This weekend just gone, Southbank in London was one of the best places on earth to be. With a line-up curated for discerning fans of rock music, there was plenty to take in.
The line-up is curated by Robert Smith who has taken on the honour after a lifetime being devoted to music, and, ultimately, becoming one of the most important rock musicians of a generation in the process.
For people living in London, Southbank is usually filled with music you'd iron a shirt to go and see. This was different: people dressed in black and rock t-shirts were taking over and it looked like a mini ATP or Rockaway Beach over the last few days. And will continue to do so as the festival continues into this week and the weekend.
It feels like a coup having this line-up here and it makes the place feel more invigorating in the process. Never have we felt more at home on the bank of this river than knowing the greatest bands around are playing. Here’s what we learned on an opening weekend watching Psychedelic Furs, JoyCut, Vessels, Placebo and The Libertines.
New bands weren’t booked on numbers
"They thought it was a practical joke at first," a friend of the Icelandic band Kælan Mikla told Gigwise when we asked how they got booked. Turns out Smith emailed them asking them to play his festival, this showing initiative to pick out some interesting music that a lot of big bookers might miss. The band have virtually no following but Smith went with his instinct, not hype. And when tickets to see shows from lesser-known bands were struggling, he put out a tweet from his personal to give them a push. It's a refreshing change from many promoters who on the application forms will ask bands to submit how many Facebook fans they have.
Another band, lauded in Italy, but relatively unknown in the UK who Smith picked were JoyCut. Picked after Smith found them on a blog - according to a source - they performed in the intimate Purcell Room to a room of mostly Italian fans and UK industry. Their instrumental post-rock/avant garde electronic set, created from a mass of electronics and two drum kits, was thrilling. It featured varied soundscapes set to percussion that journeyed from grandiose melodic drum riffs to more abstract stuff. After the second encore - and second standing ovation of the night - a touching moment came in the form of a complete reinvention of ‘The Hanging Garden’ by The Cure. Smith would have loved it.
Psychedelic Furs offer a strange glimpse into the future.
On a night that drew largely from their eponymous punk influenced art-rock debut album, the new wave follow-ups Talk Talk Talk and Forever Now, and the breakthrough of Mirror Moves, it was encouraging to see singer Richard Butler in remarkably rude health. If you want to know what Nicky Wire is going to look like in 12 years’ time, then look no further. That Marlboro rasp still in place, he blended a welcome and knowing sense of camp with an authoritarian air. His frequent smile revealed a man in thrall to the music he makes and the reception it elicits. Brother Tim on bass still plays with his left foot arched as if he’s standing on a monitor, which made all the more sense when his foot actually was on a monitor.
The Furs reflect how little has changed in politics
‘President Gas’, then aimed at Ronald Reagan, has lost none of its relevance, perhaps even gaining some, as the surname of the White House’s current incumbent is a British colloquialism for farting. There was a certain re-assurance to be had in seeing several hundred people at the front joining Butler in yell out, “America…Ha! Ha! Ha!” during a rollicking reading of ‘India’.
Placebo played one of Robert Smith's favourite songs
Covering a Cure song is pretty expected at Meltdown – and sure enough Placebo covered ‘Let's Go To Bed’ - but you’d have to know Robert Smith quite well to know to cover Kate Bush. Having heard from a source that they’re friends with Smith, Gigwise was told Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ is one of Robert Smith’s favourite songs. And Placebo honoured Smith brilliantly with this track taken from their album Covers.
In the lead up to it, Brian Molko set his iPad to create some atmospheric pulsating beats and the roadies completely switched his pedal board and stack amp around. The result was entirely worth the wait, and the crowd, who were raucous and loving to point where Molko stopped to take it all in at one point, were all over it. The room reached their peak energy to make for a spectacular finale.
Before this cover which came in last Placebo just played through an incredible setlist that some people have since bemoaned for missing out ‘Nancy Boy, Teenage Angst’, and ‘Bruise Pristine’. But Gigwise wouldn’t have had it any different. And on evidence of the way the crowd received it, they wouldn’t either. It was far better than their Brixton Academy gig to celebrate their 20th anniverary, and that was speical, too.
Vessels late night show made us not miss Sonar
After seeing Placebo rock the Royal Festival Hall, there weren’t a huge amount of options in London that would nearly touch that tonight. But we were lucky enough to have a ticket for Vessels who were playing a hop skip and jump from Royal Festival Hall in Southbank Centre. From the outside it didn’t seem like much you could hear some heavy rave beats threaten the foundations of the building but there was no indication anything live was going on. But as soon as we entered we were greeted by a six piece live band featuring one of the best drummers we’ve ever seen. The drummer's wild thrashing movements were juxtaposed by the stoic, concentrated band members, manipulating their electronic sound equipment and occasionally ripping into a guitar to make some of the most inspiring original dance music we’ve heard in an age. On evidence of their ability on Saturday night, it’s a travesty that they’re not any bigger; they’re easily one of the best live acts in the UK right now. They’ve been at it for a fairly long time too – their debut EP came out in 2005 - so it’s not like they’re going to blow up any time soon. But they could easily gain a lot more fans than they’ve already got. 126,000 people went in search of the best live electronic music experiences in the world over the weekend to Sonar, yet I sense this would have probably been in my top three sets over there had I gone. It’s everything you could want for a late night boogie. Scintillating stuff.
The Libertines are capable of sounding pretty slick at times
The post-reunion Libertines have become accustomed to playing some of the bigger venues and festivals around and, contrary to their image as shambling lords of chaos, there are times – especially 'Boys In The Band' and 'Lazy Day' – when they sounded like a pretty finely tuned, lean and mean musical machine. They didn't quite keep it up the entire evening, 'Can't Stand Me Now' came out of the starting gate sounding a little ragged and off kilter before finding its feet half way through. But there's definitely a new supercharged dimension to their sound in evidence that's capable of stepping up to big occasions like this.
The Libertines nailed their Cure cover
“Robert couldn't be here tonight,” Pete admitted at one stage towards the end of the main set, “but he left us a slip of paper in the fruit bowl thanking us for playing.” The Libertines' thanks for being asked came when towards the of the main set when they performed their own 'Time For Heroes' which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Cure's 'Boys Don't Cry' the way they played it at Meltdown at least. Then, as if acknowledging the debt in the full gaze of their public, they launched into a cover of the early Cure hit immediately afterwards. It was a pretty faithful rendition – Doherty's scratchy guitar style adopted the lead line while Barat strummed rhythm part. The only obvious augmentation was a few new vocal harmonies that Doherty decided to add on top.
They know how to send us home with our ears ringing
Having negotiated their way through Clash-style reggae, McCartney-esque melancholy, vaudeville and rowdy funk, their parting shot was a thrash fest version of 'Don't Look Back Into The Sun' that got bigger and bigger the longer it went on, until it resembled Nirvana at their most raucous and wonderfully uncontrolled. Ouch – in a nice way. A remarkable feat especially considering Gary Powell had played with broken wrist all set.. “He went arse over tit in the shower last night and broke his wrist,” Pete Doherty told us, as behind him the Libs' drummer tore off his plaster cast and chucked it behind him. He must be sore today.
Robert Smith’s Meltdown continues this week.