Live, Music, Reviews, Stage

Jacques Brel is alive and well and visiting Adelaide

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It is nearly 40 years since Belgian-born, French singer songwriter Jacques Brel left the world. But as this tribute gala, devised by Adelaide Cabaret Festival co-director Ali McGregor attests, he is an immortal troubadour and the more time passes, the better his songs sound. It is currently apt to note his influence on David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, but his songs have been interpreted (and mauled) by singers as disparate as Sinatra, Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Shirley Bassey, Scott Walker, John Denver and Rod McKuen.

Brel himself sold millions of albums and appeared in ten movies. With his gaunt face, soulful eyes and punk romantic demeanour, he embodied the whole pop existentialist gamut from Piaf and Jean Paul Belmondo to Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Halliday. Even now, he connects French New Wave with the New Romanticism and the latest hipster chic. Watching the moody black-and-white video footage which opens Ali McGregor’s production – Brel hunched over a cigarette, grinning boyishly, reflecting solemnly, calling out stupidity wherever he see it. We are reminded that he is still the thinking person’s croissante.

La Valse a Mille Temps, the crazy carousel song, vibrantly delivered in English translation by McGregor, sets the pace for the evening. With Musical Director Charly Zastrou at the piano, the band (bass, drums, violin, saxophone and reeds) conjures the swirling rhythms as they gather pace – full tilt, a mile a minute, for Jacques Brel’s signature tune, The Waltz with a Thousand Beats.

“If I could be for just one hour …” – the words of Brel’s Jackie (La Chanson de Jacky) a Walter Mitty fantasy of being a charismatic singer. It is performed by cabaret vocalist, Dusty Limits, but the phrasing is tricky and Mort Shuman’s translation sounds clunky these days. In his later, more assured, contribution Le Moribund (The Dying Man) Dusty Limits hits the mark with Brel’s melancholy ballad of farewell.

Les Bourgeois, Brel’s excoriating serve against middle class complacency, is given exhilarating intensity in Michaela Burger’s stunning version, snarling the French cadences as she prowls the stage. Similarly Johanna Allen’s pensive reading of La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, with Charly Zastriu excellent on piano, is a highlight of the evening.

Also capturing Brel’s more contemplative mood (and his own premonition of early death perhaps) is The Old Folks (Les Vieux) a study of ageing while the clock ticks. The terrific Kym David Smith, in Clark Kent glasses (well away from his mercurial Morphium Kabarett persona) is admirably restrained, navigating Brel’s phrasing and insistent metronomes with perfect timing.

More problematic perhaps, is the contribution from the prodigiously talented, hyper-manic Meow Meow. Her first item is the blackly matter-of-fact Au Suivant, Brel’s vignette of a young virgin soldier lining up – “ In the portable brothel of an army on campaign/ Au suivant, au suivant,/ Next one, next one…”

Quite appropriately, in Meow Meow’s interpretation, this loveless ritual is told as much from the sex worker’s wretched perspective, as the disillusioned young man. It is a grimly comic song about the travesty of love. It cannot be melodramatic. But it also can’t be too flip, and in this instance, Meow Meow lets the slapstick take over.

With her later number – Brel’s most famous signature perhaps – Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away) – Meow really goes over the top. It is like a pitch invasion or a photo-bombing in a black fright wig. The house lights come up and she recruits three members of the audience to drape themselves around her, serving as a microphone holder, a human plinth, and generally providing surrogate audience discomfort – all while Meow demolishes any semblance of nuance from the ballad.

It becomes parody, of course, and yes, that’s funny and would be fine in Meow Meow’s own show where she can – and brilliantly does – shape the moods and contrasts over a variety of songs.

But this Brel vehicle is not robust enough to easily contain quite such a level of gate-crashing focus plunder. Brel – The Immortal Troubadour does all the things the Adelaide Cabaret Festival does well – it’s a one-off performance, with excellent production details, and natty décor from designer Kathryn Sproul. It is an impromptu gathering of festival artists, a tad under-rehearsed, flying by their wits and providing something special and unique.

To round off what has been an interestingly crowded Brel hour, festival co-director Eddie Perfect appears – rasping the grimy, demi-monde lyrics of Amsterdam. Ali McGregor concludes, with If We Only Have Love; the composer at his least cynical and most hopeful.

Brel – The Immortal Troubadour was at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre on June 18 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival 

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