PARIS – I waited 36 years to see Rickie Lee Jones in concert, having bought her first album in 1979, when it was released, and having been hooked ever since. Last night I saw her in Paris, but I think I will still have to wait another 36 years before I get to hear her singing live. Attending a concert with virtually no sound on the vocals? Can this really happen? I don’t know. I do know that most open mics I attend every week in dive bars have better sound than what I “heard” at the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris last night….
As soon as I noticed last week that she was playing at this old theater, a 7-minute walk down the street from my place in Paris, I bought the most expensive tickets in the house, two of them, one for me, one for my girlfriend. We’re both fans. I was a little too late to get seats on the floor, but as the seats in the “corbeille” were the same price as those on the floor – i.e., 51 euros each, or 102 in total – I decided that was probably just as good as the tickets for floor seats. I think I was wrong.
It was the first time I have gone to a show at the Bouffes du Nord, and I can say that this is one impressive theater in middle of Paris’s rough neighborhood of La Chapelle. You enter a nondescript building and find yourself facing what looks like a lost, inner theater that might have been built at the time of the Roman Coliseum. You then enter the theater itself and find what seems was built as much as an indoor circus as a theater to stage drama. It is all bricks, wood, has a fabulous open proscenium arch with a full view of the empty stage behind, a massive floor area extension of the stage (i.e., which is floor-level), and several balconies of seating in the round.
We sat on the first level of seating above the floor – to me it is a kind of balcony, but the theater calls it a corbeille, or basket. As we sat down, we were absolutely delighted to be above the stage, slightly stage-left. The view of the band, and of the central microphone where Rickie would sing was just perfect. I was sure we were better off there than on the floor….My first disappointment came when someone entered the floor just before the concert and announced that we were not allowed to take photos or videos. I couldn’t get anything on the blog, I thought. But at least it would mean I could just thoroughly enjoy the show. Wrong. I now suspect the reason they said we could not take videos is because they were embarrassed by what they knew would follow: No vocals mic, no monitor for Rickie, or a guitar through the vocal monitor, or feedback through the vocal monitor, or no rhythm guitar through the monitor, or no vocals through the main speakers, or no rhythm guitar through the main speakers, and lots and lots and lots of desperate requests from Rickie Lee Jones to the “sound engineer” to please do something to get it all right!
Yes, readers of this blog will know that I have a mountain of worldwide experience playing in and even occasionally organizing, open mics in rowdy, lowd, crappy dive bars all over the world. Readers will also know that I rarely make complaints about the sound systems in said bars. In fact, I rarely have complaints to make, since most of the time a friendly and responsible organizer of an open mic will do his or her best to make sure that we can hear the vocals and instruments.
Last night, the Bouffes du Nord pretty much never got the sound right, with the exception of when Rickie went to the piano and sang and played from there. Suddenly, some eight or so songs into the show, she seemed to be able get right into the music, and so could we. In fact, the best thing I take away from the concert is the knowledge of just how professional she is, how fabulous her voice remains at 60 years old, and how cool her personality is on stage.
Having to deal with a venue that cannot get the sound right on one of the finest pop music vocalists of the last 36 years and letting down a near capacity crowd of 500 people paying 51 euros or 41 euros, is just the most extraordinary an unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen!
I should have done a bit of research on the theater beforehand, though, and I’d have realized that bizarre things are part of its history from the beginning, if this entry from wikipedia is to be trusted: “Founded in 1876, it had an erratic existence and seemed that it would never get off the ground. In its first decade it had no fewer than fifteen artistic directors, the most notorious being Olga Léaud who fled the theater after her production had failed, taking the contents of the theater safe with her.”
It seems it went on to have a fabulous and important period as the home of Peter Brook’s avant garde company, from 1974 until 2008. It is still partly a theater for drama production, and perhaps that is why the soundman was having so much trouble. I am used to not hearing guitars or vocals on loud, blaring rock bands, but not with the quiet, mostly laid back music of the band from Montreal that accompanied Rickie: There were five musicians (drummer, violin (and various strings and percussion), lead guitar, keyboards and bass) and it was all excellent accompaniment.
Rickie ran through more than an hour and a half set of songs from her oldest to the latest album (“The Other Side of Desire“), just out, and she did a magisterial job, but never, ever did the sound get done right. On “Chuck E.’s In Love,” not only did we barely hear the vocals from where I was sitting, but her amazing intro on her acoustic guitar was all but lost. On “Last Chance Texaco,” the mic was just totally out of sight, so there was no sense of being able to experience the extraordinary kind of performance that we find on a few youtube recordings of this performance.
Through it all, Rickie did the perfect “grin and bear it” act with smiles and non-stop efforts to get the soundman to please do his job. She did this through feedback from monitor, through the lead guitar player’s guitar coming through her monitor, through no voice through the monitor, through too much voice through the monitor. For me, at some points, from my vantage point, I felt I was ONLY hearing her voice through HER monitor … at those moments when it was stronger there.
When I left the show, outside the theater I spoke to a woman who had been in the front row on the floor, just wanting to hear her reaction. She immediately expressed sympathy for Rickie, saying it was really too bad she was having problems with her monitor, but she said that from her vantage point in the front row, she could hear the vocals and all the rest throughout the performance. She was, in fact, in pretty much the same line of sight and level as the sound engineer, who stood a little behind her, so there is a possibility that the sound engineer was in fact doing the best job with the audience vocals sound – not the monitor – that he could.
That would mean that the theater itself is to blame for the bad acoustics, and/or the lack of effort made at putting speakers high enough for the corbeille and balcony spectators to hear properly. I heard, but I have not been able to confirm, that in fact, the Bouffes du Nord has only recently decided to turn into a concert venue as well as a theater. If that is the case, then clearly it needs to make some investments in creating an adequate sound system for concerts, either that or cease to charge ticket prices of a top venue rather than making it free like a local bar with its open mic.
I do know that I was not the only one who felt bad for Rickie and her band. But I could nevertheless see enough through all of it, that in my wait of 36 years to see her live, I was not let down by her performance and the continuing strength of her voice – which part of the time was so strong I could hear enough of it without the mic to know it was still entirely there.