The house lights went down, Ravel’s Bolero struck up and blue spotlights began swivelling around. A cheer went up when the music quietened and a figure emerged on stage. But it was a roadie fiddling with the microphone. Bolero began again. The blue beams resumed their swivelling. This time they had an anxious tinge, as though searching for the evening’s main attraction. Where was Courtney Love?
Happily the next figure to materialise at the microphone stand was her. She looked a little unsteady and was sucking at a metal cylinder that she called her “pipe” – a term evoking a whole pharmacopeia of Lovean bad habits – but which actually appeared to be an e-cigarette. The former drug fiend has supposedly cleaned up her act. At once ferociously ambitious and awesomely undisciplined, a star who puts the “erratic” into “careerist”, Courtney is on the comeback trail.
She opened the second of two nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with a new song “Wedding Day”, backed by four anonymous blokes on guitars and drums. Basic riffs embroidered a gothic tale of matrimony gone wrong, a calling-card from rock’s most infamous widow. Not even Yoko Ono has been subjected to the abuse that Love has faced following Kurt Cobain’s death 20 years ago. When she roared “Get out of my bed!” and “No-o-o-o!”, her voice seemed to make the entire building quake. It was a remarkable sound – a gale roiling with pride, desire, anger, hard-living and attention-seeking.
Tonight’s set drew mainly on songs by her old band Hole, who briefly rivalled Nirvana for popularity. We were a step away from the grunge heritage circuit. As usual Love shed her outfit – “Chinese runaway bride”, apparently – to perform in dishevelled black undergarments. The roar was deployed regularly, a unique selling point that lost some of its uniqueness with each iteration. Self-mythologising lyrics (“I am the girl you know, I lie, I lie and lie”) were delivered from a wobbly position on top of the monitor at the front of the stage. There was entertainingly random between-song chat, including an impersonation of a music hall chorus girl: “I’ve got a luvv-erly pair of coconuts!”
“I’m feeling a bit vulnerable,” she declared at one point, sucking on her e-cigarette. A bout of primal screaming sorted that out; then she was off into another new song, “You Know My Name”, fast and assertive punk rock. The pace lifted further with Hole classics “Violet” and “Celebrity Skin”. Then came the predictable crash, a dire passage of acoustic songs including a tuneless version of Hole’s “Northern Star”, the singer casting red roses into the audience and groaning the lyrics like a tone-deaf Ophelia. As the bard once said, the course of Love never did run smooth.