Festival: WHAT WOMEN WANT Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Depending on how you look at it, the opening "ritual gathering" was either a bemusing piece of perfomance art or a much-needed dose of spiritual refreshment. An eternal flame intended to fan the fire of new life in Womankind made its way through a suitably hushed Royal Festival Hall led by vocalist Noirin Ni Riain, a Pam Ayres look-alike wearing a sequinned yellow waistcoat and playing a tiny squeezebox. On stage, to a slow drumbeat, a female dancer twirled and genuflected before five nuns from Kildare's St Brigidine Order. Sister Mary delivered St Brigid's blessing: "Women of the world, may the light of God lighten your load," and "Hallelujah" chorused someone from the balcony.

This celebration of femininity was made even more surreal by the appearance of an altogether different sort of earth mother, bovver-booted MC Jo Brand. Wary of coughing too close to the flame ("I haven't been well"), her self- deprecating humour drew guffaws from an audience where women unsurprisingly outnumbered men by three to one. They roared in agreement to the notion "Women just want to have a good time" and primed itself for a line-up that - probably due to the length of the toilet queues - concluded way past the witching hour. The infectious enthusiasm of a capella ensemble Zap Mama, funk diva Anghelique Kidjo and jazz songstress Sarah Jane Morris lent the requisite amount of positivity to proceedings, inspiring a cacophony of jungle noises during the interval as anticipation for the headliners grew.

The lights went up to reveal not, as expected, Sinead O'Connor, but the towering figure of Germaine Greer. "The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity," she grinned to whoops and whistles of acknowledgement, paving the way for a pregnant O'Connor in daisy-bedecked blue silk. Stating "I'm a bit shy so I won't say much," the Irish chanteuse launched straight into "Emperor's New Clothes" and let the music speak for itself.

Reputedly defying doctors' orders by appearing, she jiggled gently up and down, weaved the mike in figures-of-eight during instrumental breaks and clutched her stomach while addressing her new single "Famine" ("We used to worship God the Mother/ Now look what we're doing to each other") to the flame burning omnipotently to her right. Tight, powerful and evocative, O'Connor's first London set in five years had supporters sweating it out in the RFH's equivalent of a moshpit and octagenarians dancing in the aisles.

O'Connor set an emotionally energetic tone well-sustained by what was to come. Backed by the Pretenders and the violin-led Duke Quartet, a whippet- thin Chrissie Hynde perched on a stool wrapping her reverb-drenched vocals around old favourites such as "Brass in Pocket", together with new songs of love, loss and loneliness. "I'll never be a man in a man's world," she sang reassuringly over lush string accompaniment, before rocking out to a no-holds-barred crescendo. Peering from under her fringe, Hynde shimmied forward, arms akimbo. What women want, she surmised confrontationally, was "a body like this". The concluding vocal jam featuring the entire evening's line-up - with the biggest cheer reserved for Sinead O'Connor - saw an ecstatic tambourine-playing Lynne Franks unashamedly thanking "the Goddess for making it happen".

What women want, or so it seems, was exactly what they got.

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