Last night, I attended the strangest concert. Marvelous but unusual.
Jane Birkin is a French icon, the English daughter of a spy and an actress, who came to represent the cool swinging sixties. She landed a lead role in a French film (without speaking French), sang a duet in the film with one of France’s most celebrated songwriters, Serge Gainsbourg, and was eventually his partner for many years, and the subject of a number of his songs. She’s also the mother of Charlotte Gainsbourgh, also a singer and actress.
Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, her curls of hair flying in different directions over the evening, she sang a tribute to her partner who died in 1991. The style of the French chanson: ‘Chanson can be distinguished from the rest of French “pop” music by following the rhythms of French language, rather than those of English’ — so the mixture of spoken and sung, I remember hearing a bit of Gainsbourg’s gravelly delivery on some of his songs. Translated to Birkin, and Birkin of 65 years old, rather than in her youth, the vocal line would jump between pitch and off-pitch, make little swoops into a higher register, and sound as much like poetry and word-play than singing. Once I got used to it, I thought of it as an instrument until itself.
The highlight of the evening was the band! The orchestrations were clean and simple and melodic. The violinist (who turned out an amazing vocal performance at one point), a trumpet/trombone player, a drummer and an amazing jazz pianist created a beautiful backing to the songs. There was something so emotional about the piano playing, I was close to tears a few times. They are all famous Japanese musicians, apparently taking a year off to do this tour with Birkin (who told a rambly sort of tale about how it all happened in one night and somehow relates to the tsunami).
Oddly, Birkin gave the impression of either not being able to say or not knowing the names of her band members. She kept on thanking various members of her entourage by name, as well as Sydney contacts, but even during the musical number when she introduced the band, she seemed to simply shout the short form of their names just before their solos so it was impossible to get the names. It was clear, from her affection and respect for them, that of course she would know their names, but it did seem quite odd to refer to them so vaguely as her ‘Japanese’.
Just to balance out the error, I found their names on the net — and will be looking up their music, particularly the pianist:
Nobuyuki NAKAJIMA – piano
Hoshiko YAMANE – violin
Ichiro ONOE – drums
Takuma SAKAMOTO – horns
But anyways, back to the strangeness. I think the audience was mostly French. There was definitely a feeling of awe and respect from many quarters, and at the same time, Birkin seemed to deflect it; she seemed quite egoless, eccentric from being famous for so many years, but clearly seeing herself as an instrument for paying tribute to Gainsbourg’s songs. During one song, she moved through the aisles of the concert hall, disappeared, and then sang another third of the song from the balconies; her delivery had something both of a grande dame and the young ingenue that she was. I felt some distance from not being able to understand the songs, but there was also an informality that made it feel like a family concert. There was one standing ovation before the encore, another at the end, and a comical but sweet moment when she managed with great effort to tear apart the huge tightly-wrapped bouquet of flowers to give stalks of lilies to the band members.