Bringing together past directors of Meltdown before this year’s Meltdown Festival kicks off, Total Meltdown was part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Royal Festival Hall. The evening was a fascinating mixture of the strange and the beautiful, compred by John Peel (“I was the only non-creative Meltdown Director” – too modest). Instrumental pieces by Louis Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg and George Benjamin (the latter a stunning piece for two violas called, succinctly, Viola Viola) alternated with sets by David Thomas, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Elvis Costello. Laurie Anderson was originally on the list but pulled out for reasons unexplained, and Scott Walker was present only as recorded filler music during the many set riggings. However we certainly had plenty to keep us busy.
David Thomas was not a familiar name to me so the sight of a vast Orson Welles lookalike, complete with hat, waddling on to the stage was bemusing, especially when he hung a red plastic apron on his microphone stand. The mind boggled. He was accompanied by “the two pale boys”, later identified as Keith (on guitar) and Andy (on trumpet and various electronic knobs and switches). Kicking off with a gravelly song Let’s Get Drunk and Drive didn’t do much to win me over, but one written for the evening – Ode to the Royal Festival Hall – confirmed the black humour alert. “Here I sit on the bank of the Thames and they put a damned Ferris wheel next to me…” By the time the third and last song (Do You Love Me) was underway I was fascinated by the extraordinary sounds coaxed from voices and instruments alike. I don’t know if Andy had a vocoder hidden in the bell of his trumpet but something marvellous happened when he crooned into it And the red apron? It was apparently for use with his accordion, but he ran out of time so I’ll never know.
Elvis Costello was in theory the headline star (well he was on last, at any rate) but failed to thrill (me, at least). With a rack of five guitars he proved that he is certainly a brilliant musician as he gave us a wide range of songs from the funny to the folky. He also introduced us to his ‘band’ – more electronic bits and pieces that he twiddled himself, commenting that “you don’t usually see this boffin stuff on stage – it’s what I do at home”. I found the results less than spectacular and wished he’d left it there.
There is no doubt at all that many in the audience were there for Nick Cave. Stalking on stage like a cross between a stick insect and Nosferatu, all long black legs and white, white hands, he and the Bad Seeds didn’t disappoint. “This is going to be a quiet one,” he announced: “Tomorrow night (at the Brixton Academy) will be noisy.”
It’s true that we got the more serene of the tracks from the new album, No More Shall We Part, but there was still plenty of angst. As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, Love Letter, No More Shall We Part and We Came Along This Road were fabulous live, their haunting melodies well suited to the good acoustics and the superb grand piano.
Watching Cave’s long, almost skeletal fingers caress the keys I realised for the first time just how good a pianist he is, in addition to all the other talents. God is in the House was also perfectly suited to this atmosphere, every sneer and snarl crystal clear as cosy small town life is mercilessly dissected. “Well meaning little therapists, goose-stepping tettotalitarianists, the tipsy, the reeling and the drop down pissed, we got no time for that stuff here…” Anyone who can write, let alone deliver, lyrics like that has my vote. Hallelujah was the closest we got to the explosive side of Cave and left us anticipating the following night in Brixton, where we knew the gloves would be off.