George Melly, Brecon Jazz Festival, Powys

Still smokin'
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The Independent Culture

When at last he began to shuffle on from the wings, George Melly appeared, very satisfyingly, to be wearing full female drag: straw sun-hat and red crushed-velvet dress, with striped trackie-bottoms visible underneath. Looking rather like a cross between the eccentric bandleader Sun Ra and his beloved Bessie Smith, Melly then began to shuffle off again, having miscalculated his cue. As he told us, once safely settled into the Rowley Birkin-ish leather armchair from which he performed, the part of his brain that deals with time no longer functions.

Cruelly - and as a dedicated Surrealist Melly would appreciate the cruelty - you could say that there's not much else left that functions, either. As he fumbled with the microphone, knocked over a glass of whiskey, and, through deafness, struggled to communicate with the band (Digby Fairweather's Half Dozen, a whole, increasingly strained, hour's-worth of whom we had already sat through), Melly looked a very pale shadow of his former jaunty self. Indeed, this performance was sometimes closer to Krapp's Last Tape than to good-time entertainment. The biggest cheer of the night came when, as the band played on, George insouciantly lit up a cigarette, fagging-it in the jaws of death.

But just when one feared the worst, everything started to get better: George, perhaps primed by whiskey and fag, warmed up. His voice, hitherto terribly underpowered, recovered some of the old bellow, and his introductions (always as important a part of his act as the songs) grew longer and funnier. By the time he got round to the dirty version of the Storyville brothel-song "All the Girls Love the Way I Ride", standing up and turning his back to the audience the better to demonstrate correct riding-posture, we were all in an uproar.

And it's important to remember that this wasn't any old gig, for Melly is loved in Brecon as a favourite son. With his wife Diana, for many years he owned a tower nearby, where friends such as Bruce Chatwin would come to stay, and he topped the bill of the first Brecon Jazz Festival in 1984.

Now in his 80th year (a birthday he celebrated on Thursday), and in obvious poor health, this show was a typically brave, transgressive act by one of the most treasured figures in British cultural life of the last century. By the end, as George popped his eyes theatrically at the ample curves of the charming vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, with whom he was meant to be singing a duet of "Ain't Misbehavin'", it felt like the conclusion of a truly marvellous occasion. Which it wasn't, entirely. But so loved is George that you wouldn't begrudge him anything, especially one last ride.