Since the 1960s, French musicians have repeatedly mutated British and American popular music into strange hybrids for their own domestic market, melding the traditional café sound of France with the more urgent working class and industrial sounds of mainstream rock and roll.
Nouvelle Vague, a band formed primarily to give a Gallic spin to punk and new wave classics, are no exception to this odd phenomena, and their show at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Wednesday night highlighted the band’s innovative reworking of a diverse range of songs by musical iconoclasts such as Richard Hell, Brian Eno and Gary Numan as well as reinventing tunes and by bands such as Tuxedomoon, The Cure and The Ramones.
Their Adelaide performance was a wondrous melange of the odd and the melodic.
Starting the night with a sweetly rendered I Could Be Happy originally by Scottish popster Clare Grogan and her band, Altered Images (and now the title track to Nouvelle Vague’s latest album), it became immediately clear that the audience was about to be taken on a thrilling journey through the band’s musical fun-park of a back catalogue.
New Order’s Blue Monday was delivered in the most recognisable form of the night’s selection, serving as an entree to an, at first, almost unrecognisable rendition of Richard Hell’s Love Comes In Spurts took us into the extreme realm of deconstruction and reconstruction – part poetry recital, part chant.
Spurts was similar in its slowed pace to I Wanna Be Sedated which followed two songs later. The band’s take on this punk anthem certainly challenged the audience because most of the brains attending would have, no doubt, been inextricably wired to expect a Ramones song to be delivered at the usual frantic 1-2-3-4 punk pace and not at the more hypnotically slower pace with which Nouvelle Vague chose to deliver the song. The pace, though, suggested that sedation had already been administered, and that the song’s main plea was rendered largely redundant.
Some mid-set banter proved the band do live up to the ‘vague’ half of their moniker – greeting the crowd with a ‘Hello Brisbane’, before a fellow band member provided the geographical correction to the mistake. The crowd took this gaffe in good spirits though, and gave the performers loud and affectionate support throughout the set.
More highlights were in store, after a melodic and straightforward run through of The Buzzcocks Ever Fallen In Love, with their excellent pulsing and driving version of Brian Eno’s ‘No One Is Receiving’, and then a most astonishing interpretation of Grey Day followed this. It was a dramatic, almost operatic, reading of the Madness classic and a complete reinvention of this familiar standard. It was spine tingling stuff.
A beautifully delicate take on The Cure’s All Cats Are Grey was another highpoint, with the emotional acoustic guitar melody line providing a revelatory, but nevertheless emotionally complimentary, alternative to Robert Smith’s original dirgeful delivery.
The second half of the show was also full of unexpected delights – The Cramps’ I Am A Human Fly; the Cocteau Twins’ Athol-Brose; Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself, were all delivered in crowd-pleasing versions which further established the diversity and power of all three featured lead vocalists: Élodie Frégé, Mélanie Pain and Liset Alea.
The band also delivered a couple of original tunes on the night – during one of these, Algo Familiar, the audience were asked by Liset to ‘help out with the horses’, which was a request you don’t hear too often at many concerts!
A rhythmically manic version of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough had the crowd roaring and dancing in the aisles, before a pair of quiet and reflective songs rounded out the night – the last of which was a strangely claustrophobic interpretation of The Sound’s I Can’t Escape From Myself, with it’s despairing lyric left to provide a suitably off-kilter ending to the proceedings.
The ecstatic crowd was not willing to let them go easily though, and they cheered and roared until the band came back to the stage.
Modern English’s Melt With You was a saccharin sweet dessert, and a sultry Love Will Tear Us Apart – complete with audience choral support growing louder and louder throughout – was a moving conclusion to the first encore.
The audience, however, still in rapture, still not fully satiated, were subsequently rewarded with a sparse and beautiful, In A Manner Of Speaking, the Tuxedomoon ‘ballad’.
Ever hopeful, the audience stayed in place until the house lights came up, just in case there was going to be another encore of Teenage Kicks, Making Plans For Nigel or Guns Of Brixton…
This French band have impeccable taste in the songs they choose to respectfully reinterpret, and have struck a chord with audiences worldwide.
Their formula is seemingly foolproof – yes, cover bands will always have a place to play and an audience willing to listen, but greater longevity comes to those who take the unexpected route through the rich musical history of popular culture, mix in some humour and some glamour and then add excellent musicianship.
There is not much room for dispute here – Nouvelle Vague lead the pack in that category.
I Could Be Happy – Altered Images cover
Blue Monday – New Order cover
Love Comes In Spurts – Richard Hell & The Voidoids cover
Metal – Gary Numan cover
I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones cover
Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With) – The Buzzcocks cover
No One Is Receiving – Brian Eno cover
Grey Day – Madness cover
All Cats Are Grey – The Cure cover
I Am The Human Fly – The Cramps cover
Athol-Brose – Cocteau Twins cover
Dancing With Myself – Billy Idol cover
Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode cover
La Pluie Et Le Beau Temps
I Can’t Escape From You – The Sound cover
Melt With You – Modern English cover
Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division cover
In A Manner Of Speaking – Tuxedomoon cover