The most intriguing night of this year's line-up features two very different female icons: former 80s art-punk Linder Sterling and Nancy Sinatra, a woman who practically defined sixties chic.
Slinking onstage in a sequinned red cocktail dress, Linder leads her band through a set that owes more to Astrud Gilberto and Sergio Mendes than the skittering jazz-punk of her old band, Ludus.
Her lyrics still pick at issues of love, lust and gender identity, but in a musical context that’s far more accessible. The references to a pre-rock tradition (an Anthony Newley cover) and the arch between-song patter (‘This one was a hit…in Doncaster…in 1981’) make it clear just how much Linder shares a sensibility with long-term pal Moz: they’re like elderly spinsters who’ve come to assume each other’s mannerisms.
A couple of Ludus tracks satisfy the faithful (though the litany of sexual polymorphism in ‘Breaking the Rules’ sounds rather quaint these days), but it was the new material that truly intrigues.
Next, the main attraction: hard to believe, but this is Nancy Sinatra‘s performing debut in London, 38 years after her first British number one. It is meant to be a dramatic entrance – a spotlight suddenly picking out Nancy on the darkened stage – but this is rather stymied by the Royal Festival Hall’s inability to manage true darkness (‘Shhhh’, Nance whispers to an already-whooping crowd, ‘you’re not supposed to know I’m here yet!’).
That isn’t the only theatrical touch: the opening number is ‘Bang Bang’, recently used, of course, in the credits of ‘Kill Bill’. Accompanied only by a Spanish guitar, Nancy wrings every note of tremulous melodrama from the chorus. She may look (and dance) more like your slightly dotty auntie than the minidress-clad kitten of yesteryear, but it becomes immediately obvious that her voice has lost none of its power.
Always an underrated singer, she’s capable of moving from the gum-chewing sass of ‘How Does that Grab You, Darlin’?’ to the wistful blues of ‘Friday’s Child’, invariably with a keen understanding of the right tone to strike, the persona required by the lyrics.
Her band are, by and large, up to the job, although a guitarist over-keen on twiddly-diddly solos means that ghost of Blues Hammer hovers threateningly over proceedings at times. Attractions drummer Pete Thomas provides a strong, reliable backbeat, while Don Randi (formerly of Spector’s famed Wrecking Crew) somehow coaxes the majestic sweep of ‘You Only Live Twice’ from a Yamaha synthesiser, all the while looking like some Old West card sharp.
But this is undoubtedly Nancy’s show. A surprisingly supple and heartfelt version of Morrissey‘s ‘Let Me Kiss You’ actually outshines the ‘You Are the Quarry’ rendition, the lyrical invitation to ‘close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire’ sounding convincingly poignant from someone of Ms Sinatra’s (ahem) vintage.
‘Lightning’s Girl’ charms, ‘Boots’ brings the masses to their, uh, feet, and the sunny nonchalance of ‘Sugar Town’ proves, of course, irresistible. During the latter, Nancy ventures into the front row, provoking mini outbursts of hysteria (not least from your correspondent, who can report that, from a distance of two inches, she’s a) surprisingly petite, b) a curious shade of orange and c) looking damn good for 64).
Regrets? I have a few (but not quite too few to mention). A Lee Hazlewood guest appearance would have been welcome, if only for a run-through of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ (heck, I’d have settled for Morrissey in a stick-on John Alford moustache, but it was not to be). And Nancy’s cover of the Bono-penned ‘Two Shots of Happy’ may have brought a tear to her eye, but it seems to drag on as interminably as U2‘s career.
But such quibbles seem churlish. This woman delivers bratty kiss-offs like ‘So Long Babe’ when most white female pop singers are going out of their way to sound unthreatening. She’s a good interpreter of lyrics, and a fine selector of material. Furthermore, she once snogged Elvis. Put simply, she’s as close to showbiz royalty as you can get these days. Boots, long may you keep walkin’.