First Night: Acolytes chant the praises of Queen Nina

Nina Simone Meltdown/Royal Festival Hall London

A NINA Simone concert is more like a prayer meeting than a musical event, 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 acolytes, chanting her phrases and singing her praises. She had become Queen Nina.

The support act was Germaine Greer, who made her poetry reading a homage, explaining that the singer was a discovery each generation of young women makes, that teaches something about women's love, "that great unmanageable thing we lug around - which nobody wants." She said she had made her selection because "this is Nick Cave's Meltdown and I can do what I like!" "Nina Simone," Greer announced, "is evidence that female genius is real." This brought the house down, and set the mood.

Musically, Simone's concert was a mix of styles and sources that included a thumb piano solo, an up-tempo "Milestones" to start the show and impassioned readings of songs by Brecht and Weill, Gershwin ("I Loves You, Porgy"), George Harrison ("Here Comes the Sun") and even a version of "My Baby Just Cares For Me".

The voice is not the expressive instrument of her best-known records - how could it? Now in her 60s, 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 it turns into something else. You no longer hear the words but you suffer along with her.

As she reached the final note of the line, someone whooped. She couldn't have sung like that when she first recorded the song in her 30s; it wouldn't have been right for such a lightweight pop song.

Yet now it has an extra dimension. Someone compared her to Billie Holiday, but Simone's voice is that of a survivor rather than a victim, and that, I think, is what gives her this extraordinary, extra-musical appeal.

JOHN L WALTERS

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