Scott Walker's Meltdown review – a crisp selection

Royal Festival Hall, London

The second Sunday of Meltdown, directed this year by ‘reclusive pop genius’ Scott Walker, got off to a good start with this message over the PA system: ‘Please take your seats now for the unmissable and unannounceable first half of the evening.’ What this meant was: ‘Please take your seats now for Fuckhead.’ People piled in: it’s not every day you get to see German sonic terrorists who play in the nude.

Spotlights circled to a soundtrack of fighter planes and fingernails on blackboard, then four men in white vests and underpants jogged around, spraying perfume and tossing pillow feathers. It was a while before they got to goose-stepping with their electric guitars. Finally Fuckhead began to pull off each other’s undies.

They weren’t even the main support act. Jarvis Cocker had to follow that with his artsy ensemble A Touch of Glass featuring a glass harmonica – a big, jangly 18th-century thing you stroke and pedal. Standing cross-legged behind a mini keyboard, Jarvis dabbled his way into a soothingly ambient 20-minute soundscape, performed his niggling theme song (‘My body may die but my heart will keep loving you baby, oohhh’) for Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and departed with Scott Walker’s ‘On Your Own Again’. From the back of the hall, someone shouted out: ‘Well done! Well done!’ Not so reclusive, then?

The main attraction was Smog, led by lo-fi guru Bill Callahan, a reluctant stage presence in boyish denim, singing desolate lyrics in a lugubrious voice bordering on the Leonard Cohen. Dwarfed by a big-screen close-up of his pupil contracting and dilating like a goldfish mouth, Callahan stole just one look at the audience, and sang: ‘There are some terrible gossips in this town/ With jaws like vices and eyes like drains.’ His band backed him with three-note undertows or kicked in for upbeat numbers such as ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’. At best he was pure Ivor Cutler: ‘I take the prisoners swimming/ They have the times of their lives/ I love to watch them floating on their backs/ Unburdened and relaxed.’

On Tuesday night it was Jim O’Rourke – guitarist, singer-songwriter, producer (of Smog, among others) – who pulled in a capacity crowd at the QEH despite being double-booked with Asian Dub Foundation next door. The Chicago renaissance man has just wrongfooted followers of the avant-garde with Eureka, a big fat slice of beautiful Americana. A dishevelled figure to the back of the stage, he presided over a bravura feast of mordant lyrics, sweet arrangements and spacey improvised ramblings with a slick seven-piece band (great cornet) who sat around on stage reading Time Out while O’Rourke and guitar encored with the cheerful ‘Halfway to a Threeway’ (a song about wheelchairs and brain death).

Once again, barriers melted – all except one. Meltdown seems to be a male thing. In eight years only one woman (Laurie Anderson) has directed. Has anybody asked the equally great and reclusive Kate Bush?

• Meltdown ends tonight with Blur


Carol McDaid

The GuardianTramp

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