When French singer Charlotte Gainsbourg talked to Billboard Magazine last month about her album "IRM," due in the U.S. on Jan. 26, she spoke affectionately about her collaborator Beck, the intense but rewarding weeks in the studio, and the new directions of her music. But when the topic turned to performing live, she was much less effusive. "I've never done this, I'm very nervous, it's so comfortable to be in a studio with someone that I admire, but for me it's a whole different story to be bold about it," she said. "I really want to...but I'm not sure how I'll be able to do it."
Words like this may come off as the false modesty of a seasoned entertainer--after all, Gainsbourg is the daughter of legendary actor/singer Serge Gainsbourg and actress/singer Jane Birkin, and is herself an accomplished actress, having won the best actress award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. But Tuesday's show (Jan. 19), which was her first ever in the U.S. and reportedly her first live concert of any significance anywhere, demonstrated that a first time is a first time, regardless of one's theoretical preparation.
Opening only with a "hello" and stopping several songs in to ask the audience, "Are you ok?", she was clearly grappling with certain tools that performers develop over time, such as feeling comfort as an exposed body on stage, coping with monitor problems, knowing what to do with one's hands--and her naturally soft vocals, well-suited to studio balancing, at times reflected this in their pitch and volume. And yet, she's such an appealing, disarming presence, that the audience was clearly on her side, pulling for her to clear this hurdle and hone her live show.
Also on her side was the strength of her material, and her band -- the majority of the songs came from the upcoming Beck-written and produced album, an intricate, energetic set of synth- and percussion-heavy tracks that is more expansive and stage-conducive than Gainsbourg's 2006 release, "5:55." Gainsbourg's band boasted five solid musicians who clearly had her back, including an impressive blazer-clad guitarist named Nicole who switched frequently between multiple instruments and backing vocals. The set opened with title track "IRM," a dissonant, rhythmic track driven by an MRI-emulating tone, inspired by Gainsbourg's many hours in such a machine after a cerebral hemorrhage in 2007. During instrumental breaks in the song, Gainsbourg beat on a bongo by her side with drumsticks, possibly to clear some nerves--this seemed likely when she returned gratefully to the bongo during closing encore "Le Chat du Cafe des Artistes". Gainsbourg was clearly more at ease with certain songs than others--album single "Heaven Can Wait," originally a duet with Beck, was strong and energetic, while "In The End" allowed her to use her comfortable higher register and included supporting vocal effects.
Before leaving the stage, Gainsbourg gracefully thanked the audience for coming, saying "this is my first time in New York, doing a live show, and I don't think I'll forget it." Someone in the audience also chose a fine moment to hand her a bouquet of flowers--unusual for a rock show, but surely appreciated. While there may be an argument to be made for focusing Gainsbourg's musical pursuits in the studio, it was clear that everyone present was happy to be in the same room with her, and will be routing for her to push through the live learning curve.