Carousel: The Songs of Jacques Brel Featuring Arno, Marc Almond, Diamanda Galás, Arthur H, Momus, Camille O'Sullivan - Barbican, 22 October 2009
Is any excuse really necessary for performing Brel songs? This year would have seen his 80th birthday which seems as good a reason as any to put together this multi-singer concert. Some were sung in French, some in English, but all in a style which owed more or less to le Grand Jacques himself.
Surprisingly, it was the two Frenchies on the bill who landed furthest from the target. Arno (actually Belgian) plonked himself in a chair, lyric sheets to hand, for his pubsinger versions of Le Bon Dieu, Bruxelles, and Voir Un Ami Pleurer. Although flattered by pounding rock arrangements from the classy pick-up band and softened by the celestial strangeness of the ondes martenot (here in the hands of its foremost practitioner, Thomas Bloch) Arno's delivery was too throwaway.
The laid back Arthur H simply had too much Gallic cool to convince in the heart-on-sleeve, guts-on-carpet oeuvre of Brel. Sur La Place and Je Suis Un Soir d'été had a spot of je ne sais quoi, but the frantic Madeleine was simply desperate.
Diamanda Galas also sang in French, not her native tongue, but she had le style down pat, accompanying à la Barbara with nothing but piano flourishes. Actually, she is the goth Barbara, n'est-ce pas? La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Amsterdam and Fernand were undeniably powerful, but the combination of Brel's intensity and La Galas's scary howling was somewhat overbearing. I'd like to have heard her tackle one of the lighter numbers - Diamanda Galas does Les Flamandes, how about it?
Momus translated Ne Me Quitte Pas, La Ville S'Endormait and Les Bourgeois brilliantly, with a real sensitivity to Brel's poetry. Not the most accurate translations I've ever heard, but certainly the closest to the essence of the work. A shame the British reserve of his delivery couldn't quite match up.
Camille O'Sullivan bravely tackled Marieke not only mostly in Flemish (with a bit of English) but also acappella. For Les Vieux and Au Suivant she swept the whole band up and over the top into Brel's world of bared hearts and oversized emotions. A fearless, passionate revelation, she grabbed the whole audience from the first bar and didn't let them go. Halfway through she whipped off her bolero and long skirt to reveal the strapless mini beneath - a coup de théâtre I'm sure the ham-loving Brel would have approved. Unquestionably the hit of the night.
Marc Almond's kunst is more impressive than his stimme, but he sure knows how to deliver a song. Le Diable ça Va, J'Arrive and La Valse à Mille Temps - all en Anglais bien sur - jettisoned many of their original notes but little of their power. Humour too was never far away.
The finale was La Chanson de Jacky, sung by Marc, Camille and Momus in the awful cute-in-a-stupid-ass English translation that has blinded generations of English speakers to its real charm. But irresistable nevertheless.
A brief mention for the hanging gardens of afro, or drummer Seb Rochford's amazing hair:
And another brief mention, this time for a Brel-based concert by Toby Spence at Wigmore Hall on 7 February. Could be a car-crash, could be a revelation, but you won't know unless you go.
***** more photos on next page *****