Sunday, September 30, 2007

Georges Brassens in Cardiff

Unless (like me) you are a fan of the French chanson tradition you are unlikely to have heard of Georges Brassens.

Yet in France he is an absolute icon. During his lifetime he was more popular than greats like Boris Vian and Léo Ferré ; as esteemed as Jacques Brel; and held in as much affection as Edith Piaf. His moustachioed face was as familiar to the French public as Elvis Presley's was to the rest of the world.

Brassens' live shows were intense, hugely popular affairs. He once performed every night for three months at a Montparnasse theatre to capacity houses. With one foot planted on a wooden chair he would strum his guitar and mesmerise adoring audiences with his poetic lyrics. Brassens was steeped in the French poetic canon.

Every three years he would emerge from hibernation into the public glare with ten new songs - each one honed to perfection. His keen lyrical sense combined with a down to earth, histrionic-free delivery endeared him to French people the world over. They regarded him as something of an avuncular anarchist.

For many years - despite numerous invitations from abroad - Brassens refused to perform outside of France. Then in 1973 he broke his self-imposed rule and did a foreign show in - of all places - Cardiff, Wales.

This incredible event came about through the endeavours of Brassens' friend Colin Evans, a lecturer in French at Cardiff University. The gig was arranged to celebrate the opening of the Sherman Theatre in the Welsh capital. Also on the bill was long-time Brassens admirer Jake Thackray.

Evans wrote an article in a local Welsh newspaper helping to explain who exactly this Frenchman nobody had heard of was. The accompanying photograph is an absolute joy - Brassens puffing on a pipe in front of Caerphilly castle.

The Cardiff show itself was recorded by the BBC and excerpts from it appeared in a documentary in 1975. The live performance (one of the few live recordings ever made of Brassens) was also released as an LP entitled: Live in Great Britain which is well worth getting your mitts on.

*Here's a good Brassens website that includes an endorsement from Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos.