Live Music + Gig Reviews

Camille @ Barbican, London

30 October 2017


Camille (Photo: Patrick Messina/PR)

For an artist who lives just over a short stretch of water, Camille Dalmais’ appearances in London are far too infrequent. On this occasion, this year’s release Ouï forms the core of her performance, the bulk of its tracks interspersed with material from across her back catalogue of five albums and counting. A title which amalgamates oui (yes) and hearing (l’ouïe), Ouï exemplifies the fun this singular performer has with the visualisation and application of language.

Beyond her recordings, her genius in a live setting is to be able to choose and stick to an aesthetic and reorder everything around it, translating what she refers to as an “invisible dimension” to visible and transparent, and making it mean something both for longtime fans and the uninitiated, using her mastery of the intellectual, theatrical and musical tools she has at her disposal. If at times the language barrier might render subtler points beyond the ken of monoglots, there’s still never a dull moment; performers move about, switch back, interact; lights change, dresses become shadowy backdrops; rhythmic abandon gives way to hibernatory intimacy; instruments come and go. It’s as dizzying as it is mesmerising.

The evening begins in darkness, with light breaking almost imperceptibly over undefined shadowy shapes, covered in blue sheets and scattered about the stage, as birdsong chirrups. The richly blue and orange light fades up to reveal Camille prostrate on the floor, draped in a sheet. A large drum, set up on a podium and lit to resemble the moon, dominates. Three backing singer-dancers appear dressed in blue. Camille rises, part haunting Hallowe’en ghost, part faceless Plava Laguna incarnate, singing from within the clothy folds falling about her frame. The effect is striking, and fun, as three musicians crank up piano, keyboard and an array of audience-facing drums.

Joni Mitchell’s Blue opens the set, fittingly setting off the blue cloth and blue lights. Covered a decade ago by Cat Power, in Camille’s hands the song’s maritime imagery of anchors, waves and sailing away fits perfectly with the stage colouring and sets an environment in which to explore the self and one’s place within it. Sous Le Sable (Under The Sand) develops the theme of the evening – the cycle of generation, life, death and regeneration. Fontaine De Lait (Fountain Of Milk), which with stark drumming explores the idea of her body as a vessel for sperm which she turns into milk for her baby, beds the mood in for Lasso, which in turn fuses percussion and electronics with her vocals, playing with the titular word, breaking it down and reassembling it.

From there on, wild, inventive creativity crops up repeatedly. Her constant experimentation is evidenced in Je Ne Mâche Pas Mes Morts, where she moves the mic like a Shakespearean witch stirring a cauldron, invoking spirits, but also varying the sound her voice makes. The spirits duly arrive in the very next track, Twix, with its message of renewal and growth beginning to unleash some astonishingly squeaky top notes. But Home is the first time we hear her famed vocal power opening the throttle. It is followed by the loping, uncontrollable My Man Is Married But Not To Me and Too Drunk To Fuck – a cover of the Dead Kennedys track – spectacular as much for their theatricality as their music. Les Loups encourages audience participation, for this is no mere spectacle to be observed. She is the leader of the wolves, and on Hallowe’en to boot. Well after the song ends, isolated audience howls are heard breaking out around the room as she sits at the piano, giggling at her creation.

Everything feels thought through, with little left to chance, although the opposite might well be true, even when the entire troupe leave the stage, drums strapped around them like so many majorettes, to traipse up the aisle, around the back of the audience and on to the stage again during an extended Seeds. She changes on stage, in song, to white, and swishes about in what might be a complicatedly choreographed manner but which instead looks effortless, elegant, spontaneous and energised from within. A hand-held reflective spotlight on stage bats away beams from above around the room; she dances behind her blue sheet in wild style, backlit as a silhouette; sheets rise, spread out, rearrange to depict new moods. Piscine, about a swimming pool that wants to get back to the ocean (of course), has her emerge from lighting that creates the titular body of water, underlining the ostensibly simple but quite brilliant lighting. Fille à Papa emphasises the vocal harmonics which are central to the show.

Yet under this intricate artistic performance there’s space for humanity, too. A technical hitch with her mic stand at the start of Ta Douleur demonstrates that even a show specified as precisely as this one will always have something go wrong. Camille naturally takes it in good humour, giggling infectiously, and revealing not for the first time that behind an artist at the top of her game is a grounded person, one who is enjoying her evening as much as her audience is. Sporadic ovations abound for an uproarious encore improvisation built around the word ‘London’ complete with audience members on stage. Then, in antithesis, she launches into an a cappella Tout Dit (All Said), during which a pin dropping would have been heard. It is further evidence, were any more needed, that there is simply no-one else like her.

Camille played: Blue, 2012, Sous Le Sable, Fontaine De Lait, Lasso, Je Ne Mâche Pas Mes Morts, Twix, Home, Ilo Veyou, My Man Is Married But Not To Me, Too Drunk To Fuck, Les Loups, Pale Septembre, Piscine, Fille à Papa, Seeds, Paris, Ta Douleur, Allez Allez Allez. Encore: Improvisation: London, Tout Dit

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