Performance: Patti Smith's Meltdown

Thirty years after she burst on to the New York music scene, three events at Patti Smith's highly personal Meltdown festival show her to be an inspired curator and still very much a star

The Coral Sea
Stand Bravely Brothers
South Bank, London SE1

Number one on everyone's list at Meltdown this year was its curator Patti Smith's live performance last night - the first ever - of her album Horses, with a band headed by John Cale. But Television's two-night stint came a close second in the New York punk rock hero stakes.

The crowd at the intimate gig are of all ages, clear testament to the magnetic and enduring appeal of the band's material. The musicians amble on to the stage like the old mates they are and, despite their craggy appearance and the way they seem to move independently, they gel beautifully. Bass player Fred Smith lays down big, solid lines behind Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's riffs.

The two guitarists are perfect counterweights, Verlaine providing chugging backings to Lloyd's tumbling, semi-psychedelic lines. It's interesting how their longer numbers appear to be heading ever closer to prog: I suppose that's what you get for playing the same material together over and over for nigh on three decades.

If the set falls down, it is over Verlaine's voice; granted the sound is poor in the QEH but he doesn't seem to stretch himself until the end. That said, 'Marquee Moon' and 'Little Johnny Jewel' are storming.

And then there's the encore. More than any other curator since the Meltdown began in 1994, Patti Smith has involved herself in her events. Hers has been the impetus behind the themed evenings such as Songs of Innocence, the tribute to Wiliam Blake, and Songs of Experience, the one for Jimi Hendrix, which closes the festival this evening, and she has been so much more inventive than many who have come before her. Perhaps that is because she is more than just a musician; poetry is as much her motivation as music. Here, she comes back on with the band to perform her own poem about Ophelia. If she arrives looking kittenish, she soon works up some thunder over the group's spiky rock. Her voice is simply brilliant.

I bump into a friend after the next night's event who tells me she was prompted to drive up to London without a ticket when she heard Smith on the radio saying that it was the night she was most looking forward to.

The performance is to be a reading of excerpts from Smith's long elegiac poem The Coral Sea, written for her late, great friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. After a suitably hushed and intense introductory half-hour with the singer Cat Power, Smith arrives on stage with Kevin Shields, the rangy guitar star at the heart of indie wonders My Bloody Valentine. The latter takes his place on a sofa at the back of the stage, long legs splayed beneath a shabby standard lamp as Smith takes her place at the microphone.

The extended nautical metaphor for Mapplethorpe's slow death plays out against a film backdrop (by Jem Cohen) of gentle waves, scudding clouds and a time-lapse seascape.

Shields, surrounded by effects pedals, rings great sheets of sound from expensive-looking electric guitars beneath and, occasionally, above (the sound in the QEH really is bad) Smith's declamations as we move around an imaginary ship. It becomes quite mesmerising at times, Shields's characteristic bending notes making you feel like the room is moving out of shape. The pair finish up side by side on the sofa as the sound dies away, heads down, lank hair over their eyes, Smith grinning madly. When they depart hand in hand, they look for all the world like mother and son.

For variety and star appeal, Stand Bravely Brothers, Smith's tribute evening to Bertolt Brecht, is the midweek highpoint. Backed by the London Sinfonietta (including James Crabb on accordion, who does a brilliant solo turn on 'Solomon Song') under James Holmes, the cavalcade of faces (and voices) runs from the diminutive, shouty Carla Bozulich ('The Ballad of the Lily of Hell') to a wonderfully maudlin, embittered Fiona Shaw on 'Song of the German Mother', from Tilda Swinton's fine reading to Martha Wainwright's great wail of a 'Sailor's Tango'. It's a treat to see Sparks's Russell Mael glaring over his shoulder from the piano, brother Ron's voice still strong and able to reach a high falsetto for 'Mandalay Song', while the Finn brothers' casting of themselves as brutish British squaddies in their adaptation of 'Cannon Song' is darkly hilarious. There is a lovely trio of numbers from the Tiger Lillies; Martyn Jacques's crazed falsetto on 'Ballad of Sexual Dependency' draws a big hoot from the crowd. And Antony is intriguing - distressing, even - with 'Surabaya Jonny'.

The biggest cheer of the night goes out to Marc Almond, back on stage after his terrible accident and looking on very good form. He's brilliantly stagey on 'Bilbao Song', not so much camp as honest, and ever so English. His arrival was treated to a standing ovation; the long high note with which he closes 'What Keeps Mankind Alive' is greeted with a huge roar.

And if Patti Smith fluffs her lines and notes on the two numbers she tackles, you forgive her. You still feel like saying, Thanks, that was a great idea, an inspired, inspiring evening.


Molloy Woodcraft

The GuardianTramp

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