James Lavelle, the curator of this year’s Meltdown festival seemed to be everywhere and nowhere over its opening weekend. The man from UNKLE proved an enigmatic presence as he popped up all over the Southbank Centre then melted into the shadows letting the musicians he’d invited soak up the limelight instead of him.
It was certainly true at his own show on Friday where he appeared only sporadically wearing shades and hat and singing along with songs taken chiefly from his 1998 album Psyence Fiction. In keeping with his reputation as an organiser rather than artist, he seemed unfazed about being drowned out on-stage by the choir, orchestra and changing roster of guest vocalists he had assembled. Chief among these was Liela Moss of The Duke Spirit, lending swagger to Hold My Hand, and Keaton Henson twitching his way through the ever-unsettling Rabbit In Your Headlights.
The main aim of the opening UNKLE: Redux show was to wrap the audience in a total work of art that included both scent sprays and gloaming visuals by, among others, Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack and film director Jonathan Glazer (whose Under The Skin is being screened on Wednesday with live score by Mica Levi). Often however, the nightmarish visual collage of ultrasound scans, Rorschach tests and car accidents proved to be an experience to admire rather than one to enjoy.
The mood lightened up on Saturday with a rare solo performance in the Royal Festival Hall by veteran rocker Chrissie Hynde who showcased her new album Stockholm, recently recorded in Sweden with indie producer Björn Yttling. Patient fans nodded along as the 62 year old rattled through the new stuff then finally got off their chairs when she gave them what they really came for — Pretenders’ classics Don’t Get Me Wrong and Talk of The Town. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted the old ones”, she joshed.
For the encore Hynde was then very nearly upstaged by her own support act Zachariah Blad, who came spidering on-stage like a vampire’s familiar in a red velveteen shirt that looked like the lining of his own coffin. It seemed strangely apt that he should then heave and strain his way through Dark Sunglasses, the best of Hynde’s new tracks.
The weekend’s highlight came on Sunday with a joint session hosted by Gilles Peterson that never left the Queen Elizabeth Hall but felt like a tour around the world in an evening. First up was Christophe Chassol, a French composer known for his work with Gallic plats du jour Phoenix and Sébastien Tellier. Here he performed his new project Indiamore, which was a different flavour entirely with video footage of a recent trip to Calcutta and Varanasi looping and stuttering behind him to create uplifting soundscapes out of street singing, honking tuk-tuks, temple tintinnabulation and the peals of giant conch shells. Chassol then threaded jazz-funk chords through these found sounds with the driving drums of Lawrence Clais underneath.
British singer Eska came on afterwards, resplendent in purple kaftan and silver headband, with an even more exotic show that combined desert blues, Motown stomp, spirituals and other-worldly yodelling into a slow-burning, hypnotic and ultimately rapturous performance. The pair of Sunday shows and the easy charm of host Gilles Peterson in between made a convincing case for him to follow James Lavelle as the curator of next year’s Meltdown festival.
There are plenty more shows this week with tickets still available and big names like Neneh Cherry, Edwyn Collins and Goldie still to come. The Sunday Come Down on 22 June also promises to be a memorable day with free sessions inside and outside the Southbank. Click here for the full line up.