It’s likely that, when you think of France at its coolest, there are certain figures who spring to mind –Francois Truffaut, Jean-Paul Satre, Brigitte Bardot. However, providing the soundtrack to all of these figures was one man, Jacques Brel, a man whose influence is still felt today in the works of artists from Bowie to Beirut.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite appreciate his impact, which is why I was very keen to review ‘Micheline sings Brel’ – a retrospective of Brel’s music by his compatriots, chanteuse Micheline Van Hautem and guitarist/pianist Bert Verschuren
The fantastically engaging thing about Micheline’s performance is how enraptured she is by the music she’s singing. With songs like ‘Mathilde’ she not only gives us the notes but also the feelings behind them, where Brel was in his life. These biographical details add yet another layer to the heartfelt lyrics.
‘Biographical’ is the right word for this show. It’s a not a string of greatest hits but a portrait of Brel as a diverse, complex artist. The show is largely made up of the French-language tracks which form the bulk of Brel’s back catalogue but there are also curiosities like his Flemish track ‘Marieke’, performed beautifully and adding a touch of glamour to the language. It is followed in quick succession with a virtuoso whistling performance in ‘Les Flamandes’, a seductive costume change for ‘Le Diable’ and a surprise turn on the flute for ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’. There are few moments when one is not impressed by Van Hautem’s talents. Even the daily screaming flyover by the jets en route to the Tattoo becomes part of the performance.
A lack of audience engagement meant that, despite Micheline’s best efforts, the atmosphere was not all it could have been - a shortfall which was a great shame (though it did give Brel’s classic ‘The Old Folks’ a new satirical significance.)
My enjoyment of the show was, perhaps, also a little hampered by my stubborn ignorance of French as it meant that some of the songs blended into one. And I was also a little confused by the inclusion of the Piaf hit, Padam Padam. Whilst excellently performed, it’s not a Brel song and, if included in an attempt to make the show more accessible to Brel non-aficionados, feels like an unnecessary, slightly-token gesture.
Overall though, ‘Micheline sings Brel’ is atmospheric and ice, ice cool. Get a large glass of red, get a seat near the front and sit back to let the spirit of Brel infuse your evening.