'NOT ONLY is this guy a great musician with an incredible voice, he also invented penicillin, rode the winner of the 1982 Kentucky Derby, and saved Eudora, my highland terrier, from certain death in a horrendous tumble-drier accident.' Nanci Griffith's introductions of her guests and accompanists at the Royal Albert Hall are a little on the fulsome side, given their contributions. Tanita Tikaram, for one, gets about three big, gruff notes in 'It's Too Late' before she's off back to her dressing-room, looking rather embarrassed.
Other guests fare better. Veteran folk revivalist Carolyn Hester - Griffith's childhood heroine and the woman who gave Bob Dylan his first break (so she's the one to blame) - harmonises with her on Bob's 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and then sings her own 'Kingdom for a Kiss', an old song about Edward and Mrs Simpson which has recently acquired a new resonance. Ralph McTell (yes, Ralph McTell) joins Nanci for a moving duet on his migrant's meditation 'From Clare to Here'. Such collaborations are no mere diversion, but the main business of the evening, as Griffith is currently using her own enormous popularity to widen recognition of the folk heritage that inspired her.
At least half the set comes from the album Other Voices / Other Rooms (MCA), in which Nanci wraps her flutey tonsils around the songs of folk and country legends such as Kate Wolf, Tom Paxton and Townes van Zandt. The clarity of her voice and the arrangements of her Blue Moon Orchestra rings through even when the material is unfamiliar, and the knowledge that across town Michael Bolton is ransacking soul traditions without so much as a by-your-leave makes her dues-paying initiative all the more welcome. A shimmering rustle through John Prine's 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness' is the high point, but several of Nanci's own songs nearly match it. Ironically, many of these have been most successfully sung by other, more straightforward new-country voices. Their author doesn't seem to mind - she says she's pleased when her songs 'leave the house and make their own living'.
Griffith is an engaging character, chatting for hours between songs and throwing in the odd Pete Townshend leap as she shimmies about the stage. Her radiance is tireless - she makes Goldie Hawn look like a nihilist - but not tiresome. A sharp intelligence lurks beneath the flannel. When a man in the crowd threatens to become disruptive, Griffith launches into a wry discussion of 'testosterone poisoning', leading into the acerbic anti-macho strut of 'One Blade Shy of a Sharp Edge'.
Mark E Smith, the philosopher-prince of Lancastrian roses The Fall, is sole guardian of his own personal English folk tradition: nasal sarcobilly. He and his band are not known as purveyors of visual pleasure, but there is a ramshackle beauty about them at the Clapham Grand. Above the stage, two giant handmade banners proclaim 'The Fall' with a helpful arrow pointing downwards. Then there are two drummers, a television, bass-player Stephen Hanley, guitarist Craig Scanlon, a computer screen and some keyboards - these last mystifyingly enclosed within a large frieze of an MFI kitchen, with paper clouds floating above them and pampas grass beneath.
In the middle Smith cuts his usual reptilian dash, but he's less venomous than usual, more benign. On stage he often gives the impression that he'd rather be in the pub, but tonight - perhaps soothed by the sound of his own voice on the between-song backing tapes - he seems almost happy to be here. One hand hooked gently around the outside of his trouser pocket, he leads the band through most of their excellent current album, The Infotainment Scan, and returns for four encores. The sound, like the stage, is a well-organised clutter. Ska and disco elements are cleverly welded onto a sound garage-rock chassis. 'I do not like your tone,' Smith mithers memorably at someone, possibly himself, 'it has ephemeral, whingeing aspects', but there's a good few miles left yet in this beautifully customised ego-vehicle.
The Rebirth of Cool turns out to be an extended delivery. Now on its third instalment, Island Records' showcase for jazz, funk and soul hopefuls has hit the boards. At the Forum, genial band-leader Ronny Jordan, unfazed by the shadow of Shakatak, paints a mellow guitar backdrop for crazed vibesman Max Beesley, beat poet Dana Bryant, 'Revival' singer Martine Gerault and LA rappers Freestyle Fellowship.
These last are the main attraction. Hailing from South Central of nasty repute, but bold enough to eschew (except in their sexist video) the ultra-macho posturing of gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube, the Fellowship lack nothing in intensity. Their music is a compelling mix of old-school street-corner rap, jazz scat singing and Gil Scott Heron agit- funk. They don't connect with the live band as solidly as they might, but four fine songs whet appetites for their debut album Innercity Griots (4th & Bdway, out tomorrow). Mikah Nine, their smoothest voice, is a star in the making.
Nanci Griffith: Manchester Opera House (061-236 9922) tonight, touring for six weeks (details, 071-957 8600).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies