In the thirty years since the release of debut album, Mlah, Les Négresses Vertes have been focused on solo projects. On their European Tour, they come together again to perform the album in its entirety. Their music is a unique blend with elements of gypsy punk, world folk, ska, dub and traditional French music worked into cohesive pop songs, overlaid with clever and poignant lyrics.
Consistent with the original recording, accordionist François Tousch arrives on stage to perform instrumental solo La Valse. Tousch and drummer Matthieu Rabaté have been invited on the tour to bring the full band back to their total number of seven musicians, joining five players of the original line-up.
Fan favourite tune Zobi La Mouche brings the whole band to the stage. The tiny details and intricate elements of the music have been preserved in the live performance, whilst being injected with the fresh energy of a full stage show. The audience are a delighted, enthusiastic crowd made up of multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational fans. From the front to the back of the venue, people are dancing and singing along joyously, albeit in some cases phonetically! Drummer Matthieu Rabaté has the difficult job of maintaining the long ‘call out’ part of the backing vocals and manages it skilfully.
In the sweet testament to summer, Voilà l’Été, Stefane Mellino strums vigorously on a six string guitar calling back the nostalgia of the hot summer just passed. Jean-Marie Paulus joins in on the ukulele, and vocals are traded off between bandmates as they take turn activating the audience into participation. Trumpeter Michel Estrade creates a call and response by pointing at the crowd, which given the lyrics of the chorus, “Here’s summer/Finally summer/Always summer/Again summer” begins to feel like a surreal GCSE language lesson.
Mellino takes the lead vocal duties from Jean-Marie Paulus who switches out his uke for a bass guitar on C’est Pas la Mer à Boire. The two-man brass section seems to pick up the sign language portion, acting out the lyrics with gestures for the less linguistically capable (merci). The language barrier is something that Les Négresses Vertes managed to sidestep at the time that Mlah was released, thanks in part to the inclusion of tracks from the album in high profile Hollywood movies like, Bad Influence (director Curtis Hanson’s stylish thriller about a nihilistic underground world of hedonists) and French Kiss (a vehicle for Meg Ryan to be cute and Kevin Kline to torture the audience with a painful accent). No Oscars were won, but it raised the profile of Les Négresses Vertes dramatically enough for them to be invited to record a cover of Cole Porter’s I Love Paris on 1990 compilation album Red Hot and Blue which went on to sell over a million copies.
In isolation from its use in the movies the song, Orane is not just an exotic, ambient track, rather a dark piece of storytelling about the dystopian life of a bad boy gypsy. Told from the point of view of an abusive partner calling out for his lover to return to him. In tonight’s performance, it is given an extra injection of jazz elements from the trumpet and the elongated musical breaks, and the inclusion of synthesiser parts give the song more melody than the original.
In a rare moment, stopping to address the audience in English Mellino explains, “This is a sad and dancing song.” Which is a sound description for a song about the loss of a love from suicide described in the lyrics as a ‘self-inflicted crime’. Like most Les Négresses Vertes songs Maria is both clever and poignant, crude and poetic. This song in particular acts as a reminder of former frontman and lyricist Noël Rota, known as Helno, who tragically died from a heroin overdose in 1993. These are his words, but it is a testament to the band that nothing feels lacking in the performance of them.
Completing the set are a collection of hits like Marcelle Ratafia, a song about the matriarch of a mobster gang, reworked with a classic rock ‘n’ roll sound and topped off with a headbanging accordionist. Bottom of the bottle, back room of the bar type song Il which laments the life of a dog and the man forced to take it out to do its business. The Encore offers up exceptional musical treats with a dub-heavy version of remix DJs favourite, Face À La Mer, and full-blooded gypsy tune Bodega.
This collection of songs combined with such honest and seasoned showmanship gives hope that the band may return to the studio after the tour and create an album to rival Mlah. Tonight proves that the audience is here if they have the will.
Photography by Pauline Di Silvestro and live review by Sarah Sievers of Les Négresses Vertes at Islington Academy on 26th September 2018.