Meltdown 2010: An Evening of Political Song; the Duckworth Lewis Method; Seasick Steve | Live review

Meltdown festival, Southbank Centre, London SE1
From politics and cricket to singalongs with blues stomper Seasick Steve, Richard Thompson's passion for folk-based, rootsy music makes for a rousing week on the Southbank

Berets off to Richard Thompson, curator of this year's Meltdown festival, a man rarely seen without one. At the Meltdown Evening of Political Song, Thompson sports this most classically revolutionary item of headgear in dashing countercultural black. He is not, by nature, an overtly political songwriter, despite formative years spent in the thick of the 60s folk-rock revival; his works bear artful witness to inner conflicts. But Thompson's forthcoming album, Dream Attic, due in August, takes errant bankers to task, and tonight he delivers an impassioned broadside against the Iraq war, "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" ("dad" being short for Baghdad). Moreover, this wide-ranging, many-legged evening of political song provides stimulation, polemic and some very sharp intakes of breath.

Can a satirical song about Catholic clergy abusing deaf boys be funny? Its chances are upped significantly by being "Deaf Boys", a hard-hitting, doo-wop by Harry Shearer – Spinal Tap actor, voice of The Simpsons' Mr Burns, and satirical songwriter. With ear-popping lines such as "Deaf boys/ Can't hear me coming", it trumps even the horrorshow of rape and wrongful imprisonment in Martin Carthy's rendition of the Child ballad "Prince Heathen" – a song, Carthy notes pithily, "about the power of no".

Consistently engaging, Shearer acts as compere, supplying the glue in a crazy-paved roster of artists that includes the Waterson-Carthy clan, an 86-year-old exiled Nicaraguan poet (who turns out to be musical director Kate St John's ex-mother-in-law) and Boris Grebenshchikov, a Russian singer-songwriter. Grebenshchikov's contributions are, in truth, lost on the audience. But the sight of a dozen anglophone singers contributing backing vocals in Russian on the closing ensemble piece proves that political song need not be too po-faced.

If the cast list is a little random, to the performers' credit, this is not an exercise in agit-pop by numbers. Dylan is mentioned in passing, but not covered. It is a more searching endeavour, with an ear bent towards the discontents of recent times. Tom Robinson covers Steve Earle's song "John Walker's Blues", a ballad about the American shoe-bomber whose chorus hymns Allah in Arabic.

It's left to the avuncular figure of Tom Robinson to lead the only obvious singalong – "Glad to Be Gay" – and drop a bombshell. If fans of political song have bemoaned the lack of a contemporary equivalent of Dylan or Nina Simone, Robinson points out, it is because they haven't been listening to hip-hop. What follows is both brave and squirm-inducing– a cover of "Language of Violence", a screed by conscientious 90s outfit the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, rapped by Robinson, a self-declared 60-year-old white Englishman, with a clarinet solo by Kate St John. The truth is, quite often, difficult on the ear.

Perhaps most affecting of all, however, is "Sunrise", by Neil Hannon, best known as the Divine Comedy. Written at the time of the Good Friday agreement, and especially poignant now, in the wake of the conclusion of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, "Sunrise" chews over the disputed names of the towns of Hannon's birth and youth, (London)derry and Enniskillen (aka Inis Ceathlain), before mounting to a moving crescendo: "Who cares where national borders lie?" he croons.

It is, probably, down to Richard Thompson's quiet sense of mischief as much as his love of cricket that Hannon's other band, the Duckworth Lewis Method, are playing just across the way in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We are in the midst of a football World Cup.

Hannon and his fellow Irishman Thomas Walsh wrote a concept album about cricket last year, in time for the Ashes series. Tonight's performance provides an urbane sanctuary of warm beer away from all the agitation in the Festival Hall. In between songs like "Jiggery Pokery" (about Shane Warne's "ball of the century") and a cover of Roy Harper's "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease", they salute the recent OBEs of the two statisticians. Messrs Duckworth and Lewis, responsible for calculating the rule by which rained-off cricket matches are adjudged. Naturally, the band raise umbrellas and take a drinks interval when imaginary rain stops play. Only cakes baked by Lily Allen (pop's most glamorous cricket fan recently provided R4's Test Match Special with some buns) could have made them sweeter.

Sixty-nine-year-old Seasick Steve's phenomenal rise from the margins to feted balladeer and aficionado of stringed things shows little sign of stopping. Earlier in the week, he shrinks the imposing space of the Royal Festival Hall by shaking hands with half the audience before singing a note; during "Cut My Wings" he embarks on a marathon walkabout, finally serenading fans from an empty seat in row N. It's not false modesty, he says, when he wonders whose gig he's accidentally stumbled into.

Few could have predicted that Steve Wold's hard-won blues would have lasted longer than a festival season, but all the new songs he plays are intriguing. "New Trix" is a rock song played on a strange banjoid thing fashioned, he says, by his friend Davey from two Morris Minor hubcaps and a broomstick. Even better is "Burning Up" a blues about lust which lures the initially reluctant Festival Hall into a gutsy call-and-response.

If the Evening of Political Song comes with a body count, there is also a casualty here: Steve Wold himself. His extended version of "Dog House Boogie" – which details the abuse he suffered from his stepfather – sends us out into the night howling the refrain.

As Meltdowns go, Patti Smith probably achieved a little more in 2005 with a similarly themed evening of political song that featured a largely female lineup (Sinéad O'Connor, Beth Orton and Kristin Hersh were all guests). But this year's festival's strengths fall on nights that defy Observer deadlines; the extraordinary McGarrigle tribute, the night devoted to Islamic punk, Thompson's own maverick 1,000 Years of Popular Music, as well as Loud and Rich, the two-hander between Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III. What is alive and well, though, is Thompson's thorough exploration of the ever-unfurling and often unexpected ramifications of folk-rooted music.


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