The South Bank's summer Meltdown festival comes to an end tonight with the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal. It's a tribute to the quirky, questioning nature of this year's curator, Robert Wyatt, that the range of 30-plus artists, including Max Roach, the Residents, Terry Riley, Massacre and Arab-Israeli hip-hop feels coherent.
Tapes of Wyatt's material, played before gigs and during intervals, have reminded us about his fascinating body of work: intricate miniatures; sprawling layers and loops; politicised dance numbers; and highly personal love songs.
Sunday's gig, organised by trombonist Annie Whitehead, added a few new voices to the nicely drilled band that played at the South Bank last year. Karen Mantler (whose father, Michael, recently released an album — Hide and Seek — with Wyatt on vocals) sang "Team Spirit" and, later, "Soup Song." Carleen Anderson sang two non-Wyatt songs he has recorded — "Strange Fruit" (with an extraordinary doudouk solo from Didier Malherbe) and Chic's "At Last I Am Free." Ian Maidman did sterling work as a Wyatt soundalike on songs that included "A Sunday in Madrid" and "Free Will and Testament."
When Elvis Costello came on stage, everyone took notice. He sang "Left On Man," "Caroline" and "Shipbuilding," the song about preparations for the Falklands war by Costello and Clive Langer that Wyatt recorded in the early 1980s. Julie Tippetts, part of the original Soup Songs "big idea" commissioned by Dave Groom a few years ago, was an outstanding Wyatt interpreter, capturing his conversational phrasing and jazz-saturated passion on soaring arrangements of songs such as "Alliance," "Muddy Mouse/Muddy Mouth" and the glorious "Sight of the Wind," which she described as her favourite Wyatt work.
Brett Anderson was the odd man out, appearing just before the interval to sing a dreary version of Wyatt's "Sea Song" over desultory beatbox, twanging guitar and electronic beeps. He looked as though he would rather be somewhere else, and the audience swiftly came to a similar conclusion. When all the stars came back to sing "Heaps of Sheeps," the Suede man stayed away. At the end, Wyatt, comfortably installed in the Royal Box with his wife, Alfreda Benge, like alternative royalty, shyly sang a few goodbye lines through the PA system.