Live Music + Gig Reviews

Melanie @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

16 June 2007

We’re being spoilt this evening. Thanks to Meltdown curator Jarvis Cocker, we’re enjoying time with Melanie, the divinely evocative and political folk songstress whose songs have been covered by everyone from Dolly Parton to Macy Gray. She has been out of the spotlight for some time now, but with a 27-album back catalogue to her name, who knew what could be in store tonight. Melanie Safka’s music is beautifully well observed and personal, but it also has the power to shout volumes to the world about itself. She is one of the original Earth Mothers.

Melanie arrives on stage and introduces us to her son Beau, who is co-writing and producing much of her new material. He also plays the guitar with astonishing agility. The new songs entwine seamlessly with older favourites. This may be due to Beau’s influence, for his flamenco performance style adds a freshness to familiar songs, while the more recent material retains his mother’s essential essence.

One of the best known songs, Beautiful People, is more than gratefully received by the adoring audience and is a prime example of Beau’s input to an already complete song. Family is an important part in Melanie’s life, and having her family involved in her work seems to be both a comfort and an inspiration.

Promises, co-written by Melanie and Beau, is a song about her youngest daughter who “promises not to fall in love three times a week, each time deeper than the last”. Nearly all the songs are delivered with the story of its inspiration. Jammin’ Alone is inspired by Melanie being a natural “nut- and lunatic-magnet… London’s full of ’em, and this is an ode to all misfits.” Poet King is explained too: “Death don’t come easy to the willing,” an insight to her own personal pain and worry, but also for world events which have played a major role in Melanie’s life and music.

She has addressed 9/11 with Smile, and the audience is encouraged to take the words “I love people who smile” with them and to smile whenever and wherever you have the chance. Hurricane Katrina is addressed with Ordinary Rain. There are few people who can illustrate the pain and anguish of people so, honestly and respectfully. Lay Down did this in the late ’60s for the Vietnam War, and for Melanie the sentiment is as relevant now as it was then.

So often she writes as a reaction to answer or make sense of an event. The wonderfully light Brand New Key was apparently first penned as a Cajun ‘swamp song’, she tells us, to be sung with a deep Cajun drawl, but “I married a producer and saw a hit – I was doomed to be cute forever!” This sequence of events directly instigated the witty number Look What They’ve Done To My Song – and the audience lapped that up too.

Lighter odes, such as I Tried To Die Young, kick back at an unnamed, no-longer-employed PR agent in New York who, like much of today’s culture, was obsessed with “young and youthful and new, darling”. Such concerns have never been relevant to Melanie or, on tonight’s evidence, to her audience either.

All that could have improved the evening would have been to shift the whole affair to a seedy basement bar. The QE Hall, although acoustically brilliant, lacked atmosphere for such an artist. Melanie encouraged interaction, yet her audience came across as the stiffest of British; by-and-large unresponsive, bar a few hollers and song requests.

On the evidence of tonight, the new material stands up to her considerable catalogue – Melanie still has plenty to offer.

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Melanie @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London