“And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more”
A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle was a show of profound beauty and amazing music put together as part of the Southbank’s Meltdown Festival, curated this year by Richard Thompson, to commemorate the life of Kate who died of cancer earlier this year. She was part of a huge musical dynasty in her native Canada, part of the folk scene with her sister Anna, ex-wife of Loudon Wainwright III, but latterly probably more famous as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
Over three hours, a huge number of people came together to remember a beloved mother, sister, aunt, colleague by teaming up and performing numbers from Kate & Anna’s back catalogue, ably supported by a hugely talented band. People like Nick Cave, Neil Tennant, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Lisa Hannigan, Michael Ondaatje all gave their own unique contributions, paying tribute in their own special ways with her family members also chipping in, sister Jane on the piano, niece and nephew doing backing vocals on a huge number of songs and of course Rufus and Martha at the heart of everything.
The first half had more of a jamming feel about it, Martha and Rufus joined up on ‘Kiss and Say Good bye’, Richard Thompson rattled through ‘Swimming Song’, various groups gave some lovely close harmonies on a couple of old Québécois folk songs and there was a real feel of celebration, the continuation of an amazing legacy of collaborative music-making. There was some of the usual shambolic antics that characterises much of the group McGarrigle/Wainwright occasions, a few restarts, a few missed cues and this kept the atmosphere nicely light.
The second half started with a more reflective tone however, a home video of Kate miming along to one of her songs on the radio was a delightfully daft touch, but as we watched her sister, niece and daughter watching it, it also served to remind what a vivacious personality has been lost. This more sombre mood did give rise to some of the more emotional moments of the show. My personal favourite McGarrigle song, ‘I Eat Dinner (When The Hunger Stops)’ was as amazing as I’d ever hoped it could be with Rufus duetting with Emmylou Harris to just stunning effect. This was then followed by an emotionally devastating rendition of ‘Proserpina’, the last song Kate ever wrote, Martha took lead vocals with most everyone else providing backing . With its repeated lyric of ‘Come home to Mama’, it was almost too much to bear and as she began to crumble, the tears began to fall in earnest, on my cheeks, those around me, those on stage, it was a beautiful, heart-breaking, touching moment.
Emmylou and Anna harmonising on ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’, Michael Ondaatje giving a recital of a section of one of his books inspired by the sisters, moments of heartbreaking beauty flew by but it was uplifting too. And as if we weren’t feeling emotionally bruised enough by the end, Rufus finished off with a beautiful piano version of ‘Walking Son’g , breaking down at the end and whispering ‘thanks Mom’ before the ensemble came onstage to take their bows to the most deserving standing ovation I think I’ve given and a chirpy encore of ‘Love Over and Over’.
The evening went a long way to show just how strong a songwriter Kate was and how loved a person she was. The intimacy of her work, the domestic settings, the familiar feelings, combined with a lyrical incisiveness and absolute honesty meaning the sheer simplicity and strength shone through with a bright light through the varied interpretations and demonstrated what a huge contribution she made to the folk music tradition. The grace under pressure shown by sister Anna, an integral part of so many of the numbers and the courage shown by the other participants, especially her family members, in sharing this moment with us is something I will be forever grateful for and I hope they found some kind of catharsis in the experience. The mere fact that such huge talent came together to celebrate her life and to create enjoyment for others in a time of such personal grief is testament to the power of her own legacy (as is the fund set up in her name) and wherever she is, I rather suspect she would have gained much pleasure in watching her loved ones in this show.
Length: 3 hours
Programme cost: the Meltdown festival brochure is £5
Postscript: I didn’t take notes but I wish I had now to have a perfect record of what was a stunning evening. In some ways I wish it had been recorded for posterity but in others one can never really capture the special energy and emotion of one off events like these so perhaps it is best for it to remain a beautiful memory. Still I thought I’d try and recall as much as I could for myself.
Martha premiered ‘I Am A Diamond’ (written as part of a musical but I couldn’t catch what it was about), never heard before and I can see it fitting right into Martha’s canon, it was just lovely; Lisa Hannigan made a mockery of the fact that she is not more famous with some incredible lead vocal s on a couple of songs, one of which left Rufus green with envy as he told us whilst introducing her, ‘Entre La Jeunesse’ I think it was, she really deserves to be huge; Krystle Warren added her bluesy tones, singing ‘Come A Long Way’ with Rufus and another solo song; Jenni Muldaur’s renditions of ‘Lying Song’ and ‘Tell My Sister’ were lovey but her duet with Nick Cave, ‘Blues In D’, was excellent; Nick Cave also popped up with one of his own songs from the album No More Shall We Part on which the McGarrigles provided backing vocals; The Thompson family gave a rousing rendition of ‘As Fast My Little Feet’ which lightened the mood somewhat after a particularly emotional segment, the stark ‘Go Leave’ sung by Linda Thompson with Richard on guitar was lovely but Teddy Thompson’s stripped back ‘Saratoga Summer’ was a thing of absolute beauty; Surprise guest Neil Tennant emerged in the second half to give a lovely rendition of ‘I Cried For Us’ which amazingly as it was still played by the band, managed to sound just like a Pet Shop Boys song; oh and Chaim Tennenbaum sang a song about Jesus. There was a song written by Jane McGarrigle which was lovely but I can’t remember anything about and the gorgeous song towards the end that was written by someone else but had a lyric along the lines of “If I had wings like a dove, I’d fly to the ones I love”, let me know if you know what is was.
“No more candlelight
No more romance
No more small talk…”