Dry cleaning; Review of Oumou Sangaré – Grace Jones Meltdown Stars | merge festival
Jhere are many ways a festival organized by Grace Jones could have happened. Jones’ musical playground was the club, his melting pot the disco era. When she first started making waves in the early 80s, her music boasted a harsh electronic undercurrent and no funk. She’s covered too many artists to count.
His Meltdown festival lineup, on ice for two years, is as eclectic as Jones’ pedigree suggests. It is, however, occupied by emerging talents rather than renowned acts (Solange had to withdraw). Major voices from the African continent trump Jones’ own sources or contemporaries. Due to Observer, live performers like Moonchild Sanelly, a visually edgy, sex-positive rapper who arguably came closest to channeling the revolutionary spirit of Jones’ Imperial phase, elude our lens. The curator herself too.
But the lucky dip in the first half of the week is cause for congratulations. The wires linking Jones to Dry cleaning are thin but taut: the edge of drummer Nick Buxton’s drum machine and the stentorian, deadpan ways of frontman Florence Shaw, who reveal nothing but contempt. You could easily imagine this South London post-punk outfit covering Normal’s new wave cult hit Warm leatherettewith all sound sprechgesang and anomie, as Jones once did.
The debut of Dry Cleaning in 2021, New long legwas basically everything sprechgesang and anomie, with Shaw’s cut-style lyrics constructed from slices of life so fleeting and unanchored they seemed to stare out the window of a speeding car – their first track traditional fish basically lists storefronts — or flips through past memes on his social media feed. In a way, everything fits together, a bit like this Meltdown, and this is true tonight in a seated room where inhibitions prevent you from dancing as the rhythm section wanted.
Live, the band largely have the upper hand, with Shaw’s bored delivery often no match for bass’ bobble or guitarist Tom Dowse’s punk-funk, as active on his feet as Shaw is stony. But the elliptical sentences that escape the rolling of the group seem all the more significant.
“I just wanted to tell you that I have scabs on my head,” Shaw intones, staring at the crowd during the excellent strong feelingsnonchalantly lifting a bit of hair, the closest this intentionally empty group member gets to set design.
Some “da, da da” are suspended for comfort on songs such as the melancholy More big birds, but Dry Cleaning’s approach is incredibly radical. Even the Chutes, high priests of oblique poetics, had vocal melodies and choruses.
A new full dry preview album is coming in October, they announce, called Filling – “Look for it!” (an embroidery technique, it turns out). The good news is that the new song they’re playing – Don’t rush me – has a great one-liner: “Don’t touch my gaming mouse, you rat.” The bad news? Shaw waters down their USP by singing a little.
Two nights later, there’s dancing in the aisles. On the night Dry Cleaning played, it was a real touch that the 30-year-old Grammy-winning Malian superstar Oumou Sangare and his seven-piece band, would get their visas in time, a problem that seems to continue to plague international artists who dare to entertain British audiences.
But Sangaré sashays imperturbable, imperious and warm at the same time. Despite the language barrier – she sings in Bambara – her music is above all communicative. His songs cover pleas and takedowns; they are full of sage advice or exasperated rage against the madness of war on songs like Kele Magni , a jolly shakedown, ironically enough. Sangaré’s gestures are conversational, meaningful; she waves a finger or spreads her arms as if to say, “Come on!
The setlist is going strong on his latest album, the superb Timbuktu, one unexpectedly conceived in Baltimore where Sangaré got stuck when Covid hit. But she is full of pride in her native region of Wassoulou, tinged with melancholy and emotional authority; more than before in his work, he subtly explores the links between West African music and American forms.
Tonight, that means Abou Diarra’s n’goni arpeggios are counterbalanced by Julien Pestre’s slide guitar. Sometimes the ratio leans a little too much towards the latter, but a bright keyboard solo from Alex Millet hooks perfectly on Degui N’Kelena.
Best of all is Sangaré herself, who, out of nowhere, can strike a note like a mallet, cheered on by two spirited backing vocalists on call and response. Dily Oumou finds Sangaré at his strongest and most pained, singing of resilience in the face of his enemies. It’s hard to imagine that this woman has enemies, but as a feminist, entrepreneur and activist, she has to be worried.
Here, however, in dribs and drabs, then in waves, people get out of their seats to film themselves dancing in front of her. Some fans offer him a painting. Sangaré dispenses hugs and three of her bracelets before rushing offstage, her dress coming undone from all the excitement.