“It’s my 50th Anniversary Tour and no-one could be more surprised about that than I am,” quipped Marianne Faithfull, not long after taking to the Royal Festival Hall stage on Saturday.
Faithfull’s well-rehearsed rock star myth is closely tied to her often-proclaimed survivor status, of course. And it wasn’t long on Saturday night before she revealed that this new tour was proving a considerable endurance test in itself, due to a recent accident that left her with a smashed hip and unable to walk unaided. It was, Faithfull told us, only the intervention of her Paris doctor that convinced her to take to the road again after all. “He said, ‘The work will heal you, the music will heal you, the love of the audience will heal you,’” Faithfull confided. “And bugger me, it’s worked!”
Saturday night’s show was Faithfull’s only UK stop on this anniversary tour, and it proved an eccentric, exciting and extremely enjoyable evening. It was also a rather poignant one, given that the title track of Faithfull’s excellent new record Give My Love to London addresses the artist’s ambivalence about the city. (A recent interview, for example, found her blasting, with characteristic candour, the “ghastly, dreadful, rude” London press.)
Unsurprisingly, Faithfull chose to open the show with that song in a version much more cutting and strident than the jauntier album take, with a superbly contemptuous vocal performance and Rob Ellis’s heartily thwacked drums communicating the song’s sarcasm more effectively.
Croaking, crooning, growling, rasping, declaiming, Faithfull was in fact in commanding voice throughout the night, and even with her mobility reduced, her stage presence remained considerable, her ability to inhabit and really act her way through a diverse range of material undiminished. The four-strong band surrounding her – the great Ed Harcourt on keyboards, Rob McVey on guitars, Jonny Bridgwood on bass, and the aforementioned Ellis on drums – were terrific too, providing ambient textures and dynamic rock grit in equal measure.
Also admirable was Faithfull’s commitment to not making the evening a mere backward-looking nostalgia-fest or “Greatest Hits” package. (“That might please everyone. Except me,” she said.) Despite some disappointing omissions (no “Strange Weather”, no “Working Class Hero”, no “Times Square” and nothing from the Brecht/Weill canon), this commitment resulted in a quirky, thoughtful setlist that brilliantly mixed new tracks with older album rarities and a little “60s Corner” featuring “As Tears Go By” (slightly swamped by an excess of instrumentation here, it must be said) and “Come and Stay With Me”.
Although Faithfull initially seemed a bit anxious about how the rarer material was being received, the approach ultimately paid dividends, as “Witches’ Song” rubbed up against an exquisite “Marathon Kiss” from 1999’s Vagabond Ways and a rapturously received “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” against a sublime rendition of a seldom-heard Angelo Badalamenti collaboration “Who Will Take My Dreams Away.” And a thunderous “Broken English” had great bite and sting.
Still, it was the songs from the new album that registered most vibrantly, with not only “Give My Love to London” but also the Anna Calvi co-write “Falling Back”, the Everly Brothers cover “The Price of Love”, and the Roger Waters-penned “Sparrows Will Sing” all gaining heft and impact in gorgeously loud renderings. The bespoke Nick Cave composition “Late Victorian Holocaust” was also subtly transformed from its spectral album version to become a much more robust item, augmented by Harcourt’s clanging piano, ambient guitar, and great harmonies. And segueing into this druggy reminiscence from a sensational “Sister Morphine” (“Junkie’s Corner” as Faithfull put it) was a stroke of genius in itself.
Best of all, however, was the phenomenal, ferocious “Mother Wolf” (my personal pick for song of the year), which, preceded by a rambling preamble about its inspiration, was tumultuous, blistering, incendiary and cathartic, Faithfull spitting out the accusatory lyrics with marvelous ferocity and palpable relish. A restrained, chamber-ish take on the Damon Albarn co-write “Last Song” from Kissin’ Time (2002) (coupled with a juicy anecdote about the track’s composition) brought the set to an elegant close.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Saturday night found Faithfull at the absolute peak of her powers (for that, see her 2005 performance at LA’s Music Box Theatre, available on the Live in Hollywood DVD). But given her recent health issues, the amount of conviction, stamina and power she brought to the performance was staggering, and little short of heroic. Between songs, she played up her patented role as rock’s fallen aristo to the hilt, with many a dropped f-bomb nestling up against such quaint Anglicisms as “You’ve been a real brick.”
She was by turns self-deprecating and imperious, warm, crude and hilarious, regaling us with tales of her medical woes and e-cigarettes, Tommy Cooper comparisons, and, at one point, beautifully tackling a heckler who accused her of name-dropping. Her subversiveness and emotional fearlessness remain more invigorating than that of performers more than half her age, as this funny, fierce and fascinating evening attested. “As nasty as I am about London, it does have some good points,” Faithfull mused at one point. And on Saturday night, certainly, London loved her back.
Give My Love to London
The Price of Love
Love More Or Less
As Tears Go By
Come and Stay With Me
Late Victorian Holocaust
Sparrows Will Sing
The Ballad of Lucy Jordan
Who Will Take My Dreams Away