It’s almost a year ago already since Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Imelda Marcos-themed musical, opened at London’s National Theatre. Now, Byrne has taken up residence on the Southbank once more, this time as curator of the prestigious Meltdown Festival at Southbank Centre. This annual event has the distinction of being one of the principal artist-directed festivals in the UK, attracting a strong and starry line-up of curators (among them Elvis Costello (1995), Laurie Anderson (1997), David Bowie (2002), Morrissey (2004) and Yoko Ono (2013)) over its 22-year history, and firmly establishing itself as one of the cultural highlights of London’s summer season.
Byrne’s interest in the wider, more esoteric reaches of the world music scene is well known, and so it’s no surprise that this year’s Festival (17-30 August) has been excitingly eclectic and resolutely global in its affiliations. Young Marble Giants, Sunn O))), Gaby Moreno, Benjamin Clementine, Anna Calvi and Matthew Herbert are among the artists who’ve appeared. Planet of the Apes and There Will Be Blood have been screened, each accompanied by live orchestral performances of the movies’ scores. Byrne himself has taken to the stage twice: alongside Young Jean Lee and Future Wife for a performance of Lee’s mortality-themed piece We’re Gonna Die, and also with Atomic Bomb!, a tribute to Nigerian synth-funk enigma William Onyeabor.
What’s more, Byrne has generously opened his personal library of books for the public to browse and even borrow, shipping over some 250 titles from the States and installing them in the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library. Studs Terkel’s And They All Sang, lyric collections by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and – more surprisingly perhaps – Noël Coward were among the many gems on display, while a quote from Byrne written on the wall of the Library might be taken as an emblem for the Festival as a whole: “The arts don’t exist in isolation.”
While very different in terms of musical content and attitude, the two shows that I was able to see in this year’s Meltdown were complementary experiences in a sense. Both were by female artists who, while superstars in their native countries (Spain and Italy), and with strong followings abroad, are still lesser known internationally than they deserve to be. Estrella Morente, whose show was one of the highlights of the Festival’s first night, is one of the most celebrated of contemporary flamenco artists. The daughter of the dancer Aurora Carbonell and the late, legendary Enrique Morente, she may be most familiar to non-flamenco aficionados for providing the voice for Penelope Cruz’s emotive mid-movie song in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver (2006).
A dynamic performer and passionate vocalist, Morente is, of course, hot-wired to the flamenco tradition thanks to her illustrious parentage, but she’s also found ways to keep her music vital and fresh while avoiding gimmickry. Fernando Trueba, director of Chico & Rita (2010) (in which Morente played herself) and producer of Morente’s most recent record, sums up her appeal as an artist when he describes her as “archaic and futuristic at the same time.”
The aforementioned album, Amar en Paz, is something of a departure for Morente, in that it’s a “love letter” to Brazilian music, including compositions by the likes of Jobim, Villa-Lobos and Dolores Duran. No selections from the new album were performed at the Meltdown show, however. Rather, Morente and her musicians offered a hardcore flamenco set that flowed beautifully and vibrantly. The presentation was highly theatrical, with dramatic lighting sometimes serving to highlight the intense emotionality of the songs. Morente strode on stage alone, and launched into an aching a cappella rendition of “Almaden y Carolina” before being joined by her accompanists: her uncle Jose Carbonell (“Montoyita”) and El Monti on guitar, Pedro Gabarre (“El Popo”) on percussion and Antonio Carbonell, Ángel Gabarre and brother Quiqui Morente providing coros and palmas (vocals and handclaps).
The group’s rapport felt natural and spontaneous, as the material moved from the hypnotic and sensuous (“Esa señora lo sabe”) to the forceful and strident (“En el alto del Cerro”). Even when the singer departed the stage for a costume change, the intensity was fully sustained, with Carbonell, Gabarre and Morente each taking superb solo spots, and a dynamic dance by “El Popo “providing one of the crowd-pleasing moments of the night.
