Cité de Congrès; Nantes, France
Accordion! Homo-eroticism! Chanson
Française! We are merely players!
Last Wednesday, I had just finished eating some mushy rice and vegetables and
was casting uninspired glances at the mess I had left on the stovetop when
Edith, landlady extraordinaire, arrived breathless at the door, telling me she
had tickets to a concert that was starting in 20 minutes downtown. I bundled
myself up and clambered into the front seat of her Peugeot, and a scant
quarter hour later I was sinking into a first balcony seat at Cité de Congrès.
I arrived knowing little about the music I was about to hear. Edith had
mentioned something about "chanson française" on the way.
This was a show in an old sense of the word, like a vaudeville variety or a
riverboat nickelodeon. The chanteuse was a giant woman with a curly mane of
black hair, belting out everything from lovelorn breakup tunes to
dispassionate tales of ennui to jazzy Latin rumbas. She held down
center stage with a shoulder-width stance and swaggered around in pirate
boots, leather pants, and a black, ankle-length topcoat, tossing off
one-liners and playing the straight woman in a handful of running gags that
gave her top notch, six-man backing band a chance to cut loose. These guys
showed off killer chops on everything from train whistle and kazoo to upright
bass and piano. Of course, being chanson française, a jaunty accordion
finagled its way into a number of songs where it probably didn't belong. All
the more charming. The lyrics were all French, but many songs had a Latin
intonation, claves and classical guitar busking around Juliette's brazen alto.
The set strutted at a brisk, cocky pace, with non-sequitur skits and a
technical difficulty with the piano, giving the audience a chance to take a
breath and fall in love with the characters on stage. They handled the piano
problem so well that I'm not sure it wasn't a planned part of the act.
In my favorite piece, the lights went down and the band came on stage with big
military marching drums and glow-in-the-dark drumsticks. Juliette rattled off
some lyrical commands and her boys put on the best percussion routine I've
seen since the high school pep rally. A cute, "spooky" number followed, where
two guys dressed as railway porters performed a dance routine I can only call
The Sodomite Choo Choo. In the next song, again with lights dimmed, Juliette
and Co. got their haunted house vibe on, the band scampering about in
newspaper masks and rubber noses. They shot fuchsia glowsticks out of a flute
and danced around a goblin face painted on the back of the bass. For the first
encore, Juliette planted herself on the paino bench at the center of a smoky
cone of spotlight and proceeded to carefully clobber the keys while evoking
memories of her childhood. The second encore was a surprisingly competent
rendition of "Honky Tonk Woman," introduced as a work by the noted English
poet "Michel Jaguerre."
The leading lady of this spectacle pulled off one of the wild manipulations of
time that great performers do: a two and a half hour concert bowled past me in
what felt like twenty minutes, and I've been thinking about it for two weeks
since. This was clever musical theatre that put questions of identity and
character into play without ever failing to elicit chuckles and admiration of
some versatile musicianship. Juliette went at the "performance" with gusto,
then had us believe that we were hearing from the "real" woman as she chatted
and deadpanned in the down time between songs. The least hip and most
enjoyable show I've been to in months.
Photo: Lisa Roze