Antony Hegarty

Diamanda Galas :: Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1-8-12



The advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterised chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.


Of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical or literary material; belonging to the avant-garde: an avant-garde composer; unorthodox or daring; radical.

What has the over-used term avant-garde come to mean? Anything that’s even a millimetre outside of the perceived mainstream; perhaps a Whistle Test prog throwback glaring blankly at their audience through their beards while new instrumental shoegaze swirls around an East London club with a dreadful sound system; or a hipster Brooklyn electronic ‘collective’ declaring their album works best with 12 concurrent mixes. Ok, I’m guilty in this regard: from Okkervil River to Dirty Projectors to the Flaming Lips, count me in. But I know, truly, that calling something ‘experimental’ is a lazy term used entirely too often to describe anything that’s even a little sonically different or visually intriguing, and it’s mostly used inaccurately to label music that isn’t daring or radical at all… and then, among all that wankery, with thanks to Antony Hegarty’s first Meltdown night, I found the real thing.

The audience are always a fascinating barometer of the artist. I keenly observed the Guardian-reading South Bank crowd + a few specs-wearing, plaid-clad hipsters + a hell of a lot of alternatives (a Torture Garden kinda crowd: all tattoos, flesh tunnels and those who graced the 90s as goths). My gig companion had seen Ms Galas at a Brel tribute in the same venue, singing Amsterdam, alongside Marc Almond and other kind-on-the-ear artists: she was booed. I asked why, but he found it hard to explain, exactly.

Within a minute of her striding to the piano, I knew why. Out came this… noise. Operatic and dramatic, enveloped by dark, rolling piano trills, this instrument, this vocal, guttural sound, coming from some unholy place, filled the auditorium. My earholes were being assaulted. I had no idea what this insane woman was screaming about but I knew it was in Italian. The next song was in Greek, then Italian again, then Spanish, then German, then French, one in English, back to German, Italian and so on. Every song was about death. It was unbelievable, truly. You just never knew what was coming next – more ear-splitting soprano shrieking? A chanson-style growl at least two octaves lower? A middle eight which consisted of only high-pitched, but completely controlled, banshee wailing? Yoko’s got nothing on Diamanda. It was sometimes unlistenable, yet often deeply moving, and you wanted it to be over but you never wanted it to end. The most traditionally enjoyable song was a little bluesy, but still ended with a truckload of piano banging.

Near the end I played out several fantasies in my head: Diamanda on the X Factor, the look on Cowell’s face; Diamanda invading a hen-night-jukebox-musical, like Dirty Dancing, and the theatre staff locking the doors; Diamanda on a Lloyd Webber Saturday night BBC1 West End competition show – perhaps she could be the next Wicked Witch? Diamanda on the Royal Variety Show: following Brucie, bowing to the Queen, perhaps a duet with Gary Barlow?

I’ve been watching live music for 24 of my 35 years. I have never seen a gig like this. It was like being punched in the face with sound. Half way through the show an audience member dared to express her devotion with a plain ‘I love you!’ The Cruella De Vil-esque response: “Do you know who you’re talking to? Shut up!”

At the end of the show, as my entire being tried to recover from this unique experience, Antony quietly made his way on stage to hand her a bouquet of flowers. A symbol of traditional beauty, grace and elegance, she accepted it with an affectionate, benevolent smile, took her bow and her standing ovation and walked slowly into the wings.

