From her melancholy first single, the Jagger-Richards penned As Tears Go By, which launched her as the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired poster girl for sadness, through to the tremulous Rich Kid Blues, recorded when Faithfull was, ironically, destitute, unhappiness has stalked the 69-year-old with virulent ardour.
At one point, homeless and heroin-addicted, she lived on a wall just around the corner from Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. But this is her first time playing here. “It’s been a lifetime dream of mine,” Faithfull says. “It took long enough.”
Having recently broken her back, her hip and toe, she arrives gingerly and with the support of both a walking stick and her aide. As she sings Give My Love to London, from her 2014 album of the same name, the voice that was once so angelic, but worn raw by hard-living, sounds even more fragile than usual. But reading from a music stand and watched by “several of my oldest friends”, including Anita Pallenberg, Faithfull glows. Dressed in black and wearing a beatific smile, she throws her shoulders back and swells from diminutive figure to compelling presence.
Backed by a talented and nurturing band – Rob McVey on guitar, PJ Harvey’s drummer Rob Ellis, and Ed Harcourt on guitar, piano and harmonica – she intones the Gutter Twins’ The Stations, her trademark manner of speaking the lyrics perfect for the spooky angst. But the mood is broken when Faithfull takes off her glasses and, unable to read her notes, loses her place in the song.
Throughout her set, the music stand is repositioned as Faithfull vacillates between sitting in a chair straight out of a Parisian drawing room and standing unsteadily. But while physically diminished, she remains a powerful performer. As much raconteur as singer, Faithfull’s conversation is as uncompromising as her music. She talks about the ethnic cleansing in Sweden that inspired the song Vagabond Ways, her friendship with Allen Ginsberg, and seeing Rudolf Nureyev on his last tour. “He never should have done it. But he couldn’t stop. I said to myself: ‘You better watch that. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.’ Not yet. But it’s coming.”
Yet, the longer Faithfull plays, the better she gets. The bitterness of Broken English remains brutal; the horribly prescient Sister Morphine still burns. Sitting with a cup of tea, surrounded by her protective band, Faithfull sings As Tears Go By and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue with warmth and affection, before breaking into a hacking cough.
“God, I’d kill for a cigarette,” she says. During Crazy Love, Faithfull’s voice hits notes of real purity, and watching McVey wrench stadium-sized notes from his guitar, she looks like an innocent little girl. But she can’t go on. “I’ve had it ladies and gentlemen,” she says, cutting two songs from the set list. “I’m too tired. I wish I was Keith Richards, but I’m not. Actually, I’m quite glad I’m not.”
• At Ronnie Scott’s, London, on 26 July. Box office: 020-7439 0747.
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