The Independent JULY 9, 1997 - by Judith Palmer


Gala Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London

Charity galas are always a bit overwhelmingly hagiarchical, and the closing event of Laurie Anderson's Meltdown festival, held in aid of War Child, was no exception. Anderson herself described the evening as "a dream-come-true marathon of many of my musical heroes". From Lou Reed to Philip Glass, Robert Wilson to Bill T Jones, it was quite a line- up, even before surprise appearances by Salman Rushdie and Michael Nyman.

With a twinkle of tiara and a river of black hair cascading to her knees, young Tibetan devotional singer Yungchen Lhamo made a powerful start to the show. Her pure unaccompanied voice swooping to meet her frail outstretched hands in songs of spellbinding mournfulness.

After two solos, Lhamo was joined on stage by dancer Bill T Jones. Impressive as always in his iron control, Jones flexed his Peter Andre six-pack and his glistening Arnie-sculpted pecs. There was a jarring knowingness in his deft benedictory gestures, however, as he rippled voguingly through the forest of amps and mike stands in response to Lhamo's plaintive elegy.

Jones gave way to Rushdie (reading race riot scenes from The Satanic Verses), then off slipped Rushdie and on bounded the newscaster-smug theatre director Robert Wilson reading Vonnegut's Dresden bombing sequences. Segue to an acoustic Lou Reed, sedentary and somewhat avuncular, performing songs from his Robert Wilson collaboration Time Rocker and a written-for-tonight ballad Rescue Night. The old Velvet Undergrounder had gone all sentimental on us, but that gnarled voice of smouldering gravel still does it for me every time. Cue Michael Nyman.

The time-hopping war visions of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and the recent Heaven's Gate suiciders who tried to hitch a ride out of town on the tail of the Hale Bopp comet, provided the evening's declared inspiration. "This image of people longing for a better and different and higher far-away place was really on my mind," Anderson explains in a brief programme note.

Surprisingly, the mistress of futuristic technology dips back in time to 1904 to find the central cog in her wheel of longing, with a slender eight-minute silent film by Dorothy G Shore called Land Beyond The Sunset. To a spare new Eno/Anderson accompaniment, the film's naive tale unfolds, taking New York urchin Joe away from his drunkard mother for a charity picnic in the country courtesy of the philanthropic Fresh Air Fund. Surrounded by nature for the first time, and listening to fairy tales, Joe's appetite is now whetted for a more magical future. Shunning the train back to the city, he steps into an oarless boat and drifts off into the ocean sunset.

This mood of serene drift rather took hold of the whole show, as all the performers tried good-naturedly to swim in the stream of wistfulness.

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto took a firm grip on the second half thanks to the reassuringly excited chicks of the Electra Strings quartet and some groovy computer-generated projections. His lava-lampy twisty helixes and extruded blobs eased the prevailing sobriety, before the injection of a glimmer of humour courtesy of a projected David Byrne quotation on the nature of salvation: "Save me from good manners, holidays, happy endings, perfect skin, good teeth."

More minimal discretion from Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, then - lo! - after three and a half hours adrift in the sea of ambient monochrome... some colour.

Belting out Hector Zazou's hip re-settings of French and English folk songs, on strode a vision in red satin, magenta-haired, and red-blooded, tottering alarmingly in mock-collapse and rolling her madwoman-in-the- attic eyes. A non-icon, unaccredited in the programme, Mimi Goese (look out for her at Womad, and her forthcoming debut album Soak), who wasn't too supercool to really put out.