The Coral Sea Sessions

So, I’ve spent the last 2 nights at the Royal Festival Hall, watching Patti Smith and Kevin Shields’ “Coral Sea Sessions”. This is a repeat of the collaboration between Smith n’Shields from last year’s Meltdown Festival, where Patti basically read out sections of her poetry book ‘The Coral Sea’, whilst Kevin played guitar in the background. The shows were split in two – the first part being Patti playing protest songs (on Monday) and songs about death (on Tuesday) with her co-writer Tony Shannahan, an incredible Italian cellist, and Jason Pierce from Spiritualized. The themes overlapped on both nights, but kind of erred towards the mawkish on Monday – lots of ‘a mother’s grief’-type anti-war songs, totally earnest I’m sure, but a lttle too earnest for me. On both nights she played a new song ‘Without Chains’ about a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, which was full o’mistakes on the first night, and on the second night Patti sang te chorus as ‘In chains’ as opposed to ‘Without chains’. I thought this was an interesting version on the lyrics until she halted everything towards the end of the song and said ‘Hang on, it’s supposd to be ‘Without chains’! Why did you let me go on singing it as ‘In Chains’?’, to which Shannahan shrugged, embaressed. It’s heartening to see even professional musicians feeling too polite to point out mistakes to their boss on stage. Also on both nights, Kevin Shields joined the band for the final song of the first part, which was a circling dirge, and rather beautiful at that. Not sure if Shields had a hand in writing it, but it did sound MBV-esque in it’s minimal melody and droning momentum.

Now, the real meat of the two evenings was the second half: The Coral Sea. The format was pretty much the same as the Meltdown performance – Patti reads poetry over Kevin’s ebb, flow, delay and decayed guitar, mirroring the nautical footage on screen above them (shot by Jem Cohen – whose 9/11 skyline footage during the first half was pretty haunting). Basically, have you ever wanted to hear a 30-minute version of ‘To Here Knows When’? I know I have. Regularly. Shields’ guitar work was the beautifully droney undulating waves of sound stuff you can only find on ‘Loveless’, and seeing him play live is illuminating – you hear just how little of ‘Loveless’ was studio trickery. He’s really that good with effects pedals. Being the My Bloody Valentine obsessive I am, I didn’t really pay a great deal of attention to Patti’s poetry – for me, it was the background noise – but she gave a spirited performance, spitting words out in anger (and just spitting generally). The text wasn’t particularly verbose – it gave a straightforward voice to the anguish of illness and fear of death that the subject (Smith’s friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe whose death from AIDS is the story of The Coral Sea) must have felt. But, for me, it was all about seeing Shields do something other than trigger samples for Primal Scream. When the drones began to get louder, and Patti had to shout her words over the gorgeous din that he was making…. well, it’s as close as anyone’s going to get to seeing MBV again. *sigh*