French pop icons romance and rock L.A.
Charles Aznavour croons to fans' delight and Johnny Hallyday shakes it up in separate shows.
French expatriates living in Los Angeles got a reminder of home this week at separate concerts by Charles Aznavour and Johnny Hallyday, two aging giants in French pop music whose relatively limited renown in the United States seems only to have endeared them more deeply to their fans. When Aznavour asked which language he should sing his next song in during his performance Sunday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, the response from the audience came quickly and with audible pride: "En français!"
The shows illustrated plenty of differences between the singers and the traditions from which they descend: Aznavour and the lyric-driven chanson versus Hallyday and his Continental take on American rock 'n' roll.
But there were similarities too, including each man's all-black wardrobe and a shared repose that worked in appealing opposition to the melodrama in both singers' material.
For Aznavour, 87, that low-key assurance felt like the natural product of the countless hours he's spent onstage over the last half century, playing gigs fundamentally indistinguishable from Sunday's.
Backed by a slick eight-piece band, the singer pondered romance and nostalgia in "L'Amour C'est Comme un Jour" and "La Bohème," punctuating his words with understated facial expressions; "What Makes a Man," Aznavour's well-known depiction of a lonely drag queen, was draped in existential gloom, tender but cool to the touch.
Occasionally his reserve turned dreary, as in "Yesterday, When I Was Young" and "She," his biggest English-language hit.
Mostly, though, Aznavour projected a kind of très chic fatalism that seemed open still to fresh disappointment.
Performing for the first time in L.A. (where he's nevertheless lived since the early 1970s), Hallyday, 68, kept his mustachioed upper lip similarly stiff Tuesday night at the Orpheum Theatre.
Hallyday's two-hour show opened with a brief film in which a female narrator trumpeted his ability to survive a different danger: 50 years' worth of shifting pop-music trends.
Yet the concert itself argued that he's simply absorbed those trends; many of his songs sounded like French-language facsimiles of tunes by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, while others folded in traces of soul and disco.
In addition to his originals, Hallyday and his 14-piece band covered several American tunes, including Tommy Tucker's "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix.
What gave a sense of individuality to Tuesday's concert (which launched a worldwide trek that's been referred to as both a comeback tour and a farewell tour) was the way Hallyday used his booming baritone to play against the youthful abandon suggested by his music.
As guitars squealed and horns blared in "Gabrielle" and "Rock 'n' Roll Attitude," he sounded less like an eternal teenager than like a cast member in "Les Miserables."
He was portraying a part and portraying it with skill.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: Fans line up for Johnny Hallyday outside the Orpheum. Credit: Getty Images