Buffy Sainte-Marie co-wrote Up Where We Belong, the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes duet from the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, when Richard Gere appears in that blinding naval suit. She also wrote the protest song Universal Soldier, and once pulled out of a kids' TV show when she found they advertised GI Joe toys. How the legendary Cree singer reconciled her military movie smash with a lifetime of pacifism God only knows, but as she – now 71, wiry, effervescent – reminds us tonight, she had to make a living somehow, because US radio wouldn't play her records.
It's easy to see why America freaked at lyrics such as "Indian reservations are the nuclear frontline/ Uranium poisoning kills" (from The Priests of the Golden Bull). Those songs fill half of tonight's show, with words of startling clarity often set to an innocuous glam-rock backing.
Sainte-Marie reflects the strong, profoundly feminine philosophies of Antony Hegarty's Meltdown, of which this gig is part – he has compared her voice to a hex. At the same time, Sainte-Marie is a great stylist – a writer of pastiche. Piney Wood Hills was a country hit for Bobby Bare, Blue Sunday is pure rockabilly and the crooner Until It's Time for You to Go was a perfect fit for Elvis in 1972. When she first came to England she was billed as a folk singer. "I wasn't," she says tonight – "I was a songwriter, but I didn't tell anyone."
There's a fascinating clash between the pure messenger she might have been, and the career that talent allowed and politics dictated. Amid the pow-wow rock and Native American vocables, there's a cover of folk revivalist Cliff Eberhart's Goodnight, its elaborate phrases unfolding like an early Jimmy Webb song. Buffy says she wishes she'd written it. It almost sounds like she did.
Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photograph: Andy Sheppard/Redferns