Meltdown Festival: Songs Of Experience, Royal Festival Hall, London

All in all a mixed experience
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The Independent Culture

Still, it was somehow appropriate that this was the final concert in the middle-aged hall before its 18-month refit: at least Hendrix, the subject of all the evening's long music-making, had actually played the place – The Experience headlined a "guitar-in" here, featuring Bert Jansch and Paco Pena among others, in September 1967. William Blake, the other legendary figure that Smith pulled into her Meltdown innocence-and-experience equation, was a little before the hall's time and didn't rate a mention from the poetess last night.

With such an ambitious show, the sum was inevitably going to be greater than the parts. Fred Frith and Chris Cutler deconstructed "I Don't Live Today" without constructing anything else of note, while the Thai band Sek Loso did a decent job on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" but were, ultimately, little more than a covers band from an exotic land.

The Siberian band Yat-Kha attempted a combination of drones and thumps on "Purple Haze" and "Highway Chile", but their aims, expounded at length, would have been easier met if they'd been able to keep the beat and knew the chords and riffs better.

On the positive side of the first half, the Balanescu Quartet certainly knew the notes and played with great spirit, caressing "1983 (A Merman I Should Be)" and making "Foxy Lady" lurch with appropriate menace, while "Spanish Castle Magic" took on a stately dancing quality.

But the undoubted highlight of the first half was the extraordinary Finnish duo, made up of the accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and drummer Sami Kuoppamaki, who stormed through "Driving South" (re-named "Driving North" in honour of Kimmo's homeland) and "Burning of the Midnight Lamp". They finished to wild cheers.

After the interval, the 19-year-old American harpist-singer Joanna Newsom warbled and plucked through "Angel" and "Little Wing" like a senior at a high-school concert. On an overlong night, the question was: why?

James "Blood" Ulmer delivered a down-home, primitive reading of "Who Knows?" and "Machine Gun" to remind us why we were there in the first place, then Johnny Marr and Robyn Hitchcock reverently resurrected "May This Be Love" in duet, before Television's Richard Lloyd combined with Patti Smith's bassist and drummer to deliver a gut-wrenchingly thrilling reading of "I Don't Live Today", which reminded us why we were there in the first place. Smith then joined her band and read the lyrics to "If 6 Was 9" from a sheet, missing her cues.

Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, more than made up for the missed cues in a one-man virtuoso Fender bass and trumpet rendition of "Third Stone from the Sun" that had all the intensity and feel that Squarepusher's one-man virtuoso six-string-bass display earlier on in the evening had lacked.

With that, Smith announced "the jewel in our crown", Jeff Beck – the only man present that night who'd taught Hendrix anything. Beck and his group played five numbers, the highlights being a stunning exhibition of relaxed Beck blues guitar on "Red House" and a riotously jubilant workout on "Manic Depression". Exit Beck to tumultuous acclaim, all of it deserved.

He didn't come back, though Smith and her band did for a strange but moving version of "1983 (A Merman I Should Be)" that was a fitting last selection before the Royal Festival Hall is closed and reinvented – its lyrics of destruction, death and resurrection make it a true song of experience and an apt final moment of Meltdown.

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