Sunday, 17 November 2013

Jane Birkin "Arabesque" live at the Barbican November 09th

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worrall
There were, let’s face it, many ladies in Serge Gainsbourg’s life, both professional and personal, but surely there were none more important than his most enduring muse, Jane Birkin. The couple originally met in 1968 on a film set, when following her appearances in Swinging Sixties movies such as “Blow Up” and “Wonder Wall”, she won the part to play opposite Gainsbourg in “Slogan”. She was just twenty years old and getting over her split from movie composer John Barry. Serge was heartbroken after the end of his relationship with Brigitte Bardot, but from the aftermath of this affair came the song "Je T'Aime…Moi Non Plus", which Bardot refused to have released. Serge thought that Jane Birkin would be perfect to supply the breathlessly erotic vocals on the recording, which was destined to become a classic, and from then on the rest is history as they say. Although Birkin and Gainsbourg never married, and their relationship lasted less than fifteen years, it seems to most of us as though they were always together and tonight here at a packed out at the Barbican Centre, she paid him a remarkably emotional, uplifting and truly entertaining tribute. 

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worall
This show was the only U.K. date on the tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of the highly ambitious and original “Arabesque” album. It was recorded live and released simultaneously with a DVD of the performance, “Arabesque” saw Jane Birkin paying tribute to the songs of Serge Gainsbourg in a pretty unique way. Totally avoiding the route of playing cover versions straight or with modern pop or rock arrangements, Birkin got together with the hugely talented Algerian violinist and arranger Djamel Benyelles to reinterpret some of Serge’s songs in an exotic North African Maghreb style. Jane had already revisited and re-worked a collection of Gainsbourg’s songs on her 1996 covers album “Versions Jane”, some of which make their way into the “Arabesque” set. But this is a totally different matter all together and at first, what seemed to me like a rather strange concept, actually works far better than I could have imagined.

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worrall
Anyway, Gainsbourg had always swooped between various genres and World music styles – from the Mambo and Latin rhythms of “Couleur Café” to authentic Reggae on his excellent “Aux Armes etc.” album, which featured Sly & Robbie and Rita Marley. Tonight, Djamel and his excellent band “Djam & Fam”, comprising Fred Maggi on piano and keyboards, Azziz Boularoug on percussion, Zakaria Masrour on lute and Mohammed Zerouki on some excellent vocals, all providing a bewitching and stunning musically exotic backdrop for Birkin’s light vocals to float over.

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worrall
Taking a diverse selection of Gainsbourg compositions from all periods throughout his career, and often not the most well known it must be said, Birkin picks songs that suit the new arrangement and provide a rewarding experience even for those of us who do not speak French. I’d really love to be able to appreciate Gainsbourg’s lyrics and wordplay but tonight it’s like watching a very high quality foreign language movie without the subtitles – I could certainly appreciate the sound and the visuals, the atmosphere and emotion, but I just don’t know the words! For this Birkin, Benyelles and Djam & Fam must be applauded. So we are treated to songs from the 1969 “Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg” album, their first together, such as “Élisa” to “Et Quand Bien Même” from Birkin’s 1990’s solo album “Amours Des Feintes”, Serge’s very last batch of songs he wrote for her before his death in 1991. There are early Serge songs such as “La Chanson de Prévert” from” L'Étonnant…” and the classic “Ces Petits Riens” which was also recorded by Juliette Gréco and the actress Catherine Deneuve. There’s just the one song, “Valse de Melody” from one of my all time favourite albums, “Histoire de Melody Nelson”, which starts off with Mohammed Zerouki's atmospheric Muezzin style chanting that segues into Jane's voice, it's a wonderful moment. 1983’s “Baby Alone in Babylon” is well represented – probably because Serge wrote the songs on this album for Jane after their split, so I would imagine the emotional resonance in the lyrics must be very strong.

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worrall
There was a moving moment when she kneels on the floor to read a poem written by her nephew Anno, himself a musician, who tragically died aged only 20 in a car crash in 2001. After a couple more songs, Jane leaves the stage and Djam & Fam play one of their own compositions, the jaunty instrumental “She Left Home”, after which she returns in a flowing bright red dress, as seen on the cover of the "Arabesque" album. Then comes one of the highlights of the night for me and the up-tempo “Les Clés du Paradis” from the solo album “A La Legere”, which lights up the Barbican wonderfully. Birkin loosens her hair and lets herself go – lost in the music. It’s totally natural and unselfconscious and the crowd warm to her even more. Then it’s one of those songs that I always believed defined that bridge between the more traditional French chanson and the swinging Yé-Yé scene, “Comment Te Dire Adieu”, although ironically it wasn’t actually a French composition originally. Françoise Hardy heard it and asked Gainsbourg to write some lyrics in French for her and from then on it has probably become one of her most popular tracks, but tonight Jane Birkin adds her own distinct take on this much covered classic.

Jane Birkin at the Barbican - Photo by Steve Worrall
The final encore sees Jane alone on the stage and she delivers an emotional acapella version of “La Javanaise”, originally written for Juliette Gréco and surely one of Gainsbourg’s best loved songs. Suddenly people around me are singing along, some very confidently and loudly in French. I know I wasn’t the only one in the crowd to mumble away self-consciously through the verses before belting out the familiar words of the chorus in what I assumed sounded like fluent French; at least that’s what I assumed! It was a lovely moment anyway, the crowd sharing in Jane’s genuine outpouring of affection and there were, I am sure, quite a few lumps in throats and tears in eyes.

Jane Birkin & Djam & Fam take a bow - Photo by Steve Worrall
For more photos of the Barbican show please head on over to the Retro Man Blog Facebook page and hit "Like" for access to the Photo Album. You can see some photos from our previous feature on Serge Gainsbourg's house here and for some other music related locations in Paris, please check out the feature here. For more info please check out the excellent official Jane Birkin web-site.

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