Triple threat. Third time’s the charm. Rule of three. The Holy Trinity. Three-part harmony. 3-D.
It’s universally understood that there is power in numbers—specifically the numeral three. Schoolhouse Rock—an animated educational program gracing public television from 1973-2009—even celebrated the dynamic digit in 1973 with the earworm “3 Is a Magic Number.”
So what does this have to do with the French faction whose name literally translates into the music they creatively cover? It’s as easy as 1-2-3, or Mélanie Pain, Élodie Frégé, and Liset Alea, the trio of troubadours who graced The Howard Theatre stage in Washington, D.C. last Tuesday night. They help comprise the most current iteration of the French Bossa Nova cover band Nouvelle Vague, along with co-founders Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux. Not only are they on tour promoting their fifth studio album, I Could Be Happy, released November 4, 2016, but they are also sharing an unexpected treat—four original songs. This productive milestone for the group was a long time in the making—12 years to be exact. Last November, Libaux spoke about their collective drive in an online interview:
“Before 2010 we were only a cover band. We couldn’t even consider the idea of original music. When we reunited [in 2016], we wanted to create a new future for the Nouvelle Vague. We have proven that we are good at recording covers. Now the challenge for us is to record and write some very good original songs.”
All the nouveau materiel was composed and produced during the past two years. Collin wrote “Algo Familiar” and “Loneliness.” Libaux penned “Maladroit” (translation: “clumsy,” the only new song not played that night) and “La Pluie Et Le Beau Temps” (translation: “rain or shine,” originally intended to be played by their business partners Le Meridien Hotels). Each was finished within two days. Libaux acknowledged his ability to write but provided a caveat too: “The real thing is to write excellent songs, which is not the same thing [as just writing a song].” I say if you can’t be great, then cover the greats, and do a great job. That’s exactly what they accomplished on the third day of the calendar week while in the great nation’s capital city.
Liset Alea, the multi-talented Cuban-American singer and musician, opened for Nouvelle Vague showcasing her 2016 solo work: the EP Hunter and Tiger and LP Heart-Headed. Her performance served as the audiovisual equivalent to an amuse-bouche. I was surprised that a group who once sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall (ahem, Adele did this) would have trouble filling a room, but what the show’s attendance lacked in quantity, it sure made up in quality. Many of the people who arrived early to the historic venue appeared to be familiar with her material and were anticipating more. Following a quick “costume change,” Liset and Nouvelle Vague headed back on stage, where she joined Julien Boyé on percussion. Collin manned the keyboards and synthesizer. Julien Decoret played the upright double bass.
They opened with the new album’s title track, originally recorded by the Scottish new wave/post-punk band Altered Images. “I Could Be Happy” is one of the singles from the 1982 record Pinky Blue. It’s also one of only five reimagined renditions performed by the band where the original recording featured a female singer or singers. There were none on Nouvelle Vague (2004), three on Bande á Parte (2006), and one on 3 (2009). French pop chanteuse Camille replaces lead singer Clare Grogan. The track retains its effortless arrangement, but departs from an overall mood of upbeat sadness. Camille’s vocals fully embrace the lyrics taking on a contemplative sense of wistful longing. On the recording, the cheerfully distinctive synthesizer and wet guitar sounds are replaced by the rhythmic groove of the cabasa, keys, whistling, and soothing seaside noises. True to form, Nouvelle Vague altered this particular song even further for its live performance by adding a complimentary vocal (Élodie Frégé) to join lead (Mélanie Pain) and stripping down the overall sound with fewer instruments.
Nouvelle Vague accomplishes something the Altered Images did not. By simply closing your eyes and listening to their calming version, you can manifest the song’s message and momentarily transport yourself to another place. “I could be happy, I could be happy. All of the things I do to get away from you, escape from you / Get away, run away, far away, how do I, escape from you?” This song choice seemed deliberate and helped ready the audience for what was to come. It was the first stop on the band’s 21-city 2017 tour of North America and Europe. Everyone was exactly where he or she needed to be. I mean, you theoretically could escape, but you’d be a fool to do so.
The second of the night’s 18-song set was New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983). I wonder what the British synthpop quartet and producer Quincy Jones would think of a minute-long bongo solo towards the end of this iconic track! It was brilliant, and the move immediately livened up the growing crowd. Upon finishing, Melanie formally greeted everyone with “Bonsoir,” French for “good evening.”
