To say that the list of those involved was stellar would undersell it. I could just list the artistes who participated and this would almost suffice as a review -- in alphabetical order: Tori Amos, Tim Booth, Billy Bragg, Eliza Carthy, Marianne Faithful, Kristin Hersh, Sinead O'Connor, Yoko Ono, Beth Orton, Miranda Richardson, Patti Smith, Tilda Swinton.
The theme for the evening was childhood/motherhood, with Blake's Songs of Innocence as a backdrop (quite literally, as Blake's glorious illustrations were projected onto a screen behind the stage for most of the evening) and perhaps some kind of framework. Smith explains the motivations and meaning behind the concert in a recent Guardian article, and some of this definitely came through in the performances; yes, at times the event as a whole seemed to be more a smorgasboard of singer-songwriters (predominantly, but not exclusively, female) than any kind of unified whole... but what's not to like about that? I'd feared -- uncharitably! -- that the event would be two hours of piano-led PMT, but there was no danger of the women involved allowing their (song-)cycles to synchronise as a result of performing on the same stage; the only thing they had in common was their individuality.
Highlights for me included:
* Patti Smith opening the show with Birdland. I'd never really heard her music before, and as an introduction to her music (which I'd never really heard before) this felt rather like being thrown in at the deep end; but for a voice like that, a girl could learn to swim.
* A powerful set from Tori Amos. Surely spoilt for choice as to which songs best fitted the evening's theme, she ended up performing "Silent All These Years", "Pretty Good Year", "Mother Revolution", and "Winter". A fantastic selection, and she's lost none of the force and feeling over the years, though she seems to have added more vowels than English phonology normally admits. Being a sad lyrics junkie, I noticed that "Mother Revolution" contains the line "All along the watchtower", linking it to the corresponding "Songs of Experience" concert which features the works of Jimi Hendrix. (Yes, I am quite sure I'm in the wrong song.)
* The chance to see Kristin Hersh again, but this time when I could remain seated and not be incessantly jostled by stupid people.
* Miranda Richardson's lively rendition of the rather peculiar carol "Bitter Withy", and Eliza Carthy's mournful version of the no less peculiar (at least by modern standards) song "Daily Growing".
* Beth Orton skipping with excitement when the whole crowd reassembled for the final song. She's cancelled her summer appearance at Somerset House (for which we had tickets, thanks again to Owen) due to album deadlines, so we were all the more glad that she could take part in this concert. "Someone's Daughter" may have been an obvious choice for the evening but it's still a great song.
* An acoustic version of indie anthem "Sit Down" by Tim Booth (surely I don't need to provide a lyrics link for something that's so well known it's available as a polyphonic ringtone!), to which most of us swayed along -- decorously, though, as befitted the Royal Festival Hall. ("Guess the age of the audience," quipped Owen.)
* Marianne Faithfull battling bronchitis to give us a superbly swaggering rendition of Lennon's "Working-Class Hero". She must be fearsome when she's on top form; despite the illness, her voice easily filled the Festival Hall.
* The final number, "Inchworm" (originally featured in the musical "Hans Christian Andersen"). It seemed a strange choice of song to unite so many diverse artistes, but as the assembled crowd sung the slight melody again and again, its hypnotic harmonies (never quite resolving, as the counterpoint refrain weaves in and out of the main tune) cast their spell over the crowd.
I could go on. Flawed though it may have been in some ways (Sinead O'Connor's formless two-chord meanderings through the Psalms were desperately self-indulgent, and a sadly limited showcase for her amazing voice; Patti Smith should perhaps have thought twice about dragging her daughter on stage to play piano, particularly as said daughter looked awkward and embarrassed by the whole affair; Yoko Ono's solo number probably crossed the line between using voice as a percussive instrument and using voice as a weapon, though it was certainly interesting; the "Songs of Innocence" theme was a bit vague and didn't really gain much from the silent black-and-white home-video footage of small children that appeared on the backdrop at intervals throughout the evening) it was a phenomenal evening, both as a musical event and a conjunction of musical stars. I bought the programme on the way out, if only so that 30 years down the line my children might believe me when I said that I'd been there.