Madeleine Peyroux @ Symphony Hall, 15/04/07

While the Arctic Monkeys prefaced their album launch telling every magazine, newspaper and passer-by that would listen how publicity-shy they are, Madeleine Peyroux’s thoughts on the trappings of fame are likely to be much more illuminating but much less likely to be heard. Following up an album that was well-received in the US by relocating back to Paris (where she lived from the age of 15) for six years to busk and make occasional appearances under pseudonyms is a route that would put to shame most who scorn the ‘careerist musician’. Madeleine’s contribution to music has, to a great extent, been on her own terms and so it is to be expected that a large tour will be conducted under the artist’s terms or not at all. She seems happy in her freedom and has a stage presence that eschews showiness and is collected and charismatic.

On record the Billie Holiday comparisons are inevitable. Live, Madeleine’s voice has a slightly different texture – some of the smokiness is smoothed out and replaced with a little more clarity, especially on the stronger notes.

Her albums, and this tour was ostensibly to promote ‘Half The Perfect World’, are fleshed out with choices from the songbooks of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Elliott Smith, adapted slightly to fit. No mere cover artist, it’s clear that Madeleine chooses songs she can get under the skin of and feel. Tonight, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ is particularly fine, her voice matching the lyric’s tone to a tee.

Despite Madeleine’s seemingly selfish approach to the music business, she is a generous performer and allows those sharing the stage to have their turn in the spotlight. A laudable measure, but one that all too often left me wishing it was a solo show.

Swinging versions of ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’ and ‘I’m All Right’ were started to applause but hamstrung by noodling solos on keyboard and guitar. In fact the quality of the show dropped noticeably when the focus shifted from Madeleine on to the members of her band, and it’s something that happened too often for comfort. Maybe I’m too used to seeing the sorts of bands shaped by the same mould – the ‘right’ clothing, attitude, stance all learnt by rote – so I’m sorry if this sounds unkind but the band looked like middle-aged office workers on dress-down Friday who had been let of the leash and allowed to get funky, or at least give their approximation of it. Maybe it’s an age-gap thing; the guy sat along from me got quite animated during the drum solos.

For all that there were sparks of something much better, the shuffling take on ‘Everybody’s Talking’ brought things down to a brooding hush that gave Madeleine the space to reinterpret the song and bring the paranoid sentiments to the fore. The instrumentation was inventive (I was too distracted to even consider what the unusual time signature was) and the pained and wearied vocal teased out a depth of meaning to the song that I’d never considered in Harry Nilsson’s version (much less the Beautiful South’s cover).

A simultaneous performance and translation of Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘La Javanaise’ was confidently navigated without losing too much in the way of it’s flow, although I would have preferred not to have it explained to me. And in general the show moved along well. “After the love song you play the break-up song” we’re told as songs run the gamut of upbeat optimism to downbeat wistfulness.

There was little to challenge throughout the evening but much to admire in seeing a performer so strongly in control of her material and investing in her performance. An encore performance of ‘J’ai Deux Amours’, without translation this time, brought things to a satisfying close.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.