Arts and Books: Power and glory at the court of Queen Nina

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The Independent Culture
A NINA SIMONE concert is more like a prayer meeting than a musical event, a religious experience in which the audience declared its devotion and projected its emotions on to a performer they treated like a deity, a people's princess. By the end of a long evening, the audience - young, middle-aged, old, men and women (and particularly the women) - were her devout acolytes, chanting her phrases and singing her praises, celebrating every brief sign. She had become Queen Nina, a sculpture with an inscrutable smile.

The support act was Germaine Greer, who made her short poetry reading a homage to Simone, explaining that the singer was a discovery that each generation of young women makes, that teaches something about women's love, "that great unmanageable thing we lug around - which nobody wants". "Nina Simone," Greer announced, with a dramatic pause, "is evidence that female genius is real." This brought the house down, and set the mood for the night.

Musically, Simone's concert at the South Bank Centre, London, was a wild mix of styles and sources that included a thumb piano solo, an uptempo "Milestones" to start the show, and impassioned, imaginative readings of songs by Brecht and Weill, Gershwin ("I Loves You Porgy"), George Harrison ("Here Comes the Sun") and even an ultra-brief version of "My Baby Just Cares For Me", which became a big hit in the 1980s when it was used in a television advertising campaign. The backing trio of guitar (doubling vibes), drums and percussion can feel strangely weightless, relying on Paul Robinson's rock-solid bass drum. For several numbers, chords and notes dissolved into percussion noise and atmosphere and deep, hypnotic grooves. Simone's own piano playing is sparse, a shadow of her old genteel flamboyance, but a couple of solos were great - simple, short and elegiac.

The voice is not the expressive instrument of her best-known records - how could it be? Now in her sixties, Simone lacks the range that led to her earlier triumphs, but she produces an amazing gritty timbre tinged with age and experience, Albert Ayler one minute and Coleman Hawkins the next. When she sings "it's been a long, cold, lonely winter", she stretches out the words so much that it turns into something else altogether. You no longer hear the words, but you suffer along with her and you really feel that long winter in the space of a few bars. As she reached the final note of the line, someone whooped with evangelical fervour. She couldn't have sung like that when she first recorded the song in her thirties; it wouldn't have been right for such a lightweight pop song. Yet now, in its ragged glory, it has an extra dimension.

Someone compared Nina Simone to Billie Holiday, but Simone's voice is that of a survivor rather than a victim, and that is what gives her this extraordinary, extra-musical appeal.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper