There are many ways a festival curated by Grace Jones might have played out. Jones’s musical playground was the club, her crucible the disco era. When she began making waves in the early 80s, her music boasted a stern electronic undercurrent and no little funk. She covered too many artists to count.
Her Meltdown festival lineup, on ice for two years, is as eclectic as Jones’s pedigree implies. It is, however, busy with up-and-coming talents rather than marquee acts (Solange had to pull out). Leading voices from the African continent outweigh Jones’s own sources or contemporaries.
The early half of the week has much to commend it. The threads linking Jones to Dry Cleaning are thin but tensile: the drum-machine edge of drummer Nick Buxton and the stentorian, deadpan manner of frontperson Florence Shaw, who gives nothing away but her scorn. You could easily imagine this south London post-punk outfit covering the Normal’s new-wave cult hit Warm Leatherette, with all its sprechgesang and anomie, as Jones once did.
Dry Cleaning’s 2021 debut, New Long Leg, was basically all sprechgesang and anomie, with Shaw’s cut-up-style lyrics built from slices of life so fleeting and unanchored they sounded as if she was staring out of the window of a speeding car – their early track Traditional Fish basically lists shop frontages – or flicking past memes on her social media feed. Somehow, it all holds together, rather like this Meltdown, and so it proves tonight in a seated venue where inhibitions prevent dancing as the rhythm section intended.
Live, the band very much have the upper hand, with Shaw’s bored delivery often no match for the bobble of the bass or the pranging punk-funk of guitarist Tom Dowse, as active on his feet as Shaw is stony. But the elliptical phrases that do escape the band’s churn seem all the more significant.
“I just wanted to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head,” Shaw intones, staring down the crowd during the excellent Strong Feelings, listlessly lifting up a bit of hair, the closest this intentionally blank band member comes to stagecraft.
Some “da, da da”s are dangled for comfort on songs such as the wistful More Big Birds, but Dry Cleaning’s approach is stirringly radical. Even the Fall, high priests of oblique poetics, had vocal melodies and choruses.
An entire new album’s worth of bone-dry aperçus is coming in October, they announce, called Stumpwork – “Look it up!” (an embroidery technique, it turns out). The good news is that the new song they play – Don’t Press Me – has a great one-liner: “Don’t touch my gaming mouse, you rat.” The bad news? Shaw dilutes their USP by singing a little.
Two nights later, there is dancing in the aisles. On the evening Dry Cleaning played, it was touch and go whether the Malian superstar of 30 years’ standing, the Grammy-winning Oumou Sangaré and her seven-strong band, would get their visas in time, a problem that seems to continue to dog international acts that have the audacity to want to entertain British audiences.
But Sangaré sashays on unperturbed, imperious and warm at once. Despite the language barrier – she sings in Bambara – her music is all about communication. Her songs span entreaties and takedowns; they are full of sage advice or exasperated rage against the folly of war on songs such as Kêlê Magni , a joyous shakedown, ironically enough. Sangaré’s gestures are conversational, carrying her meaning; she waggles a finger or widens her arms as though to say: “Come on!”
The set list goes hard on her most recent album, the superb Timbuktu, one unexpectedly conceived in Baltimore where Sangaré got stuck as Covid hit. But it is full of pride in her native Wassoulou region, tinged with wistfulness and emotional authority; more so than before in her work, it subtly explores the links between west African music and American forms.
Tonight, that means the arpeggios of Abou Diarra’s n’goni are offset by the slide guitar of Julien Pestre. Sometimes, the ratio skews just a little too far towards the latter, but a luminous keyboard solo by Alex Millet hangs perfectly over on Degui N’Kelena.
Best of all is Sangaré herself, who, from out of nowhere, can hit a note like a mallet, abetted by two spirited backing vocalists on call and response. Dily Oumou finds Sangaré at her loudest and most pained, singing about resilience in the face of her enemies. It’s hard to imagine this woman having enemies, but as a feminist, entrepreneur and activist, she is bound to have made some.
Here, though, in dribs and drabs, then in flows, people pour out of their seats to film themselves dancing in front of her. Some fans present her with a painting. Sangaré dispenses hugs and three of her bracelets before scurrying offstage, her dress coming undone from all the ebullience.
• This article was amended on 19 June 2022 to remove a reference to Moonchild Sanelly, who was not in the Meltdown lineup.