By any reasonable measure Marianne Faithfull really can’t sing. She croaks and squawks her way through a short set that any right thinking person would assume to be some kind of in-joke of a performance. Yet the evening is still powerful and compelling; Faithfull demurely demands the audience’s attention and they eagerly collaborate. Of course the difference between Marianne faltering, coarse singing and, say, mine, is the story that voice conveys. Mine simply tells you what my music teacher said thirty years ago; that I am tone deaf. In Faithfull’s case it is a voice drenched in experience, pain and some really bad decisions; a voice that transcends any evaluation of vocal skill and simply embroiders any song with new layers of sublety.

At the Festival Hall she concentrates on her latest album of covers, 'Easy Come, Easy Go', but touches most of the necessary landmarks in her nearly half century career. From Dolly Parton’s 'Down From Dover' to Randy Newman’s Weimar tinged 'In Germany Before the War', she ably translates the originals into her own hoarse language. While all of these are fine, a frission is felt throughout the hall when she launches in her most essential back catalogue. She tackles 'Broken English' and 'Why’d Ya Do it?' with total commitment, possessing them with all the tortured passion she did thirty years ago.

To hear the aural evidence of the road Faithfull has travelled, you simply have to compare these with her first offering, the Stones penned 'As Tears Go By' released in 1964. This was cold emotionless stuff, a crystal glass voice, sounding naïve; perhaps the dablings of a finishing school educated debutante. Forward a few years to 'Sister Morphine', the favour returned (as was eventually established) in a song she largely wrote for the Stones. She is transformed, not to the wrecked voice that appeared on 'Broken English', but something has obviously been going on: The sixties; the drugs, the busts, the breakdowns. The seventies were even worse with more drugs, homelessness and without the comfort of minor celebrity to fall back on.

If anything, Faithfull has become too knowing to get away with 'As Tears Go By'; it is perfunctory and glib. In comparison, the fly-on-the-wall 'Ballad of Lucy Jordan' was full of disappointment and yearning. 'Sister Morphine' was my highlight. The Stones may have outdone her on 'Sticky Fingers', but Mick would love to have the authenticity and integrity of his ex now. 'Easy Come, Easy Go' is awash with the celebrity guests of whom Nick Cave and Keith Richards are the most noteworthy. I’m sure many more than me harboured hopes of a few guest appearances, but it never materialised, which was probably for the best as it would have shifted the focus from the quality of both her own writing and her performance.

Faithfull’s band, while exemplary in many ways, often seemed unaware of the subject matter they were accompanying; a pianist had an annoying habit of trying to grab attention, gurning and gyrating during dour numbers such as 'Why’d Ya Do It'? But the evening was about Faithfull, who is among of a select band of sixties survivors who are, annoying as the term is, genuinely icons of that fast receding age. She finished at the Royal Festival Hall singing Merle Haggard’s 'Sing Me Back Home' with just piano accompaniment, a nerve tingling ending to the night.

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Commenting On: Royal Festival Hall, 20/7/2009 - Marianne Faithfull

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