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Live review: Vanessa Paradis at the Orpheum Theatre

February 20, 2011 |  6:35 pm

Vanessa paradis
For more than a decade, Americans have pondered the appeal of the French singer-actress-model who captured the heart of Hollywood's sexiest leading man. Outside of Chanel ads and foreign films, Vanessa Paradis has remained a primarily European enigma.

Consider the chanteuse hereby found in translation. After her sultry, charming performance at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday -- her second-ever concert in North America (she'd played New York on Wednesday) -- we're now wondering if it's Johnny Depp, Paradis' baby daddy, who's the lucky one.

The auburn-haired beauty sang a generous set of artfully arranged pop, jazz, and rock songs in French and English. She also played guitar and Wurlitzer, when she wasn't shimmying across the stage in a beaded top and jeans or a gold dress. Paradis doesn't have a diva's multi-octave range or powerhouse lungs, but her pitch is true and her voice has a keening, husky tone. Think Dolly Parton with a French accent instead of a Southern twang. When she essayed Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah," she plumbed its lyrics of disillusionment for plaintive melancholy, while cellist Elsa Fourlon sawed a low, mournful note.

Paradis was accompanied by a four-piece band and a string quartet, who doubled on backing vocals. I say accompanied, not backed, because the drummer, keyboardist, guitarist and bassist were positioned around her on the stage, while the violinists, violist and Fourlon stood atop a riser behind her. The singer interacted playfully, collaboratively and inventively with the musicians. She whacked a cymbal with a bundle of thin sticks while gentle, gifted drummer Pascal Colomb (who occasionally pounded a metal chocolate pot) provided a percussive counterpoint. For the first encore, keyboardist and arranger Albin de la Simone spread a flexible keyboard like a blanket atop a guitar case and sat opposite Paradis on the floor, each taking turns plunking notes, until the improv turned into "La Vague à Lames."

Vanessa paradise orpheum
"Vague" is one of several songs Paradis sang that were written or co-written by French legend Serge Gainsbourg. They collaborated on her 1990 album "Variations sur le Même t'Aime." Since scoring her first international hit, "Joe le Taxi," in 1987, when she was only 14, Paradis has earned her place among Gallic royalty, though she's no Edith Piaf. She has also dueted with Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg's most famous muse. Francophone fans and the French consulate turned out in droves at the Orpheum to applaud this national treasure.

After delaying going global in part to raise her two kids with Depp, Paradis is now ready to take America. (In fact, thanks to her partner's film career, Los Angeles has been a part-time base for a while now, a fact she acknowledged by saying the city "had made a home in my heart for the best reason in the world." Indeed.) Decca released a two-volume package of Paradis' greatest hits last week. She commanded the Orpheum stage with glamorous poise, a talented band and some great belly-dancing moves.

And, yes, Depp was in the house.

-- Evelyn McDonnell

Photos: Vanessa Paradis at the Orpheum Theatre. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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