, where the album was largely recorded with her long-time collaborator Hal Willner. MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who features on the album, also joins her on stage tonight.

The songs are as roughly bittersweet as can be expected from Faithfull, interspersed with good-natured banter about her thwarted attempts to visit a hypnotherapist to help her quit smoking, which she clearly has no intention of doing, and random swearing. She comes across as your naughty, unrepentant, exciting aunt, who you know has lived live life more than your parents can even imagine and has no regrets about it whatsoever.

Her occasional deviations from the album even in the first part of the set show she still has immense (and deserved) confidence in her back catalogue; as well as the covers, she soon dips back into her own musical past, offering up classics such as 1969’s paean to heroine addiction Sister Morphine, Broken English, her very first single As Tears Go By, John Lennon‘s Working Class Hero and more recent collaborations including Incarceration of a Flower Child, written by Roger Waters and first performed on 1999’s Vagabond Ways.

She seems genuinely touched by the warm reception she receives from the audience, as though her recent health issues have made her all the more grateful for what she has. The evening is a triumph, and at times she fights hard to hold back the tears that signify how worth it everything has been.

As her band leaves the stage, she returns for two final numbers, accompanied by a lone guitarist: The Ballard of Lucy Jordan, perhaps her best known song, and the Tom Waits song Strange Weather, which she has long since made her own. Stripped almost bare, her voice booms with power and strength. She is far more than a ’60s survivor: she is the spirit of the decade grown old disgracefully, a fine legacy to leave to the next generation.

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More on Marianne Faithfull
Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis – She Walks In Beauty
Marianne Faithfull – Negative Capability
Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love To London
Marianne Faithfull @ Barbican, London
Marianne Faithfull – Horses And High Heels