Steve Earle & Patti Smith - Royal Festival Hall - Meltdown 2005 - 19th June 2005
A roll call is played over the PA. The audience listen intently. Within seconds it becomes clear: this is a roll call for the dead, the casualties on both sides of the American coalition's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
There was, apparently, a time when rock and politics was a potent cocktail, the petrol that drove the revolutionary spirit; when rock stars used something more powerful than their transient fame to get the messages across: they used their songs. Nowadays? Songs don't matter, it's all about hooks, choruses, catchy choons. Campaigning rock stars are mocked, they bitch about each other, they're met with pockets of enthusiasm and swathes of apathy. Such is the tired nature of our cynical capitalist democratic system.
The Royal Festival Hall, a vast air-conditioned seated auditorium is the unlikeliest place for the old revolutionary spirit to be revisited, but revisited it was in some style. Steve Earle, in acoustic mode with guitar and harmonica, starts off the night by getting something off his chest:
Fuck the FCC
Fuck the FBI
Fuck the CIA
Livin' in the motherfuckin' USA
That's swiftly followed up by a song that used to be about 19th Century juvenile deliquency but has ended up being about gun control (the beauty, and danger, of art is that interpretation is everything); anti-war songs; songs of personal demons; and a song about the Civil War and all the complex issues of race, slavery, North v South, that that entails.
The lyrics may be sledgehammer, the music certainly isn't. And that's the beauty of using music as a Trojan Horse into closed minds. As Earle delightfully informs us: "It's amazing the pinko shit you can sneak into a bluegrass record." If Bob Dylan still carried a fire in his belly and made new records, he'd sound like this. Thankfully, we have Steve Earle.
Speaking of Dylan, Patti Smith opens her set with a beautifully-judged version of the classic 'Like A Rolling Stone' before introducing us to Gumby, the unofficial clayman mascot of Meltdown 2005. The pattern of firey song delivery followed by, well, momsy [sic] chats is a little disconcerting at first but it turns out to be the best way to engage with the well-behaved middle-aged audience. They stand, yes, but only in between songs, never during, and they listen with reverence as Smith delivers her soliloquies.
The silence allows one besotted old soul to holler, "My God, you're sexy!" At which point, the audience laugh and Smith acts coy. But actually, he's absolutely right. She may have grey hair nowadays, she may not be one of the over-stylised, over-preened divas, but she has a sharp mind and That Voice.
That Voice is ably backed-up by a band that strides across the musical styles with consummate ease: the thumping and primal rhythm section of Beneath The Southern Cross is juxtaposed with guitar-effects acrobatics; Ain't It Strange goes for a reggae vibe; and, of course, the classic rock of myriad songs from the set, such as Peaceable Kingdom, Pissing In A River and Not Fade Away.
Not Fade Away marked the point at which the audience raced out of their seats to the front of the stage, and set this gig on fire. Smith, delighted at finally getting the audience to overcome their inhibitions, jumped off the stage, into the awestruck 'moshpit' spending what would have seemed like hours to the security team, dancing with her fans. By the time Smith's wheeled out Steve Earle and other guests for a rousing encore of Earle's Copperhead Road and the Stones' Salt of the Earth, people of all ages are in tears.
You don't get to have a decent career in music without knowing how to work a crowd. You certainly don't get to have a long career like Smith without knowing how to make a genuine connection on an emotional level. We're so used to reviewing the new bands on Londonist, it's a privilege to be able to see the (ahem) maturer artists like Smith and Earle in action and turn the clock back to a time when rock'n'roll truly believed songs could be an agent for change. This is how it feels when your world means something after all.
Photo credits: Steve Earle by Glen Rose / Patti Smith by Felix Broede