BY John L. Walters in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
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Issue 48

Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project, Nick Cave's Meltdown

BY John L. Walters in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

Hal Willner has been described as an 'auteur' producer, but he doesn't have a trademark sound like Trevor Horn or Quincy Jones and he's not a musician, composer or sound engineer. Willner is a master curator, best known for a series of multi-artist compilations interpreting the work of composers such as Nino Rota, Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk, in which musicians from the nether regions of pop, rock, jazz and the avant garde are thrown together: Harry Nilsson with Arto Lindsay, Elvis Costello with Bill Frisell, for example. His role is that of genial host who makes sure the awkward or shy guests get along. At the four hour Nick Cave Meltdown gig - an annual series of concerts curated by a well known musician or person involved in the music scene - Willner had a real live party to deal with along with a wide spectrum of different talents and egos. Based on the work and life of film-maker/artist/collector Harry Smith, the gig comprised mainly of interpretations of the old 78rpm songs collected by Smith for his influential Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).

Smith was a great American eccentric - a kind of curator, collector of found objects and sounds, an occultist and visual artist whose obsessive achievements included the world's largest known private paper airplane collection (later donated to the Smithsonian), and mastery of hundreds of string figures (like the Cat's Cradle) from around the world. His abstract, proto-psychedelic film-making, running in parallel with (but apparently ignorant of) the pioneering work of Len Lye and Norman McLaren is a vivid precursor of the work of influential figures such as Walerian Borowycz, Terry Gilliam and Zbigniev Rybcinski.

The concert attempted to celebrate Smith's work but the Anthology material dominated in a lateral but wholly natural symbiosis of the traditional with the avant-garde and the popular. We heard such bizarre and wonderful arrangements as singer/pianist Robyn Holcomb's asymmetric 'Lazy Farmer Boy', ex-Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas' avant-country 'Indian War Whoop' and a devastating 'Die With a Hammer in My Hand' by Eric Mingus (yes, the son of Charles) who joined Lucas in a tearing version of 'Judgement'. Not to mention cameos from Bryan Ferry (dull), Beth Orton (intense), Howie B on tape (so-so), Eliza Carthy (wonderful) and Van Dyke Parks (a revelation).

Nick Cave, a moody, lanky presence throughout the Meltdown festival, sang passionately in both halves of the concert. His disturbing version of Blind Willie Johnson's 'John The Revelator' featured Kate and Anna McGarrigle on shrill backing vocals. Mary Margaret O'Hara joined Gavin Friday to sing 'When That Great Ship Went Down' (a contemporary song about the Titanic disaster) - a stomping epic version that was brought to an affecting end by the tiny veteran crooner Jimmy Scott, who intoned 'Nearer My God To Thee', the tune the ship's orchestra was reputed to be playing as it disappeared beneath the waves. Gavin Bryars should have been there.

At the beginning of the second set we were treated to three totally different interpretations of 'The Coo Coo Bird', Clarence Ashley's hallucinatory masterpiece from the Anthology. First on stage, unaccompanied, was traditional singer June Tabor, who prefaced the song with a reference to the Cuckoo's role as a metaphor for adultery. Next came Elliott Sharp, whose dense electronic guitar noises - plus some odd vocal sounds - reminded me that the original Ashley version is much closer to avant-rock than to folk. Third up was the man all the press photographers had been waiting for: Pulp's frontman Jarvis Cocker, sang his own Cuckoo songs accompanied by Robyn Holcomb and XXXXX, demonstrating the enduring power of folk songs to express universal themes - once again, in this case, adultery. He followed it with his idiosyncratic 'Boll Weevill Song', a lengthy discussion between a death-defying cockroach and the author in a Camberwell high-rise.

The Meltdown festival had screened an afternoon of Smith's films the previous Saturday, but a screen behind the concert stage was brought into play for a taste of his image-making, the brilliant animated Mysterioso, which was accompanied by the classic Thelonious Monk tune of that name and some early abstractions.

The show started with some fly-on-the-wall footage of Smith as cantankerous old man and closed with the equally uncompromising Roswell Rudd, with rhythm section and bass clarinettist Renaud blasting out a mighty free jazz blow that mutated into 'There's No Place Like Home'. I would have liked to have had a glimpse of Smith as a young man, sharp and goateed, full of mad plans and projects, on a fast track to obscurity, penury and ultimate, last-minute glory. Yet I suspect even Willner's trademark hybrid of cult pop stars, spiky innovation and beatnik jazz would have been too mainstream, far too much of a crowd-pleasing success (as it triumphantly was) for Harry.