Carousel: The Songs Of Jacques Brel celebrated what would have been the Belgian’s 80th birthday year, opening the Barbican’s Francophone season with six interpretive performances by featured artists, with backing from the venue’s house band.
The evening’s two halves saw the ensemble led by the show’s creator David Coulter, with Roger Eno at the piano and Polar Bear lynchpin Seb Rochford’s huge ‘fro atop the drums.
As if to underline Brel’s wide-ranging influence more than three decades after his death, those featured artists ranged from household names to cultish figures, though there was no sign of arch-interpreter Scott Walker. Of those assembled, some did justice to Brel’s canon more than others.
Scotsman Momus, sporting an eyepatch, was first up with arguably Brel’s best-known and most-covered song, Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me). It first appeared on a Brel album 50 years ago. At 49, Momus told us, he is now the same age as Brel was when he died. Sound mix difficulties contrived to muffle his Neil Tennant-like vocals until Les Bourgeois, reworded as Bourgeois Pigs. With references to Robbie Williams, Richard Dawkins and gastropubs, it was here that he really hit his stride, dashing about the stage. But by then, his three-song slot was at an end.
From across the Channel came Arthur H, a man with a voice like a gargling drain and the demeanour of Ian McCulloch whose Gauloises-afflicted vocals were also drowned out by the band. Only on his final number Madeleine did everything seem to fire on all cylinders and he did well to quickfire the lines without resorting to a cribsheet.
The evening’s most divisive performer followed. Greco-American vampire Diamanda Galás, a woman whose career has featured sing/shrieking about AIDS while bare-breasted and covered in blood in a church, thrilled and appalled in roughly equal measure. Bereft of the band and sat at the appropriately black grand piano, she unleashed her extraordinary voice aloft, dredging emotions from the mudflats of her very essence as she took on the persona of an old woman in La Chanson Des Vieux Amants (Song For Old Lovers). “Disgraceful,” barked an old boiler sat nearby. He wasn’t alone in his opprobrium; Galás’s final number, the Scott Walker-popularised Amsterdam, was roundly booed by sections of the audience. Others intensified their clapping in disagreement. The lady herself uttered not a word. As reactions go, Galás certainly provokes extremes. It was a showstopper of a performance – quite literally, as the interval followed.
After the break Franco-Irish cabaret star and Barbican regular Camille O’Sullivan opened with an acappela performance of Marieke. Gesturing wildly at the audience and taking her voice to places surely inspired by Galás’s spectacular performance, she upped the emotional ante but never looked quite as dangerous. Joined by the band for Les Vieux (Old Folks) and the Brel standard Au Suivant (Next), she gave the impression of being a fan of the man happy to be making up the numbers.
“Is he drunk?” snapped the old boiler as a man named after a river, Arno, flopped into a chair and began waving his legs about. The second of tonight’s Francophone visitors, he married the hair of Francesco Da Mosto with the cravat-adorned persona of an old soak. This being a birthday party, Brel would surely have enjoyed a glass of Ricard with him. His lesser-known numbers Le Bon Dieu (Good God), Bruxelles (Brussels) and Voir Un Ami Pleurer (A Friend Cries) were all delivered from the chair with a booming bass voice that hinted at melancholy so all-powerful that only he could understand where he was coming from.
For a man so recently at death’s door following a traffic accident, Marc Almond looked fully recovered and ready to entertain. “The last time I did this song I gave myself a hernia,” he quipped before launching into Le Diable Ca Va (The Devil OK) and J’Arrive (I’m Coming). Holding his red tambourine behind his head in a Satanic pose he counterbalanced Arno’s sadness with playfulness. Almond’s been covering Brel for nearly 20 years and it showed, most of all on the show’s title track and final number Carousel.
Of course no Brel tribute could be complete without a rattle-through of La Chanson De Jacky (Jacky); Almond was joined by the hop-skipping Momus and the cocquettish O’Sullivan and they took turns at belting out the verses in English, just as Scott Walker had done many years before.
In the absence of the man himself, such concerts of Brel’s music will always have their place. But, for all the variety on offer, there was little tonight that suggested we’d seen definitive interpretations.