The show opened with a puzzling slogan projected on a screen: “All artists are either cowboys or Indians”. Meaning what exactly? That some artists are an aboriginal minority persecuted by other six-shooter-twirling artists? No, it couldn’t be that. But then the gig got under way and a greater mystery presented itself. Why is James Lavelle curating this year’s Meltdown festival?
Previous curators of the Southbank Centre’s annual music programme include David Bowie, Morrissey, Scott Walker and Yoko Ono. Next to them Lavelle is obscure. In the 1990s he ran the London-based record label Mo’Wax, a niche project with a strong identity but hardly one of the decade’s key influences. A DJ, he also formed the band Unkle, creators of a competent debut album in 1998 and then a series of forgettable and indeed mostly forgotten follow-ups.
It was in his Unkle guise that he launched this year’s Meltdown. An orchestra, a choir and a rock band were crammed on to the Royal Festival Hall’s stage. The pretentious “cowboys and Indians” slogan on the screen gave way to arty visuals. The first in a succession of black-clad guest vocalists emerged, fashion scenester Michèle Lamy, barely visible in the gloom and almost as inaudible, her low, Nico-ish vocals drowned out by a droning orchestration.
Lavelle used to be known for his address book: the first Unkle album, Psyence Fiction, included cameos from Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and members of Metallica and the Beastie Boys. But the most notable guest tonight was DJ Shadow, the US hip-hop instrumentalist whose 1996 album Endtroducing . . . was Mo’Wax’s most important release. His turntable work on “Bloodstain” and “Lonely Soul” was atmospheric, although the vocalist on the latter song, Eska Mtungwazi, standing in for Ashcroft, was miscast, her rich tones going against the grain of Shadow’s beats.
Lavelle appeared with singer Liela Moss on “Hold My Hand”, a pummelling one-dimensional rocker, typical Unkle fare. For “Rabbit in Your Headlights” singer-songwriter Keaton Henson, whose USP, rather daftly, is his terrible shyness, sat hunched on a chair looking at his feet and fluting Thom Yorke’s vocals in the pained style of someone who wished they were miles away. Grunge relic Mark Lanegan growled several moody but sketchy numbers, a banal trip through themes of darkness and redemption.
To see some 50 musicians and singers – even the RFH’s newly restored organ was dragooned into action – at the service of such threadbare material was mystifying. At a time of funding pressures and cutbacks, for Europe’s largest arts centre to squander its resources in this fashion is perverse.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards