I'm Getting Old, So I Loved Robert Smith's Introspective Meltdown Festival
Not going to lie... my inner Music Dad was delighted.
This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
I am getting older. The other day, I lay down on the ground in the park and my back has not been quite right since. I’ve got really into sturdy tote bags (“I’ll use that for my shopping,” I think delightedly); I invested in a pair of “decent” sandals. But nowhere am I made more keenly aware of the fact that I’m on a downward ski-slope to oldness than at a concert, no matter its size. Whether I am in a stadium or a basement dripping sweat from the ceiling, I frequently find myself surrounded by music fans many years my junior, and, as I observe them bopping around – the extortionate price of a pint barely registering to them in the face of their naked euphoria – I make myself nauseous with my own faraway-eyed reminiscing about The Good Old Days. This is to say – at the age of 24 – I have turned into a Music Dad.
You do not have to be an actual Dad to be a Music Dad, of course – Music Daddery is a state of mind, wherein the things that matter to you about live music become more practical. 10:30PM finish? Oh yeah baby. Only one support band? You’re speaking my language. SEATS? This is a layer of nirvana.
You can, therefore, imagine how much an event like the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival appeals to me. For ten days every summer, the UK’s most beloved Music Dad venue (which comprises three performance rooms, the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room, all of which might just have the best acoustics in the capital) opens its doors to a curator, usually a musical icon, who selects acts to play various concerts across the period. Patti Smith’s done it, David Bowie’s done it, Yoko Ono’s done it: pretty much, at some point over the last 25 years, at least one person you consider God Tier has curated Meltdown Festival.
Back in February, it was confirmed that this year’s event would be billed by a beloved Music Dad artist – a man so goth he insists he’s not goth despite styling himself like a lost member of the Addams family. His name: Robert Smith. His lineup: ranging from My Bloody Valentine to The Libertines – though commonly, his selections mirrored his own work, in that all of the artists chosen had an individual but identifiable knack for making turning sadness into art.
Over the festival’s 10-day stretch, I saw three very different sets of musicians – Death Cab for Cutie, Nine Inch Nails, and Suzanne Vega – perform, and I did so sat in extremely comfortable seats with an excellent view (my inner Dad was flushed with joy.) From the outside, these artists don’t really have much in common: one is a veteran US indie band, another is a kingpin of the industrial genre and the third is an oddball singer songwriter with a gift for imagery. They are, however, joined together by the vivid way they each convey emotions. At various points in my life, too, they’ve expressed my feelings when I couldn’t, and the opportunity to see them play in Meltdown’s conditions felt too good to miss.
Thanks to superior sound and the ability to actually see, I found that experiencing the three acts in this most distilled way allowed me to access the common thread between them – introspection – more readily. In the context of the festival, the writerly rock of Death Cab for Cutie, whose Monday night show saw them zipping through their hefty back catalogue with ease and aplomb, with something for O.C. fans and newer listeners alike, felt like a comfortable bedfellow with the more abstract approach of Nine Inch Nails.
NIN are group who I’ve always admired, not necessarily only for their lyrics, but for the way they deal with one of the most simultaneously frustrating and relieving pieces of knowledge in the world – which is that there are some emotions that we cannot adequately express through words. They have frequently dealt with that through sound, and their rarities-heavy Meltdown show, though big on lights and production (I’d have preferred something lower key, though the response to their set-up in general has been positive), at its best, explored emotional darkness through complex soundscapes that sometimes nodded towards noise.
To finish my time at Meltdown, I went alone to Suzanne Vega’s Queen Elizabeth Hall show, and found it to be the perfect mid-point between the two concerts that preceded it. Vega’s proclivity for plunging the depths of human feeling, coupled with her uncanny ability for a turn of phrase lit up her intimate concert, where she introduced almost every track with an anecdote about where in her life it had come from. She handles tough emotional truths with grace and ease: "Luka" references domestic abuse not with didacticism but with space and understanding; the refrain of love song "Gypsy" is not gentle but captures instead a rare, accurate intensity of feeling, as she sings "Oh, hold me like a baby that will not fall asleep / Curl me up inside you and let me hear you through the heat." Seeing Vega play in surroundings which really allowed her simple melodies and far more complicated lyrics to shine felt like a special privilege, and though her performance naturally proved for a much quieter experience than the previous two I'd seen, its emotional candour shared elements with everything I’d experienced beforehand.
Smith’s Meltdown, then, was more than some very good artists performing together. It was a lesson in curation: each show I attended – and indeed, each show at the festival – had its own personal stamp, but in bringing together acts for whom feeling has always come first, Robert Smith created a sonically diverse event which brought out the best in everyone who performed, by way of their associations with each other. While clammy walls will always have their very important place in both live music and my heart (and for many shows, there's no better place to see them than in a tiny windowless room), it felt as though the essence of introspection in each of the acts I saw was drawn out further by the breathing room afforded by the Southbank Centre's venues, making for some of the most engaging musical experiences I've had in years. When bands and artists are not held back by poor sound or ill-fitting visuals, they can embody everything that makes them so good onstage, and that makes everyone's experience a more thoughtful one. And the price of a pint was very reasonable, actually.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.