Five Gigs In Five Nights: Barathon in Reims
Saturday night, September 30, found me on my own in the northern French city of Reims. Given I needed to be there the following night for work, I’d decided to get an advance start, make something of the Continental journey, and see another ancient city for the first time. The tourist in me was only partly impressed by the fact that Reims boasts an ancient cathedral (called Notre Dame, surprisingly enough) and that it’s the home of Joan of Arc; there was also the small coincidence that Reims is the capital of Champagne, more of which in another post. In addition, I was taken by the fact that on the Saturday night I planned to stay the city was hosting its own version of the infamous “Camden Crawl,” in which punters travel on a pre-determined route from venue to venue, attending gig after gig, over the course of a long evening. For a lone traveler in a strange city, it sounded like exactly my kind of event.
The Barathon, as Reims wittily called its inaugural such event, was the opening salvo in a festival called Magnitudes hosted by the local entertainment complex La Cartonnerie, again more of which later. Keeping things relatively simple, the eight free gigs spread across Barathon’s six venues all featured either semi-acoustic or one-man acts. I was only able to pick up on the last two of these, and it may have been just as well. When, after lingering over a superb pizza at a surprisingly trendy and fantastically friendly little restaurant called Cosi, I walked across town to L’Appart, I found that I’d just missed The Patriotic Sunday’s set and instead had arrived in time to find local gig-goers spilling onto the street for fresh air, almost every last one of them carrying a purpose-defeating cigarette in one hand and a glass of alcohol in the other. Stepping into the bar to explore the room, I was confronted by a solid wall of mostly young people and a thick cloud of almost impenetrable smoke. Clearly, either the Barathon was proving a roaring success or L’Appart was a mandatory Saturday night destination. Or, most likely, both.
After half an hour of relatively boring lingering – I seemed to be the only single person in the room, and while the French are friendly enough, no one tried to engage me in conversation – Mathis and the Mathematiks took to the makeshift stage. Or rather, a solo Mathis himself took to the stage; I had to assume that he must normally have a backing band he’d been forced to leave behind for the night. (His web site would appear to confirm that supposition.) His voice frequently rising to a falsetto, his eyes suitably scrunched closed to aid the effort, Mathis rather pointlessly started out with a couple of ballads, sung in perfect English: I made note of the lyrics “The past is snapping at my heels like a bargain that I can’t afford” as the kind that sound like poetry on stage but make far less sense on paper. Whether they were his own words or not, I can’t be sure, as he soon left the ballads behind and revealed his true self: a charismatic performer of mostly other peoples songs and something of a local hero, with a fawning audience three feet in front singing along, shouting out requests and frequently just calling his name.
Mathis made the most of the attention. Just a couple of songs into his “real” performance, following a Leadbelly song in which he made reference to Kurt Cobain, the PA abruptly cut out: Mathis quickly jumped onto his chair, and led the audience through a raucous call-and-response singalong session. The incident served to raise the temperature and enliven an already intense atmosphere, and from here on, the PA quickly fixed, there was no looking back. Mathis covered such varied material as Nat King Cole’s ‘Natural Boy’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’ before encoring with an innovative interpretation of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ in which he skipped the “pleased to meet you/can you guess my name” line to instead announce “I’m Jumping Jack Flash, and it’s a gas gas gas.”
Between the performer, the audience and the material, I felt like I’d been transported to a modern version of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, one in which poets, philosophers, politicals and everyday punters would line the walls drinking red wine and smoking French cigarettes while troubadors like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, a teenage Bob Dylan and, yes, Leadbelly himself would put a fresh spin on other people’s songs as well as introducing their own. It’s a timeless tradition, and it’s as thrilling to see it in a corner of France these days as it is on Bleecker Street. Meantime, somebody should market that mash-up of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’/’Jumping Jack Flash’ and quick.
Mathis was clearly pleased with himself and cracked open a bottle of champagne almost as soon as he’d finished his three song encore. (Mind you, in Reims, drinking champagne is less a mark of celebration than a daily rite akin to brushing one’s teeth.) His audience, meanwhile, a few back-slapping fanatics aside, were already filing out the front door and embarking on the collective walk up the road to Le Cheval Blanc for the night’s final gig.
This one had me intrigued. Not because the venue was named after one of the world’s great wines – it turned out to be a low-rent café tabac that somehow doubles as a punk rock venue! – but because Matt Elliott, according to the Barathon literature, was one of “the figureheads of British electronica,” a somewhat over-reaching description of his work with psychedelic techno act Third Eye Foundation, and yet here he was in Reims, a solo artist performing from an album called Drinking Songs. I forced myself to the very front of the side room, inhaling about 25 Gitanes in the process, and wedged myself next to the café tabac’s small raised speaker, all the better placed to observe Elliott’s copious rows of foot pedals. Half an hour earlier, back down the road, Mathis had regularly looped his acoustic chord patterns via foot pedal so as to solo over the top of them, and now Elliot took the concept a leap further. Leaning quietly into a sea-shanty ballad of lost love and hard drinking, he gradually fed both his guitar pickings and vocal refrains into the looping system, sang and played over the top, then fed those overdubs into the effects system too. Within three minutes, he was engaging in primal scream therapy over a background of psychedelic noise of which Sonic Boom himself would have been impressed, before winding things up, quite literally, by fiddling with the EQs and phasing via an effects box also on the floor.
It was a startling musical transition and I was thrilled to witness it. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, here was a post-rave Brit playing in a French café tabac, somehow bridging ancient maritime balladry and avant-garde noise with 21st Century technology. Unfortunately, this proved to be Elliott’s one and only tactic; I stood pinned to the wall by the noise, the smoke, and a drunken crowd of young French people through at least four more songs waiting for something more than a variation on a theme. But apart from his use of a recorder (the old-fashioned woodwind instrument, not a tape deck), the encroachment of some looped beats (the tape deck in this case being his laptop), and the occasional wrongly pressed foot pedal ensuring some on-the-cuff improvisation (“bloody big feet,” he cursed to himself through the mike), each song followed the exact same pattern: acoustic guitar intro and mournful vocals leading to cacophonic finale. I sensed that the looped rhythms were becoming slightly more danceable but maybe it was just that the drunk French kids (and these kids were hammered) were starting to dance for the hell of it. Even Elliott, exhibiting a particularly gruff Englishness, extolled them to curb their enthusiasm, and not start “whooping” until he at least started “looping.” As the French are wont to do, they pretended not to understand English and cheered him on throughout his songs. This crowd was going to express its love for Elliott’s set whether he liked it or not.
I could feel a headache coming on – noise, cigarettes, travel, and alcohol will do that to you – and left Elliott to his Elliott-(s)ized sea shanties. I had three more gigs coming up over the next three nights and needed whatever might qualify as beauty sleep. But I also left the room with an appreciation for the Reims music scene, for the popularity of foot pedals that allow solo musicians to sound like a full band, and for the stamina of the Reims gig-goers. Barathon had clearly lived up to its name.