It takes me back, this night in a café-bar, watching a series of bands from a local music school (Mad Music in Belfort). Three Euros at the door, a stamp on the hand, and then a descent into the dark and smoky bar – but wait. A dark and crowded bar, yes, but something is missing. The smoke.
Of course, even the French have now knuckled under. When the smoking ban was first introduced, back in the 90s, it was still common to find ashtrays on café tables, and people sitting indoors, in a public place, smoking their high tar cigarettes. Gaspers.
But now, even these teenage rebels are toeing the line.
The first act is a blonde girl with an acoustic guitar. She has a strong voice, a good right-hand technique, but she sings a series of predictable covers, KT Tunstall, even Lady Gaga.
I’m disappointed. To me , it seems that what these bright and enthusiastic teenagers need is some exposure to good musical taste. Pop from the recent charts is dull, predictable, safe. It’s the same kind of shit we see murdered on a million talent shows. I question their motives for doing these bland identisongs. Not because they love them, surely, but out of a misplaced desire to feed the audience something they’ll want to hear. But, as with all gigs these days, nobody is really listening. The arseholes around the bar actually raise their voices when the bands start to play, continuing their conversation as if the music was a background irritant.
Given these circumstances, the bands should either play their own material, or should pick something they really love. I think you could probably become more than background noise if you played something that the real music lovers in the audience would respond to. Something unusual but instantly recognisable, something that used to be huge but hasn’t been destroyed through overexposure or sullied by the advertising industry.
You want an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about? Not something by The Killers or the Kings of Leon, none of that landfill indie. How about something by The Cars? Not a fan, but something like “My Best Friend’s Girl” would surely make the bored, talkative audience pay attention. Kris Delmhorst has already shown their stuff works well when sung by a female vocalist.
Second act is a moody brown-haired girl who plays acoustic guitar with a quiet-looking boy. She has confidence but can’t sing. My inner Cowell wants to tell her so. Apparently she was supposed to be the vocalist for the band we’ve come to see (my wife’s godson), but has just announced she’s too good for them or something. A confrontation is simmering away.
Attention seeker, I think. She wants them to beg. They don’t, instead asking another girl to stand in. At a nearby table, another attention seeker is having a crisis and receiving comfort from those around her. Indeed all this because I’m hypersensitive to nuance and body language when I’m in France. There are people on the stage getting attention, and this girl, their age-mate, wants some of the action without doing the hard work of learning to play an instrument.
The teachers from the music school are in attendance, acting as MC, road crew, stand-in drummer or accompanist. The bass teacher is a big dude with a pony tail (see photo above). The guitar teacher is a guy too tall for the tiny stage. I like this scene very much. Learning an instrument is one thing; learning to play with other musicians is another thing again. The only problem (I keep coming back to this) is the material.
The teenagers are oddly deferential to the teachers (as a teacher I’m not used to this at all), and ask politely for adjustments to be made to amps.
They’re all French, and they all sing, for the most part, in English. A lot of French kids learn most of their English from the popular song lyric, but they have a limited knowledge of this stuff, only what’s made it over there.
Act three is a brunette with a good voice. She’s slightly chubby, could be British. One of the teachers plays acoustic guitar. She’s good, but I can hear with her singing voice better songs that she could sing, if she only knew about them.
A lot of the stuff seems stuck in the 90s, or too wedded to landfill indie. The first electric act is an all-girl band, who look fabulous and play passably well (the drum teacher fills in at the back), but sound pedestrian. Two guitarists playing more or less the same barre chords, a singer who looks good but sounds weak trying to do this *rockist* shit.
No band in the history of music was any good without a keyboardist. The Beatles got away with it because both John and Paul could fill in, and they had George Martin. The Stones had Ian Stewart. The Who had Bundrick. Springsteen had two keyboardists, as did The Band; Tom Petty has Benmont Tench, and so on. Keys add an expansiveness to music, make it greater than the sum of its parts. My main advice to any young band starting out is if you want to stand out, get a keyboard going on.
None of these bands has keys. The music school doesn’t seem to do keys. Two guitarist are superfluous if both playing the same thing.
After the girl band, the blonde girl and the brunette do a couple and then, finally, Pierre’s band take to the stage, the brunette filling in on vocals.
All night long, we’ve been squeezed into a tiny space, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the SMOKERS shoving their way past ALL NIGHT LONG to go upstairs and out for a cigarette. See, even when they’re not actually poisoning us, they are anti-social and irritating.
Pierre’s band are disappointing. They play in time, but what they play in like 1979-era new wave, with a girl singer whose pipes don’t suit the material. I want a bit more twang, a bit more space in the music. Feel like making them a mix tape of the sort of stuff they should be doing.
I sit through it all and because I’m not conversing in French, I’m probably paying more attention than most. I’m also paying attention to the people coming and going. The smokers, yes, but also the new arrivals. I decide at some point in the night that I love the way French women walk into bars. They come down the steps, pausing on the bottom one for a look, then march confidently forwards, into the throng.