Just over a month ago we brought you coverage of a stupendous event at the Hollywood Bowl, an epic ensemble of singers delivered unique takes on soul with a stunning finale from Stevie Wonder. Tonight at the same spot, an even more eclectic group of artists paid tribute to one of music’s few true visionaries, the late Serge Gainsbourg. This night featured an all-star band comprised of Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Joey Waronker (all previously members of Beck’s live band), Benji Lysaght and James Gadson fronting a choir and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Meldal-Johnsen, most recently noted for his production contributions to M83’s upcoming album and as the final live bassist for Nine Inch Nails, was the night’s musical director and anchor, cementing the daunting intricacy of Gainsbourg’s music with nimble fretwork and subtle grace. The roster of singers present each had their work cut out for them, Serge Gainsbourg’s music and artistic nuance are often imitated, but seldom replicated with success.
After a brief opening set of songs from Gainsbourg’s son Lucien (known here as “Lulu”), the incomparable Mike Patton of Faith No More, Peeping Tom and Fantomas fame took to the stage. Looking snazzy in pin stripes, Patton used his vocal histrionics to render “Requiem Pour Un Con” and “La Chanson de Prévert” with low-end-heavy charm. Patton then introduced the primary players of the band and took a seat at one of many elegant couches placed at the front of the stage, allowing the band to storm through the instrumental “Danger.” Patton then introduced indie-darling Zola Jesus for a trio of tunes, “Harley Davidson,” “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” and “La Javanaise.” Jesus struggled somewhat with the complicated vocal delivery, showing great passion in her performance, but sounding a bit off-key in her attempts at evoking Gainsbourg’s style.
Patton stood up again to do a nice, short, funky number, “Black Trombone.” After this, he introduced Beach House’s Victoria Legrand (playing the part Jane Birkin originally did) for a duet on “La Décadanse.” Their chemistry wasn’t perfect, but given the circumstances, was still an eye-opening pair to see doing this number. Patton exited after this, allowing Legrand to do “Initials B.B.” alone and “Le Chanson De Slogan” with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste. Droste—with the shortest number of songs on the evening—finished off the first set with a straightforward but enjoyable performance of ” I Came Here to Say I’m Going Away.”
After a short intermission, the band minus the orchestra returned for the rocking instrumental “Cannabis.” The orchestra joined them as the most colorfully dressed members of the evening, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl (known collaboratively as their stage name The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger), put on the most enthusiastic performances of the night. Muhl’s cutely belted “Shebam! Pow! Blop! Wizz!” on “Comic Strip” and showed the romantic chemistry necessary to successfully pull off “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” the latter of which Muhl made reference to the infamous controversy over the possibility of orgasmic delivery (literally) by its original singer Jane Birken. One of the strongest moments of the whole night not counting the evening’s epic finale (which we’ll get to in just a moment), found Mike Patton returning, taking Sean Lennon’s place and singing “Ford Mustang” with Muhl. That was stunning low and high octave interplay if there ever was such a thing. Hardcore Patton fans might remember that he covered this by himself on Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg way back in 1997.
The evening improved considerably from here to the finale. Patton had one last chance to take center stage, confidently rocking short number “Cha Cha Cha du Loup.” Victoria Legrand, Charlotte Kemp Muhl and Zola Jesus then got to do a great playful song together, “Sea, Sex and Sun.” A figure in a tuxedo could be seen entering stage right. The lights dimmed briefly to allow him to approach the microphone, and indeed it was Beck. Beck complimented the band, explaining how they had been the band behind his 2002 gem of an album Sea Change and that it was the first time he had been on stage with them in over ten years. Beck sang “Nefertiti”, “Teenie Weenie Boppie” and “Les Sucettes” with his distinctive folksy timbre, but even he sounded as if he struggled a bit to pull off Gainsbourg’s complex delivery.
In a much-welcomed piece to tie the event together, a video package played on the venue’s large monitors on either side of the stage. Showing numerous pieces of footage of Serge Gainsbourg from the early seventies both with and without the muse of tonight’s centerpiece, Jane Birken, this allowed the man and the popular critics of the time to explain the work’s significance in their own words. The stage was set for the finale: a performance of the album Histoire de Melody Nelson in its entirety. The album’s original arranger Jean-Claude Vannier was introduced to conduct the entire ensemble for this masterpiece (noted by Beck as Vannier’s first-ever performance in America).
The real star of epic, glorious finale was actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. An eye-opening surprise, Gordon-Levitt emoted the flowing poetry of the album’s opener “Melody” with such impressive character and skill, girls could literally be heard screaming in enjoyment. Meldal-Johnsen took the song’s fantastic snake-like bassline and developed it out as backbone of the booming orchestra rock copied so heartily by artists for decades. Victoria Legrand poked out just on the far side of stage right to perfectly coo the delicate question and answer refrain with Gordon-Levitt, “What’s your name? Melody. Melody what? Melody Nelson.” It was enough to give you chills. The evening’s performers took turns on the short numbers in between the song’s majectic bookends. Lennon and Muhl returned for “La ballade de Melody Nelson,” the colorful arrangements showing off the best details of the Hollywood Bowl’s lavish orchestra. Muhl stayed on without Lennon for “Valse de Melody.”
Beck faired better than his earlier numbers on “Ah! Melody,” his plaintive delivery carrying the proper weight Gainsbourg crafted on the original. Mike Patton was next, taking “L’hotel Particulier” the part of the story where Gainsbourg takes the album’s 15-year-old namesake to a hotel to its menacing extreme. Zola Jesus cackled and jumped through “En Melody,” which might sound strange, except for the fact that is essentially how it sounded on the original album. The show ended with force and power, Gordon-Levitt resuming his post for “Cargo Culte,” the album’s coda and escalating crescendo. The band took the music to its swelling culmination, the choir harmonized notes in magnificent angelic tones, Gordon-Levitt calmly spoke and the whole piece built to its enrapturing end. Much like the album itself, the music evokes the sterling taste of something so beautiful its memory transcends even the memory of when it first transpired. Like a love affair lost and never completed, the piece is twenty-nine minutes you wish was two hundred and ninety minutes.
Even though there were a few shaky moments from those involved and a slightly disappointing use of a teleprompter for song lyrics, this was event was the type of tribute that Serge Gainsbourg truly deserved. It included a rich tapestry of the diverse artists that have benefited from his courageous example, but also by the virtue of the complexity of the material, proof that these artists were filling the biggest of shoes. Gainsbourg was a rare talent in any language. His was a voice with a certain je ne sais quoi, impossibly detailed and disarming yet filled with love and warmth.