Total Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London

Royal Festival Hall, London

When a rock band plays one of London's classical venues, it's frequently a signal that said rock band are taking themselves very seriously indeed. The audience must sit in rapt silence while the band purvey their art, the grandeur of the surroundings is at odds with a rock gig's visceral thrills, and the outcome is dry and bookish, like attending a dull-but-worthy lecture.

Yet Meltdown, the Royal Festival Hall's annual concert series picked by a left-field rock dignitary, regularly surprises. The catholicism of the directors' tastes often leads to genuinely wayward moments. Last year, Scott Walker was curator. Among his choices was an Austrian industrial band called Fuckhead, who concluded their set by stripping naked, sticking a washing line up their bums and hanging clothes off it. That has to be the most memorable finale the Royal Festival Hall has ever seen.

Sadly, Fuckhead are absent tonight, which celebrates the venue's 50th birthday by gathering former Meltdown curators. In their absence, erstwhile Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas provides the evening's most startling sight, his notable girth squeezed behind a red plastic apron. Thomas's voice remains as bizarre as his appearance, jumping from whisper to deafening bleat mid-phrase. While Pere Ubu's wit was darkly mordant, Thomas is positively avuncular. Through a dense mesh of treated guitar and trumpet, one song appears to be a complaint against BBC weatherman Michael Fish.

Even by their own sombre standards, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' current album, No More Shall We Part, is a remarkably bleak affair, yet tonight Cave too is in playful mood. He chuckles and teases the audience between songs, but his set is affecting and strangely intimate. As they run through a selection of the new album's highlights, Cave's wracked voice and the restrained, stately rumble of The Bad Seeds overcomes the impersonality of the Festival Hall's 1950s interior.

But it is Elvis Costello's shambolic appearance that embodies Meltdown's appeal. Performing alone, he experiments with tape loops and drum machines, thrashes a distorted guitar, encourages singing from a startled audience, plays an aged and heartbreaking American folk song and encores with an unsettling reading of his 1986 track I Want You. "I haven't a clue what I'm doing," he says, smiling, to appreciative applause. Freed from the standard conventions of a rock gig, he's clearly having the time of his life.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Arts: Welcome to my world

My idea for programming this year's South Bank Meltdown festival was simple - there were people I wanted to hear, and then there were people I have been associated with.

23, May, 2001 @12:44 AM

The great Wyatt hope
This year's Meltdown Festival in London promises to be as gently eccentric as its maverick curator, Robert Wyatt. Sean O'Hagan meets a pop enigma

27, May, 2001 @12:14 AM

Article image
Cocker promises high and low culture as Meltdown curator
Jarvis Cocker, national treasure and former Pulp frontman, is to curate the Meltdown festival at the South Bank Centre in London this June.

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent

02, Mar, 2007 @9:18 AM

Article image
Antony's Meltdown – review
Antony Hegarty's diverse, intensely autobiographical Meltdown festival is moving and spectacular, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

11, Aug, 2012 @11:06 PM

Article image
Ray Davies at Meltdown - review

Kicking off his festival, the former Kinks frontman was in giddy form

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

13, Jun, 2011 @9:49 AM

Article image
Richard Thompson to curate Meltdown 2010
The folk-rock veteran and musical maverick will act as artistic director for this year's Meltdown festival

Tim Jonze

23, Feb, 2010 @10:00 AM

Article image
Meltdown festival: Yoko Ono's choices
Yoko Ono, curator of the Meltdown 2013 festival of music and ideas, talks to Sean O'Hagan about the line-up

Sean O'Hagan

11, May, 2013 @11:04 PM

Meltdown 2012 – Lou Reed: 'I respect so many of the other Meltdown acts'

Lou Reed previews his Meltdown set and looks forward to seeing other stars on the bill, as he tells Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

Interview by Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

29, Jul, 2012 @11:05 PM

Scott Walker's Meltdown review – a crisp selection
Scott Walker’s Meltdown review – a crisp selection

Carol McDaid

01, Jul, 2000 @11:02 PM

Article image
Which Meltdown moments have been the best?
Adam Boult: This year's Antony Hegarty-curated festival begins on 1 August. Before then, tell us about your favourite Meltdown moments

Adam Boult

10, Jul, 2012 @4:52 PM