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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Jane Birkin

The Roundhouse, London
March 1st 2008

Well, Serge, as you know, I’ve been away for a while, so missed the opportunity to make facile jokes at your expense about the great victory of our yeoman English warriors over your French cavalry at your Stade de France. Another Azincourt all over again – or so I’m told. Distinguished readers might also like to note that I also missed concerts by Steve Earle at the Roundhouse and (unlikely I know) Megadeth at the Brixton Academy – so that’s two reviews you won’t be reading. But back to the rugby, score 13-24 if I recall correctly.

Having suffered your wonderful Blues thrashing Scotland at Murrayfield a few weeks ago I can understand how much pain this shameful defeat must have caused in the hearts of your countrymen, the humiliation, the sense of having no purpose in life. And I can imagine the appetite for vengeance that must be burning deep in your breasts. But please Serge, tell me, is that any excuse for you to send us back Jane Birkin? Surely revenge must have its limits?
Ms Birkin, readers will recall, is forever famous as the other half of the couple who scandalised the world in 1969 with the now much parodied 'Je t'aime moi non plus' – which we last heard being given the treatment by the wonderful Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in December. Her partner was Serge Gainsbourg, described by Birkin (she was actually quoting Francois Mitterrand, ‘though she didn’t tell us that) as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire”. In France, the breathless Ms Birkin told us to cheers from the audience, people talk about “avant Serge, et après Serge”, such was this epoch making giant’s impact on his nation’s culture. That’s one view. Sadly, in retrospect, it’s not difficult to dismiss him as a drunken sleazebag with an opportunistic ear for a good tune, and an eye for a pretty girl.
But of course it’s important for some that his myth be maintained, not least Ms Birkin, for whom it has defined much of her life, and her very reason for being. And strangely much of the crowd around us seem to share this view. But then they are mostly French (I can’t talk for the crowd in the balcony, who looked like the well-heeled literary set from up the hill in Hampstead) – itself a telling comment on the durability of Gainsbourg’s legacy outside his native France. Serge who?
And it’s a poor turn out for a Saturday. The seats look fairly crowded but downstairs you could easily swing several cats, or should I say chats, in the half-full auditorium. We’re not just here to hear Ms Birkin sing as the evening is also supporting Anno’s Africa, a non-profit making organisation dedicated to working with children in Africa, and named after Ms Birkin’s nephew, Anno Birkin, who was killed in a car accident in 2001. It’s just one of hatful of good causes that Ms Birkin supports with all the fervour of a late nineteenth-century English matron – another is detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in whose name we receive a rather patronising, and like everything else in the evening, somewhat over-dramatic lecture with a song to follow.
I could be wrong but I think it was during this one that the lady next to me started crying – her child, sitting disconsolately on the cold concrete floor had of course been crying for about an hour to go home, but that didn’t seem to matter. And once you’ve heard Ms Birkin sing you can understand why she brings tears to the eye – her lyrics are mostly half-spoken in the tone (in both English and her very deliberately unusual French) of a 1950’s BBC Radio presenter, but when she reaches for a note she does so more in hope than certainty, and more often than not the hope remains unfulfilled.
It’s a shame. She’s vivacious and charming with a winning smile, engaging in a very upper-middle class English sort of way, and trying very hard (she even sings her way across the floor and up to the seats early in the set). And her three-piece band, covering piano and keyboards, violin, harp, mandolin, guitar and percussion are pretty good. But the material isn’t strong, whether it’s Serge’s old stuff, newer songs written by the likes of the Magic Numbers or Beth Gibbons, or Ms Birkin’s own compositions, like her 1973 classic ‘Di doo dah’ (“o di doo di doo dah, mélancolique et désabusée, di doo di doo di dah, o di doo di doo dah …etc.etc.”). But the larger part of the audience, certainly the sans culottes around us, loved every minute of it, and seemed happy, if not ecstatic, to be part of this wildly nostalgic chansonnerie. Jane Birkin
But I’d had enough, so cut and ran to get home in time to catch North London’s favourite French football team on the television. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms Birkin stayed up late with a cup of camomile tea watching Serge Gainsbourg movies. Oh yes – and did I mention that Ms Birkin is also a very famous handbag? If you don’t believe me then go and have a look on eBay. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Man Ray. I mean, by Kate.)

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