Serge Gainsbourg Tribute - Hollywood Bowl - 8-28-11
Beck, Sean Lennon, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, Lulu Gainsbourg, Mike Patton, Zola Jesus, Victoria Legrand, Ed Droste, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Timothy Norris Beck
August 28, 2011
Better Than: Remaining ignorant of where bands like Air got their sound.
Serge Gainsbourg's music is as pure and candid an expression of the male id as you'll find, and to American ears, his candor comes across as particularly shocking. We like to blame lots of decadent things on the French: tongue kissing, syrup-and egg-soaked toast, and deep-fried potatoes; Gainsbourg's songs of Lolitas and drugs and suckjobs and rape seem to go equally well with Gallic gall. Throw some stinky cheese into your picnic basket and wash it down with a bottle of wine and you have a perfect night in Hollywood: European avant-garde sophistication in the cozy confines of the Bowl.
Sunday's show got off to a slow start with Lulu Gainsbourg, Serge's son, performing for e first times, offering polite vocals to two of Gainsbourg's early tunes. Things warmed up a bit when Faith No More's Mike Patton took the stage, singing in a Tom-Waits-like growl on, "Requiem Pour Un Con." He quickly reverted to a more standard-issue vocal style for the remainder of the evening.
Perhaps because they weren't entirely comfortable with their French, almost every singer was reading their lyrics from sheets of paper on a music stand, with Sean Lennon even clutching a stack of stapled sheets throughout one song. Looking down at the words rather than up at the house made for a lack of audience connection during many moments. The Hollywood Bowl does indeed have teleprompters, but many folks weren't using them.
Still, the peformers tried -- and often succeeded -- to bring Serge back to life. For "Comic Strip," Lennon and Charlotte Kemp-Muhl took the stage in goofy superhero gear, and dreamboat actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt read his lyrics not from a stack of pages but from a little black book, which he wielded like a rogue. Zola Jesus filled the Bowl with a brassy contralto, and music director and frequent Beck collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen cheerfully bobbed his afro as he executed the heavy lifting Gainsbourg's compositions require of bass players.
Timothy Norris Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Beck, who orchestrated the tribute show, took a relatively modest role; one song he performed, in English, was "Teenie Weenie Boppie," a song about how easy it is to take advantage of a girl on LSD.
Sometimes, not understanding the French song lyrics felt like a distinct disadvantage. When Victoria Legrand sang "La Décadanse," for example, she could have very well been saying something sexy, but it was tough to be sure. Other times, a lack of French language mattered not at all, especially during Gainsbourg's most notorious single, "Je t'aime, Moi Non Plus," all orgasmic moans from Brigitte Bardot in the original and from Sean Lennon's jaw-droppingly gorgeous girlfriend Charlotte Kemp-Muhl last night. The performance of the once-banned song felt like the closest anyone was ever going to get to seeing porn on the Hollywood Bowl stage, and once the last ecstatic sigh escaped from Kemp-Muhl's full, red lips, a ripple of agitated titters rolled through the blushing audience.
Timothy Norris Charlotte Kemp-Muhl
It was during the performance of Gainsbourg's album Histoire de Melody Nelson that being a non-Francophone might count as an advantage, as the difficult subject matter -- the seduction of an underage girl -- could distract from the lushness of the music. The backing of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the CSU Fullerton choir, conducted by Jean-Claude Vannier -- who produced and arranged the original album -- really brought the album's blend of rock and orchestral sounds to life, allowing for an appreciation of Gainsbourg the musician, rather than Gainsbourg the provacateur. But off course, to de-boner Gainsbourg's legacy would be as silly as taking all of the sex out of a porn film so you could better appreciate the lighting. It's all part of the big picture.
Critical Bias: I'm more into bands that were influenced by Gainsbourg than I am Gainsbourg himself.
The Crowd: French intellectual types, mainly except mostly not French. Plus lots of leggy girls in very short skirts. Gainsbourg would approve.
Random notebook dump: Gainsbourg said in one of the videos played between songs he felt he needed to be provocative in order to be heard. Women need to be beautiful in order to be seen. But to try to do away with Gainsbourg's sexism would be to do away with his honesty.
Set list below.