Review by Steve Crawford with Photography by Rob Hadley

Support tonight is provided by the affable Tim Keegan, from West Sussex by way of Paris and sometime Robyn Hitchcock collaborator. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, selection of harmonicas and checked- shirt, his stand out track this evening is a possible a first? ‘To Russia with Gloves’ is a World Cup Protest song about a transsexual goalkeeper. A couple of country numbers: ‘Loneliness of Cowardice’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ see Tim joined by Moseley local Louis (last name not given) on violin. In a nice reference to the history of Birmingham Town Hall, Buddy Holly’s ‘All My Love, All My Kisses’ is covered and receives the biggest applause of the set. It noted by Tim that it was 50 years ago that Buddy Holly and the Crickets played the Town Hall and stood on the very stage he is now standing on.

Tim Keegan-1-2

Tim Keegan-7Tim Keegan-6

It’s just two members of Nouvelle Vague who initially walk onto the stage at Birmingham Town Hall, settle behind their respective instruments and strike up the the opening number of the night. Someone, somewhere starts whistling along. A moment later and two disembodied voices fill the Town Hall with the the opening lines of the Altered Images 1982 hit and name of Nouvelle Vague’s 2016 album: ‘I could be Happy’ It’s not certain where these voices come from at first; there’s no sign of the bodies from which the vocals emanate from the wings or behind the velvet backdrop on stage Slowly all is revealed as the two Nouvelle Vague singers Élodie Frégé and Mélanie Pain saunter down the sides of the Town Hall from back of the room, one on each side in a panther like pincer style movement, finishing the song by the time they reach the front of the stage.

Nouvelle Vague-4

This tour is being billed as the Acoustic Shows Tour so tonight Nouvelle Vague are a stripped down four piece consisting of acoustic guitar, keyboards, a fine collection of hand-held percussion instruments plus a melodica. It’s fair to say that the boys haven’t gone overboard as regards stage costume; functional workaday jeans and trainers seem to do the job. Whereas Melaine, in a black velvet backless dress and Élodie in a long split skirt with lace top, look chic, classy and like they’re ready to tango in a 1920s Parisian nightclub.

Nouvelle Vague-1

Tonight’s set includes many of the crowd pleasing big hitters; those greatest hits of others bands that become the greatest hits in any given Nouvelle Vague concert but of course all delivered in a smooth, smoky bossa nova style that’s the trademark of Nouvelle Vague sound. Part of the pleasure of Nouvelle Vague concert is trying to work out what song is being played after only a couple of barres or so. At once both familiar and yet unfamiliar, it takes a moment to decipher the likes of Blue Monday, Ever Fallen in Love, Sweet and Tender Hooligan and The Guns of Brixton which have all been encrypted by bossa nova.

Nouvelle Vague-3

“Too Drunk to Fuck” an audience member shouts out. It’s a request not a statement, although it could be both in this case? The audience member in question, who seems to have be unfettered by a few drinks is one of only two people, who so far, have been up out of their seats and dancing for the duration, determined to have a good time. “Allo baby!” replies Élodie to the audience member in question as the band duly oblige and launch into the Dead Kennedys’ 1980 classic. Played live tonight the ugly brutal snarl of the original is turned into something altogether different; woozy, playful and almost charming. Obliviously doing something completely different is Nouvelle Vague’s stock in trade but in some cases – and what really works, is when the juxtaposition is so great between the original version and the band’s take on it. Case in point tonight is ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, a version that is so diametrically opposite from the bright, choppy, rip-chord Ramones’ original as you’re ever likely to hear, this one being is slow and low.

Nouvelle Vague-21Nouvelle Vague-20

For the most part the audience has mostly been polite, attentive, but appreciative. Undoubtedly Birmingham Town Hall is a magnificent setting, acoustically sharp and clear and the house lighting across the backdrop complimenting the minimalist, stark on stage lighting nicely.

But there is something about all seater venues that can inhibit the audience sightly, especially when  the venue is only approximately a quarter full as it is tonight. This is a shame but it seems the band realise this and that they need to give the audience permission to get up out of their seats and dance dance dance. So it is perhaps with this in mind that Élodie asks: “Are you ready Birmingham?… are you sure you’re ready?… you seem very quiet” Maybe that’s all that was needed. Or maybe it’s the pacey up-tempo version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ that finally sees pretty much all of the audience realised from their seats and up and dancing. It’s a definite high point tonight.

Nouvelle Vague-8

Other highlights come from those maybe less well known songs? ‘Escape Myself’ (originally by The Sound) has Élodie striking some Edith Piaf like gestures whilst demonstrating just what a powerful voice she has. In contrast Melaine’s breathy honeyed vocals on ‘Dance With Me’ (The Lords of the New Church) is seductive and utterly alluring. It’s not just covers either. Two of Nouvelle Vague’s own compositions: ‘La Pluie et le Beau Temps’ and Maladroit’ make it into the set-list tonight.

Nouvelle Vague-6

Human Fly is introduced as the last song, to shouts of “N-ooo” from the crowd. Will there be an encore? Naturellement. First up, sung by both Mélanie and Élodie, standing back to back and slowly rotating give a fine rendition of ‘The Killing Moon’. Followed by ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ sung just by Mélanie and finally ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ sung at first just by Élodie, then joined by the audience and joined by the audience and Mélanie. Then. Fin.

Nouvelle Vague-14

What stands out tonight is the fact that despite being a covers band Nouvelle Vague do occupy a unique place in the musical landscape. The last few years has seen a real growth in covers and tribute act, where it’s possible to experience something of what it must have been like to see the now either defunct/dead/ well past their best, band of choice in their heyday. The important thing for this to work is that these bands have to be able to recreate the original songs as faithfully and as close to the original as possible, no reinterpretations needed here thank you. And then there are bands like Nouvelle Vague. Or more accurately there aren’t bands like Nouvelle Vague that have enjoyed this level of success with this amount of longevity, who found a formula and stuck to it without ever straying into kitsch, comedy or parody. If cover versions are something that should depart radically from the originals, giving them a new lease of life then Nouvelle Vague are the masters and mistresses of new wave resurrection.

Nouvelle Vague-5

See the complete photoset from tonight’s gig here.

Leave a Reply