Avant-garde, over long, over here

MUSIC Laurie Anderson and Friends Meltdown, QEH, London

The first rule of concert-going is: never go to a gig that bills itself as some star performer "and friends". It may be inspired, innovatory, unrepeatable, but the chances are that it will be under-rehearsed, half- baked and self indulgent. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

If it's difficult to see a thread running through the events curated by Laurie Anderson for this year's Meltdown at London's South Bank Centre, that's not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of this, a bit of that might provide an accurate snapshot of contemporary culture. On the other hand, put it all in one evening and all you get is a blur, although that shouldn't be taken to imply that last Thursday's "Laurie Anderson and Friends" concert moved too fast. Quite the opposite. The two-hour show came in 15 segments, none very long, but (with one exception) all somehow too long.

The show began before we took our seats, with a Quartet for Four Mannequins by Zero the Scanner, commissioned by Hugo Boss for their shop window. In the pre-concert hubbub, it was difficult to make much of this, but I can vouch for the fact there were indeed four mannequins. Then Laurie Anderson took the stage in the persona of a radio announcer. Her voice electronically made masculine, she warned that this was the "Difficult Listening Hour". Well, forewarned is forearmed.

First up was monologist Ken Nordine who, to the doodling accompaniment of piano and bird impressions, meandered on about making a "mockumentary" about Siamese twins joined at the lips. Initially engaging, the spiel soon ran out of steam. Already a pattern was emerging.

Nordine returned for Mr and Mrs God, a phone conversation with Anderson to electronic accompaniment by Brian Eno at his most unassertively ambient, and then Anderson produced one of her hi-tech violins for a neo-bluegrass trio with harmonica and bowed bass. Anderson, of course, loves gadgets, and later gave a perfect imitation of a technobore as she demonstrated her latest CD-Rom. Lots of information, completely uninformative; like every computer buff showing off their newest add-on.

Arto Lindsay came and went with a few songs in which the deep distortion of his hyper-amplified guitar contrasted with the Latino acoustic strumming of Vinicius Cantuaria; sound-poet Charles Amirkhanian did a virtuoso duet with his pre-recorded self in three elaborate, entertaining but rather repetitive sound poems; and Ben Ponton presented some multi-layered live sampling, in which snatches of Anderson's "O Superman" occasionally emerged through the dense fabric of sound. Paradoxically, each act, deprived of a full-length set, lacked focus.

It was left to Ivor Cutler's distinctly old technology to show the way. As Cutler said, gently chiding those around him, "I don't hang about, do I?" Two-line poems, 30 second songs to his own rudimentary piano accompaniment, zany non sequiturs and irreverent profundity: Cutler's been doing it for 40 years, and still sounds fresh. Laurie Anderson, by contrast, showed how an entertaining dinner party guest can soon become a bit of a bore.

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