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Nick Cave's Meltdown

Each summer the South Bank arts complex in London hosts a series of concerts/events entitled Meltdown. A guest artistic director is given freedom to arrange the festival programme. Nick Cave was director for the 1999 festival, and booked a series of unusual, but inspired shows. Oliver Duke-Williams took his seat in the front row. Chris Sampson was stood-up by Isabelle Adjani.

"What I wanted to do was to collect the great heavens and hells of the art world, throw them together so that the truly beautiful and the truly terrifying meet, create a little friction, a little chaos, a little magic, so that we amateurs, we mediocrities, we lesser mortals can wavereth hither and thither, converse with the creatures and have our fucking minds blown."
- Nick Cave

Well, yes indeed. No complaints with that agenda whatsoever. The conservatism of promoters and the London music industry has been increasing in recent years, and it has been some time since the capital hosted anything worth seeing. Full marks to Cave and the South Bank for addressing the imbalance.

Cave had been persuaded to kickstart Meltdown '99 with a Bad Seeds show, and responded in fine style. This was the first time I'd seen the Bad Seeds since 1992 and with three albums worth of quality material behind them in the intervening years it was a pleasure to hear the new songs in a live setting. 'Nobody's Baby Now' was heartbreaking, 'Lime Tree Arbour' heroic - Cave's voice cracking with emotion on the "And I do love her so" line, thereby dismissing any lingering doubts that The Boatman's Call was intended ironically. A viciously intense 'Mercy Seat' was possibly the highlight. though it shredded Cave's voice for 'Into My Arms' and 'The Ship Song'. A shame, because the latter is in contention for Song of the Decade. That Jarvis Cocker fellow was lurking around the bar pre-gig, though everyone was too cool to notice. A fine start.

Sunday evening saw the Queen Elizabeth Hall host Sacred and Profane, a spoken word event with a supposedly secret line-up. However, the GPS rumour mill had received word that Isabelle Adjani, the reclusive and legendarily pulchritudinous French actrice, would be making an unprecedented UK appearance, and we were eagerly anticipating seeing the finest actress of her generation in the flesh.

The show started with the Clark Singers, a sextet of vocalists, performing a sequence of plainsong and chant pieces. Their harmonies are precise and the arrangements effective. Clearly filed under the "sacred" half of the show, they are quickly joined on-stage by Cave himself, and the waters are muddied. "This song's neither sacred nor profane," he says, "it's just obscene", introducing a funereal paced Stagger Lee from the Murder Ballads album. The excellent "Brompton Oratory" follows; the pairing indicate that Cave is equally comfortable with the full range of Meltdown's agenda.

So far we've not heard much in the way of spoken word, but this is addressed by the next performer, Scottish perfomance poet Jimmy Stone. Stone wanders on-stage carrying a plastic bag from which he produces several dog-eared scraps of paper and a bottle of beer. Stone's mates in the audience cheer wildly as the beer is opened and froths all over the floor, nicely debunking the over-polite atmosphere that was building up. A preposterous and hilarious story about Shane McGowen, a dub-reggae taxi and a pack of giant Rizlas follows. Stone has a novel coming out soon, and on this form we recommend purchase.

Next up the familar figure of Jarvis Cocker ambles on-stage and delivers some pieces based on his recent TV series. Not bad, but it struggles after Stone's inspired performance. This is followed by Trainspotting's Ewan Bremner reading from Nietzsche's Also Spracht Zarathrustra. Bremner's reading is fine, but the source material is garbage, confirming my long-held theory that Nietzsche is a fanatic.

What follows is spectacular, and some of the bizarrest behaviour I've seen on a stage for years. A keyboard is produced and a woman stands behind it, looking uncomfortable. A shambolic figure appears stage right, trying and failing to put a jacket on. It's Mark E. Smith, carrying two microphones. One of these is pressed against an unidentified box placed on a table. Howls of feedback result, over which Smith starts to "sing" in classic Fall style. "I am your caterer" he repeatedly urges the audience, the voice trashed by excessive echo. Suspicions that this is a Fall track appear to be confirmed as the keyboardist starts to bash keys at random, producing sub-techno bleeps. After five minutes of incoherent rambling, Smith starts to shuffle sheets of A4 scrawled with text; one is introduced as "An Essay on Devolution" and is read out, still accompanied by the screaming feedback and echo. Barely a word is distinguishable although the phrase "English-uh lapdogs-ah" is repeated. Smith, clearly the worse for wear, decides to complete the piece in some solitude and crawls underneath the table. Suddenly the box on the table crackles into life and a plummy English voice announces "This is BBC Radio Three". It's a transistor radio! What is going on? It's been some years since I saw the Fall, and although reports of the Fall's difficulties had filtered through, Smith's decline is shocking - the man appears to be in the latter stages of senility. And yet, shambolic though the performance undoubtedly is, it also flirts with genius.

Unfortunately, following an interval, the standard dips. Mark Stewart reads a brief poem accompanied by deafening machine-gun fire. Cave re-appears and reads a passage from his novel, And the Ass saw the Angel, which is unexpectedly cogent and poetic. The main surprise of the evening is an appearance from Salman Rushdie, who reads from his recent novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It's great to see Rushdie able to make appearances in public again, but unfortunately the novel is poor stuff. The lighting engineer seems to agree: the colour of the spotlight matches Rushdie's prose: purple.

Following Rushdie's slot, the house lights come up, signalling the end of the evening. It takes a few seconds for the full horror to sink in: Adjani hasn't shown! I've been stood up by Big Is! Gentlemen, take it from me, these French actresses just ain't no good.

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