Last night, I was fortunate enough to see Marianne Faithfull at Town Hall in New York City. I had no idea what to expect from the singer, which is my favorite mindset to be in before a show begins. Faithfull's band, which included legendary guitarist Marc Ribot, came onstage first. Then Faithfull herself entered, wearing high-waisted black satin pants, a white dress shirt and long, dangling pearls; it was Chanel meets March of the Penguins.
Faithfull is a warm but eerie presence on stage. She looks at the audience — stares at them, actually — like she's willing her demons onto you. But Faithfull is not sinister, merely honest, merely forging connections, carving out dark, sensual passages with her words and demeanor. Her singing voice is low: a dirt-filled engine-like rumble that occasionally picks up enough speed to soar.
Faithfull's set consisted mostly of covers, from The Decemberists' "The Crane Wife" to Jackson C. Frank's "Kimbie." She sang "Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case with such anthemic gloom that it sounded like Morrissey, and when she did Morrissey's "Dear God, Please Help Me," the dramatic sour was all Marlene Dietrich.
A cunning and adept interpreter of songs, Faithfull manages to simultaneously crawl inside of a tune and comment on its meaning. Like someone who has spent so many years in the spotlight, and also in its shadowy underbelly, she has the dual ability to be both the watcher and the watched. Faithfull possesses a self-awareness that is unnerving, bold and wholly admirable.
But what I have yet to get across is that this concert was fun — funny even — and joyful. For all the strangeness and myth that Faithfull embodies, she seems very grounded and vibrant. In between songs, she joked about the aging process, responded to comments from the audience and told stories from her past. At one point, during an instrumental break in a song, she sat down on a stool and proceeded to remove her stiletto-heeled boots. The boots were stubbornly tight and difficult to take off, so she missed her cue to come back in. She stayed put, finished her task and gestured to the band to keep playing without her.
Warning: the following video contains explicit language.
The demystification of an artist, or an art form, is a sometimes uncomfortable and not always fruitful. As an audience, we want to witness authenticity but not someone completely untethered from the splendor, mystery and otherworldliness of performing and singing. Marianne Faithful is the rare combination of the real and the imagined; she succeeds at being wholly present while also having presence. I, for one, found her to be an inspiration.
Listen to a live Marianne Faithfull concert from NPR Music.