Elizabeth Fraser :: Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London 7-8-12

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With her silver puffball skirt, white jacket, Mary Jane’s and short-cropped grey hair, Elizabeth Fraser looked like an art teacher who was about to announce exam results, as she walked meekly to the centre of the stage at the Royal Festival Hall. A tiny figure, she held onto her mic stand as if letting go would open a trapdoor. This nearly 50 year old Scottish mum of two had not performed on stage for 15 years (aside from a few cameos with Massive Attack, whose Teardrop remains her most famed vocal contribution and, I suspect, the reason she doesn’t have to worry about money) before this past weekend. First came a warm-up show in Bath, near her Bristol residence, on Saturday and, then, the first of two Meltdown shows on Monday. Last night, Tuesday, was her last performance, for who knows how long? In a recent Guardian interview, her first in years, she talked quietly, but with charm and self-awareness, of her crippling anxiety and depression. She wasn’t sure if she wanted anyone to listen to her music, and couldn’t bear to even make a decision about whether she should record or perform again. So, simply put, she didn’t do anything. She stayed at home and raised her daughters. Who on earth knows how Antony persuaded her to do this. She must have been consumed by terror at the very idea. She retreated from the business of music a long time ago – the death of Jeff Buckley, with whom she had had an intense relationship (and also produced one, unreleased, complete gem of a song), had seemingly caused a breakdown and made her run from London to Bristol, where she has lived ever since. I had wondered if that song, perhaps a duet with Antony, might make an appearance but realised that, for her, such a thing would be too painful to endure.

As she stood, very still, the crowd collectively inhaled. The backdrop, a sprawling, black, metallic silhouetted tree over a latticed screen, which covered much of the back of the stage, started to come to life, and projections started to run. The ambient noise from her side-stage tech guy that had wound its way around every quiet moment, and would continue to between songs throughout, stopped and her band started to play. A visual focal point was her keyboard player – a cross between Mike Garson and Ming the Merciless, and with the fashion sense of Klaus Nomi – who commanded a bank of vintage organs and synthesisers. The guitarist made Torn/Fripp sounds, excellently; the drummer, in his glass box, surrounded everything with consummately played fills. The bassist switched effortlessly from bass to rhythm guitar. However, the sound, one must say, was poor at times. A shuddering bass seeped out of the speakers now and then, overwhelming all. The two female backing singers were sometimes superfluous. The sound mix was, at times, annoyingly poor. Everything was designed to frame her voice, but since it’s not the loudest there is, the mix was an engineer’s struggle. But despite these flaws, the voice everyone longed to hear was to win. Imperceptible at first, this delicate, undulating sound started to come out of the speakers. Like a hummingbird, it buzzed up and down and around, barely noticeable. It’s not a strident voice, and it’s not going to make the chairs wobble and the glass crack, like Diamanda Galas did last week. But it soars and swoops and, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful sounds that has ever passed through my ears.

The love washed over the stage in waves. As each song ended, applause and feting filled the room. Declarations of love and marriage were suggested. She smiled sweetly. Just less than half of the set was new material – it reminded me a little of the more recent Kate Bush albums (now there’s a Meltdown fantasy: Kate curates) – and the remainder was old Cocteau Twins songs, greeted like long lost friends. I don’t think a single person present thought they were going to hear these dream pop masterpieces ever performed again. In all seriousness, while she’s been away, her band’s music has had an immeasurable influence. A band like Beach House (or Animal Collective or Bat For Lashes or the xx, and so on) simply wouldn’t exist. The esteemed indie-folk-pop record label Bella Union wouldn’t either: started by former Cocteau’s Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, the label has given us the aforementioned Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, John Grant, The Low Anthem, Midlake and dozens more.

That her voice is unintelligible, in terms of lyrics, matters not. It’s all about the sound. At times I felt as if I was in a waking dream, with the perfect soundtrack. Her instrument is untouched by years of touring, of slogging around the world and its festivals, and this concert was enriched for it. It’s slightly different, of course, with age, but the mesmerised audience was rapt and thrilled. She must have no doubt now of how much she is loved. In truth, she looked deeply touched at the standing ovations, applause and bouquets offered, and taken, from delirious fans. As she encored with Song to the Siren, a strange and exquisite Tim Buckley song, which, Teardrop aside, she is best known for (recorded as part of This Mortal Coil ), I thought I might dissolve into the seat. Simply, it was the most beautiful rendition imaginable of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gratitude fills me – to Antony for the invite, and to Elizabeth Fraser for overcoming her fears and saying yes.