While the next couple of songs didn’t garner resounding applause, the group should be credited for experimenting with hits from the pioneers of the “punk look” (Richard Hell & the Voidoids) and David Bowie’s brother from another mother (Gary Numan). Anyone who can insert the sixties-esque pop phrase “sha la la la la” at the end of a sci-fi track while keeping a straight face gets an ‘A’ for effort from me. For the record, they were smiling a little bit. If it’s good enough for Manfred Mann, it’s good enough for me!
Watch Nouvelle Vague perform “I Wanna Be Sedated” at the Howard Theatre on March 21, 2017:
The first shouts of audience approval arrived with the opening notes of one of their newest covers, “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones (1978). This is also the part of the program where the band learns that some people in DC don’t know how to speak French! Élodie engages in one of several conversations with the crowd. “Ça va bien Washington. Comment allez-vous? Are you in love?” “Sí” is Spanish y’all. To be fair, she could say anything and they would try and respond somehow. “Are you in love with the right person or in love with the wrong person? Ah, that is the question. Let’s see!” Great way to lead into the Buzzcock’s “Ever Fallen in Love” (1978).
One of my personal favorites was a hauntingly dark bass & drum-heavy version “Grey Day” by British ska band Madness (1981), which has yet to be officially recorded. The double bass player’s expertise and handling of such a huge instrument blew me away.
Mélanie and Élodie took over percussion while Liset returned to center stage to captivate the audience with a slowed down, sensual interpretation of Cocteau Twins’ “Athol-Brose” (1988). It’s already received critical acclaim from most major recent reviews. She commanded the stage during her performance of new track “Algo Familiar,” with burlesque-like movements enchanting both men and women.
The night seemed to reach its energetic apex with Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” (1981). Mélanie instructed: “Okay, if you want to dance, it’s time.” Julien, prince of percussion, joined Mélanie and Élodie halfway through the massive ’80s single and transformed it into something almost tribal, invoking an instrumental call and response breakdown, while adding about two minutes to the original. If Dave Gahan, Andrew Fletcher, and Martin Gore do this during their Global Spirit Tour, I could die happy! (See what I did there?) It’s not entirely impossible, given Nouvelle Vague’s cover of “Master and Servant” features a cameo from Gore himself. A girl can dream…
What came next might just be considered the chocolate sauce on top of a puffy profiterole. Élodie, despite being somewhat winded, kicked off her heels and channeled her inner musca domestica to absolutely slay The Cramps’ “Human Fly” (1979). The lighting synced perfectly with almost every calculated move she made across the stage personifying the song’s title. Jeff Goldblum, look out. It was the final song before the obligatory encore.
And then we received the pièces de résistance of the night, week, and possibly even entire year. If you’re lucky, you’ll attend a show at least once in your lifetime where you get to witness a singer-superfan mid-song interaction. Well, the stars aligned March 21 and with the help of liquid courage, persistence, and proximity, Ms. Jade Jones entered concert infamy and achieved greatness.
The D.C. resident had been singing along to almost every song throughout the night and Élodie took notice. She pointed to her, smiled, and said: “You’re a great spirit.” Jones immediately extended her hand and replied, “As are you.” Another female fan yelled: “You’re an amazing singer!” While Libaux strummed the opening guitar chords of the Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1979), Élodie readied her voice by evocatively crowing like a rooster. The only other instrument onstage was a pair of claves, adding a subtle background beat. Jade exclaimed, “I love this song!” Élodie whispered, “Me too.” Less than two minutes into the melody, the redheaded Season 3 winner of France’s Star Academy, walked to the edge of the stage and sat down in front of the plaid clad woman. She sang a verse and then gestured for Jade to sing the next one. Here’s what transpired!
Jade: (Sung in the tune of the covered track) “Dah, dah, dah, dah. I don’t know the words. You’re singing so French. Your accent I don’t understand.” The crowd absolutely loved it – applauding and cheering. Love will tear us apart again. Love will tear us apart again. I’ve loved you since high school. That was seven years ago. And I don’t know the words, but I’m here…”
The harmonizing was so real it seemed almost rehearsed. If they ever need another voice added to their pool of singers, they’ve got one in in the District. At times it felt like they were the only two people in the room and everyone else were voyeurs witnessing something not meant for the public. “La La Land” has nothing on these two.
Jones: “You drink French champagne. I don’t know what that’s actually called. I’ve never been to France.”
Élodie: “Come on!”
Jade: “But I’d love to go.”
Élodie: “Come with me!”
Jade: “I think you’re so f—king hot. I looked at you all ni-ii-ight.”
Élodie: “With your glasses…” (Cupping her left eye)
Jade: “If I ever went to France, would you go on a date with me?”
Élodie: “I’m sort of married!”
Reality set in and Jones momentarily pulled back. Élodie learned her name, declared her “amazing,” motioned to the audience, and everyone cheered her on. “You are Nouvelle Vague now,” Élodie told Jade.
Watch Nouvelle Vague perform “Love Will Tear Us Apart” at the Howard Theatre on March 21, 2017:
The show could have ended there, given that the metaphorical mic drop had just happened, but Mélanie returned as Élodie exited, closing the night with Tuxedomoon’s “In a Manner of Speaking” (1985). As Mélanie pointed out before starting, “There are so many songs, we can’t do them all.” Guess we’ll have to just them again.
I talked with three attendees at various times after the show. Here are their unique perspectives of the concert.
Jason Myler Nicholson of Boonsboro, Maryland, has been a fan of Nouvelle Vague since the release of their 2004 debut album and felt “lucky” to have been able to catch the first show of the 2017 tour. “I was living in France at the time and have followed them since. I enjoy their unique interpretations of ’80s New Wave songs and the breadth of rotating talented lead singers, [who] ever so often perform duets with original members of the bands they are covering, like [the aforementioned Gore] and Echo & The Bunnymen‘s Ian McCulloch.”
He cited Liset’s “dreamy” “Algo Familiar” and Élodie’s “La Pluie Et Le Beau Temps” as two of the night’s standout performances. “It was great meeting the members of the band afterwards. They were willing to share their time, especially Élodie [Frégé], who I’ve been following since she won France’s Star Academy. Her cover and accompanying dance choreography of ‘Human Fly’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ were both unforgettable. I’m looking forward to see what they do next. Supposedly a follow-up live album is in the works. That would be great!”
Matt Ries of Alexandria, Virginia, was at 9:30 Club show five years ago to see Nouvelle Vague, so was excited they were back in town. “Band a Parte” is his favorite album of theirs. “I first heard them on the Annapolis station WRNR, when the deejay played the cover of ‘Killing Moon.’ I like it because of the arrangements and the number of songs I know and styles of songs I know.” He cites the lack of a “nostalgia factor” for why he’s somewhat disinterested in their recent work. “I don’t really recognize as many songs on it as I do on some of the more initial albums.”
Tuesday night was the first time Matt had attended a show at The Howard Theater. He thought the venue fit with the group well and really enjoyed the show, especially Julien’s bass techniques. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do the sort of, I guess, sound effects he made, using that instrument. I saw Reverend Horton Heat once in concert, so know how you can spin it and that sort of stuff, but not like musical tricks.” The “South American style” the band adopted during this performance was enthralling. “I don’t really think they had that sort of instrumentation when I saw them before.” Another difference he observed was the lack of any major props or onstage set dressing. Élodie was a “nice” addition to the vocal roster as well.
Jade Jones of Washington, D.C. admits it was her first time seeing the band, but has liked them for nearly a decade. Like many people nowadays, she listens to their catalog on Spotify. She used social media to follow the band and posted online to be notified when they returned to the metropolitan area. The building is adjacent to where she works, so when the tour dates were announced, she jumped on the opportunity. She thought there would be more people there, but liked the fact that she could just walk in and get close to the stage. “We got there at probably 7:45 and walked right up front, which is something I’ve never been able to do before.”
The self-proclaimed music lover was more surprised than anyone by what happened. “I guess [the band] heard me. I didn’t know I was being that loud. I’m really big on harmonies and stuff, so I was just feeling the music and harmonizing with them. It was pretty epic. There’s not really a band out there like them. They’re really different and that captured my attention.”
As of Friday evening, Jade was still in shock. She’s happy there’s video documenting the event, because it was really like having “an out-of-body, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” She absolutely loves the Joy Division track and “never in a million years” thought she’d be sharing a duet with, “a famous person.” She said: “I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m a performer myself, a professional actor in D.C., so I’m familiar with the stage, but I’ve never been with a performer who I admired so much. I really thought our voices meshed well too. It’s kind of hard to believe that was the first time that we had ever done that. How do you top something like that?”
Her new mission is it to get the word out about this amazing group. “I usually tell people who have never heard of them that they’re a bossa nova band who does ’80s covers, but that doesn’t cut it. Three words that I would use to describe Nouvelle Vague are sexy, jazzy, and champagne.”
Here are some more pictures of Nouvelle Vague performing at Howard Theatre on March 21, 2017. All photos copyright and courtesy of Theresa C. Sanchez.