Describing Barbra Streisand’s performance style, Pauline Kael once wrote that “her command of the audience is in her regal stillness… You feel that she doesn’t need the audience, that she could close her eyes and sing with the same magnetic power”. Despite the fact that she’s seldom still – on the contrary, she danced, strode, stomped and even displayed some nifty fan-work at one point – the same description could be applied to Morente, for whom the audience seemed a secondary consideration to the songs and her fellow musicians. Only a muttered “Gracias” followed the wildly enthusiastic applause that each song generated.
Her shyness between songs, possibly due to the perceived language barrier, seemed to frustrate one voluble audience member, who at one point called out: “Estrella, la mitad del teatro habla español!” (“Estrella, half the theatre speaks Spanish!”). Smiling, Morente warmed up following this outburst, and by the time of the encore seemed in buoyant spirits. It was no surprise that she closed with a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Volver”, inviting her band-mates to the front of the stage, but it was a surprise to find her acknowledging the location of the gig with an impromptu burst of Mary Poppins, singing a snatch of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” as she exited. It was a charmingly goofy end to this most intense of evenings.
Morente’s reception was rapturous. But the response of the (mostly Italian) crowd to Carmen Consoli’s gig on Friday was so enthusiastic as to make it look almost subdued by comparison. From cheers and shouts of “Bellissima!”, endless photo-snapping, brandishing of the Sicilian flag, and, finally, a stage rush and request for two encores, the response was a clear testament to the great esteem in which Consoli is held in her homeland, where the affectionately-nicknamed “Cantantessa” was knighted in 2012.
Preceding Consoli’s appearance was a support set by the Swedish singer-songwriter and pianist Anna von Hausswolff. Seated at an organ in the upper level of the auditorium, von Hausswolff’s long, ambient pieces, with elements of rock, classical and drone metal building slowly to fierce crescendos and cathartic wails, couldn’t be called easily accessible, and clearly turned off some audience members. But the performance — complete with atmospheric sepulchral lighting — richly rewarded patience, and seemed to win over most in attendance by the end. Dedicating the final piece to “my dear Daddy” (the composer and artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff), Anna was touchingly awed and diffident between songs, her quiet speaking voice in compelling contrast to the ambition and searing stridency of her compositions.
Consoli’s set was much more user-friendly, but hardly without its elements of grit, bite and provocation. Often compared to Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey (by the dubious logic that says that artists who don’t sing in the English language must inevitably be compared with ones who do), Consoli performs punchy, hook-laden pop-rock that’s as instantly appealing as it is substantial. Her music is strongly melodic, but with enough unpredictable twists and turns to remain interesting. Lyrically, her songs are a potent mixture of the personal and the political, drawing attention to relationship conflicts and abuses of power at both macro and micro levels, often in a specifically Italian context. If anything, her unabashed centralising of concerns traditionally side-lined as “women’s issues” marks her as closer in spirit to Tori Amos than PJ Harvey.
Consoli performed with an all-female line-up, with bass and drums complementing her own excellent guitar-playing. The sound was full and totally confident, and the set-list was a crowd-pleaser, combining much-loved greatest hits (“Parole di burro” and “L’ultimo bacio”) with material from her most recent album, the well-received L’abitudine di tornare. New songs such as the lesbian love-themed “Ottobre”, “Esercito silente”, about Mafia victims in Palermo, and the disturbing account of femicide “La signora del quinto piano” were particularly strong.
While she showed none of Morente’s reluctance about addressing the crowd in English between songs, Consoli’s decision to sing only in Italian was a statement in itself: “Our language is beautiful and I want to give it to the English audience as a gift”, the singer has said. This exhilarating show, the first that Consoli has performed in the UK for almost a decade, was a gift that was received with great gratitude, testifying to the global scope that’s made Byrne’s Meltdown such an inclusive and inspiring Festival overall.