Jacques Brel

Olympia 1961, Vol.6

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Although Jacques Brel's modern reputation rests on the seemingly endless stream of future classics he tossed out in his capacity as a songwriter, acclaim during his lifetime was equally granted to his live performances. Onstage, as surviving footage amply shows, he was a dynamo of expression, emotion, and energy, imbibing every lyric with an intensity that such phrases as "body language," "facial expressions," and "stage presence" simply cannot begin to explain. It was a smart move indeed, then, for him to wrap up his Phillips label deal with a live album, recorded at the fabled Paris Olympia in October 1961, with piano accompaniment from arranger Francois Rauber and occasional songwriter Gerard Jouannest, and an orchestra conducted by Daniel Janin. The 15 songs include a number with which the audience might not even have been familiar -- new material scheduled for Brel's next few EPs included "Les Bourgeois," "La Statue," "Zangra," and "Madeleine." All, however, are greeted with enthusiasm -- one of Brel's greatest talents, and the concert environment only amplified it, was his ability to turn total strangers into the closest friends, and friends, of course, into lovers -- an exuberant "Les Flamandes," a jovial "Marieke," a whirling "La Valse a Mille Temps." Effortlessly, Brel holds the audience's emotions in his hand. A playful "Les Paumes Du Petit Matin" is high comedy, as Brel toys with both lyrics and vocal sounds; "Ne Me Quitte Pas," on the other hand, reduces a vast auditorium to the silence of the grave, until even the strings behind it sound like trespassers on the singer's soul. "Le Moribund" jerks the dreamers back to wakefulness, and one cannot help but wonder whether any of the so painfully earnest Anglo-American interpreters of this song could ever even imagine the exuberance with which Brel imbibes it. Joy, fun, seasons in the sun -- as the song speeds toward its conclusion, it almost sounds like Brel has started tap-dancing, so unrestrainedly buoyant is his delivery. The album closes with "Quand on N'a Que L'Amour," of course. It opens slowly, gently, Brel alone with his acoustic guitar and sounding almost uncertain as he stutters out the lyrics. As the band comes in behind him, however, his confidence returns, until the performance explodes with the crowd and, as Brel leaves the stage, the horns play out the refrain. It must have been a marvelous night; it remains a tremendous LP.

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