Review: Serge Gainsbourg Tribute at Hollywood Bowl
Dear good people of France: Give singer Mike Patton a permanent residency at the most disreputable lounge in Paris, posthaste. Dressed like one of the lowliest hit men of the “Sopranos” crew, the former Faith No More and Mr. Bungle shredder brought a louche elegance to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Requiem pour un Con” at the Hollywood Bowl.
There was no shortage of singers pleased to slip into Gainsbourg’s white Repetto shoes at Sunday night’s Beck-produced Gainsbourg tribute, including his progeny, Lulu — but Patton, possessed of a slithery outlaw charm, was the evening’s breakaway lead. As the bass slinked around beatnik conga drums, he half spit and half savagely whispered in French his regards to life lived as a jerk. Occasionally he wriggled his eyebrows or widened his eyes, as if he’d just spotted a cold-blooded femme across the room.
With the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Scott Dunn and Gainsbourg collaborator Jean-Claude Vannier and a crack live band reunited from Beck’s 2002 album, “Sea Change,” the true star of the evening was Gainsbourg’s towering songbook, a four-decade flirtation with every style of music that caught his eye — from chanson to ye-ye pop to Afro-Cuban jazz, American folk and reggae. A re-creation of the “Lolita”-like concept album written by Vannier and Gainsbourg, 1971’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson” was performed in its entirety for the evening’s sweeping finale.
When dealing with material that demands so much personality, perhaps more than it does technical skill, the singers who brought their own style to Gainsbourg fared the best. The diminutive goth singer Zola Jesus brought a throaty swagger to her version of “Harley Davidson,” but she also knew when to downplay her Joplin-at-the-opera tones, as evidenced by her gentle backup vocals on the breezy meringue, “Sea, Sex and Sun.”
Beach House chanteuse Victoria Legrand, one of the few onstage with proper Gallic blood (her uncle is French composer Michel Legrand), lent her wisp of a voice to various compositions throughout the night, including a gorgeously subtle duet with Patton on “La Decadanse.”
Wearing a red silky blouse with a sparkly bow tie, Legrand often sang with her hands in her trouser pockets, a shy smile occasionally breaking out. Her demureness worked best when paired with Patton’s dangerous charisma but when she sang a duet with Grizzly Bear’s equally polite Ed Droste, both seemed like they might fade in the foam of Gainsbourg’s chanson, until drummer Joey Waronker’s solo came along and provided spine.
Sean Lennon, outfitted in a cape and introducing himself as “Captain Lawnmower,” supplied a fitting sense of camp for the night. Charlotte Kemp Muhl, his model accomplice, gamely fulfilled the role of outré sex symbol. Somebody had to do it, and Kemp Muhl has the pretty yet petulantly coy vocal chops, not to mention a criminally lascivious scarlet pout, to revive the orgasmic “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus.”
Beck didn’t turn in the most electrifying performances of his career, but, staying true to his role of master curator, his song choices were some of the best of the night. Highlighting Gainsbourg’s most audacious moments as provocateur, his songs written for the French teen star France Gall are rife with references to LSD and oral sex. Don’t expect Justin Bieber to cover these soon.
For the finale of “Melody Nelson,” a clean-cut and dapper Joseph Gordon-Levitt stepped in to provide gravelly speak-singing, dove-tailing particularly well with Legrand on the trippy conclusion, “Cargo Culte.” Behind them, the rhythm section stalked, Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s bass thrumming low and guttural, the perfect reminder that Gainsbourg never forgot the dark side of sex, or life.
Photo: Beck in a tuxedo with Mike Patton taking a drink in the background. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times