Nobody could have predicted that some 40 years after England swung like a pendulum, Marianne Faithfull would be making credible and exciting music while her contemporaries slide into their dotage. In a performance filmed for a DVD, from her entrance to a ruffled fanfare to her exit reaching out to fans waiting with gifts and bouquets, Faithfull presented herself as a chanteuse in the mold of Dietrich and Jane Birkin, revered as much for her backstory as her voice.
In Faithfull’s case, her sandblasted weariness, both regal and gritty, provides an aural roadmap of her life — when she opens with “Trouble in Mind,” everyone in the room knows what troubles she means. She’s singing especially well these days. “I don’t do messages, I tell stories,” she tells the adoring aud, and proves it with a series of wonderfully dramatized perfs. “She,” a ballad of two people too timid to find love she wrote with Angelo Badalamenti, and Shel Silverstein’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan” are sung with a perfectly modulated sense of regret, filled with sympathy but too tart to slip into bathos. And “Sister Morphine” remains a harrowing tale of addiction.
But she is nearly undone by her band. They’re fine players and do very well on the more cabaret aspects of the show, but the thornier songs from “Before the Poison” (Anti) are beyond them. Drummer Courtney Williams is the most problematic. He’s completely at sea trying to navigate the lopsided rhythms of Polly Jean Harvey’s “Mysteries of Love”; on songs such as John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” where he only need to play a simple repetitive pattern, he adds an extra cymbal crash or percussion fill every few bars, destroying the song’s tension. Combined with Fernando Saunders’ fretless bass, the music feels gauzy and out of focus. Only trumpeter Lew Soloff’s incisive solos snap things back into place.