The prospect of Jane Birkin performing the songs of Serge Gainsbourg is not the easiest show for me to review, since my knowledge of the composer’s work is mostly limited to his dark, funky 1971 masterpiece Histoire Du Melody Nelson and, inevitably, ‘Je T’aime.. Moi Non Plus’ (both of which featured Jane), while my acquaintance with Birkin’s solo career consists of the eponymously flavoured Arabesque (2002) and her collaborative affair with the likes of Neil Hannon, Rufus Wainwright and Beth Orton, Fictions (2006). Plus, it’s mostly in French, and I’ve got no set list. Still, most of it is comprehensible, and there are enough recognisable tunes to latch on to to make it enjoyable.
Birkin has been performing Gainsbourg’s work for most of her singing career, and with this particular touring configuration since 2011. As she has written, her overriding concern when setting out to interpret her former husband’s oeuvre once again was how to make the material fresh. A solution presented itself when she did a Tsunami benefit in Japan, and decided to continue working with the musicians she meet there.
A ’60s ‘it’ girl and now, at 66, a living legend, Birkin brings an actress’s presence, poise and charm to her performance. Wearing expensively cut yet casual black trousers and short jacket, a white silk blouse and what look like primsoles, this English woman exudes the essence of Gallic gamine playfulness. Early highlights include ‘Requiem Pour Un Con’, ‘Di doo dah’ and ‘Amours Des Feintes’, the last song Gainsbourg wrote for her before his death in 1991. ‘Ballade De Johnny Jane’ is jaunty, while ‘Comic Strip’, a song originally recorded by Gainsbourg with Brigitte Bardot, features Hoshiko Yamane on call-and-response nonsense vocals.
Excellent readings of ‘Les Amours Perdues’ and ‘Jane B’ follow, and during ‘Mon Amour baiser’ Birkin manages the near-impossible feat of imbuing the National Concert Hall, never the most warmly atmospheric of venues, with a sense of intimacy, as she leaves the stage to walk the aisles and even cuts through one row of the audience. Into the home stretch we are treated to ‘Ah Melody’, the clever lyric of ‘Haine Pour Aime’, ‘Baby Alone In Babylone’ and ‘Fuir Le Bonheur’. A standing ovation elicits an encore, and she leaves, all thank yous and waves, to the entire audience on their feet, applauding.