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REVIEW: Gainsbourg Confidential at Crazy Coqs

Garance Louis, Cherise Adams-Burnett, Huw V Williams
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

Gainsbourg Confidential 
(Crazy Coqs. 24 January 2019. First night of three. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Serge Gainsbourg really is the perfect subject for a musical retrospective. As his biographer Damien Panerai describes him, he was “a supreme reference point for French chanson: a poet, a creator with many facets to him, and a monument to himself alone.”

All that limitless and colourful myth-making and self-creation are indeed a work of art in themselves. His wonderful one-liners helped to extend his persona: “Ugliness is definitely superior to beauty, because at least it lasts…”, or “There’s a trilogy in my life, an equilateral triangle of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls.” And for extra trivia points, there’s the fact that he was once a student of Fernand Léger at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. And as to where his particular brand of uber-confidence and chutzpah came from, it certainly cannot have been a hindrance to have been the apple of his mother Olga’s eye for all but the last five years of his life; her first son, Marcel, had died at the age of just sixteen months, before Serge (real name Lucien) was born.

And, of course there are all those great songs that stay under the skin. Over this side of the channel, there is probably only Je t’aime that has really made it into the national consciousness, but with French people, songs like La Javanaise and  Le poinçonneur des Lilas are omnipresent; and I was pleased, in scoping out this review, to encounter one Frenchman’s astonishingly deep, nay monomaniacal obsession with the Dvořák New World-quoting song Initiales B.B.

With those thoughts in mind, the prospect of a show in the ideal French-themed surroundings of Crazy Coqs (preceded by the regulation steak haché/sauce/poivre/frites) proved impossible to resist. Many of the hits have found their way into the show. Guitarist Jean de Talhouët, who has devised it, pondered over whether Gainsbourg was ever to reach the songwriting heights he attained in his first studio album Du chant à la une of 1958. That thought seemed to have consequences. First, it gets out of the need to dwell on some of the later, sexually obsessive songs that chime very awkwardly indeed in the #metoo era. Gainsbourg didn’t just inherit the glorious French ‘épater les bourgeois’ tradition inherited from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and directly from Boris Vian – he made it his own.

The selection was also skewed towards the more musically challenging and “interesting” numbers by Gainsbourg, a trend that was clear from the start with the choice of La femme des uns sous le corps des autres, where Gainsbourg revels in bitonality a la Milhaud. The muso tendency was also present in a nod to the extraordinary cult offering Histoire de Melody Nelson from 1971.

The main vocalist, Perpignan-raised London-based accordionist Garance Louis, is one of the real plus points of this show. She is comfortable singing deep into Gainsbourg’s baritone register and has a lot of charm. The show had clearly been built around her, and quite rightly. She brought authenticity and wonderful musicality to the songs. Cherise Adams-Burnett (as she proudly proclaimed) from Luton, fitted convincingly into the backing vocals role, and also played the flute very well. Her own solo contributions, however, felt more, for the time being at least, like work in progress.

That sense of a show that generally is not quite ready yet was to bedevil it on this first night of three. It is clear that the economics of getting a seven-piece band out are unfriendly, but I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched the show that, OK, it will be stronger by this Saturday, but it could really have done with a week being quietly tried out in a Harvester in Redhill or somewhere before coming to the West End. There really is a lot more to be done: instrument changeovers and the linking between songs need to be a lot slicker, and I wondered if it doesn’t really need a proper script to do justice to a cultural icon as massive as Gainsbourg.

That said, the chance to hear all these songs is not to be missed, and Garance Louis’ insouciant yet knowing way as an interpreter of Gainsbourg makes her a name to watch out for.

A reflection of Gainsbourg Confidential in the ceiling of Crazy Coqs
Photo by William Ward

LINK: Gainsbourg Confidential at Crazy Coqs

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