Jane Birkin - Cadogan Hall, 31 January 2013
Many singers pay homage to Serge Gainsbourg. Some even drop a song or two of his into their sets. But Jane Birkin remains the only one prepared to dedicate a whole show to his work. Of course it helps that several of the songs she sings were written specially for her. But how his musical heritage will be preserved once she hangs up her dancing shoes is a matter for contemplation. She herself says, "The poets do not die if one carries their words". Surely and sadly the converse is true as well.
22 years after his death, Gainsbourg's profile is higher than ever. Birkin's devotion to spreading his work around the world over that period must surely be a factor. But she's never been interested in touting some ossified greatest hits collection. Instead, she picks and chooses from Gainsbourg's 200+ songs - always some favourites, always some surprises - and regularly switches her musical partners.
For the past couple of years, Birkin has been working with a jazzy quartet of European-based Japanese musicians - piano, violin, drums and trumpet. It's a harmonious alliance of gentle souls, musically sensitive, the very opposite of rock'n'roll flash. The arrangements, by pianist Nobuyuki Nakajima, are laid-back, jazzy. They suited the pair of Gainsbourg's notorious classical 'borrowings' Birkin chose to sing: Jane B (Chopin's E minor Prelude no.28) and Baby Alone in Babylone (Brahms 3rd Symphony).
Birkin is not a genetically gifted singer. She admitted as much after violinist Hoshiko Yamane expertly interleaved the rhythmically tricky exclamations into Comic Strip - something Birkin said neither she nor Brigitte Bardot (who recorded the song with Gainsbourg) had the talent to cope with. But her vocal range has expanded from the wispy babytalk of the '60s, and what she lacks in technical finesse she makes up for in expertly nuanced wordplay and sheer charm.
Bouncing on stage in a Charlie Chaplin suit, the jacket immediately discarded to reveal an unbuttoned white shirt, she melted the audience with her gappy smiles and little anecdotes between songs. Anyone not quite defrosted was won over when she bounded into the audience for Mon amour baiser, squeezing her way through a whole row of the stalls before making her way upstairs to mingle with the balcony crowd.
For an English woman who retains her native inflexions after nearly 50 years in Paris, it's paradoxical that Birkin's greatest strengths lie in Gainsbourg's most untranslateable verbal games like Classé X and Haine pour aime.
An interview in The Scotsman last week is worth a read.
Requiem pour un con
Tombée des nues
Di doo dah
En rire de peur d'être obligée d'en pleurer
Marilou sous la neige
Amours des feintes
Le couteau dans le play
Ballade de Johnny Jane
Con c'est con ces conséquences
Ces petits riens
Une chose entre autres
Les amours perdues
Mon amour baiser
Fuir le bonheur de peur qu'il ne se sauve
Haine pour aime
Baby alone in Babylone
Les dessous chics
Encores: La chanson de Prévert, L'Aquoiboniste, La gadoue