Concerts, Music

Twenty Fifteen, Post Three: On Stromae


My favorite 2014 concert happened by accident.

‘Alors On Danse’ exploded into my playlist five years ago with the intensity of an Akira-esque thermonuclear bomb, displacing the current summer dance favorite ‘We No Speak Americano’. 1 The song somehow managed to get everything right. The happy marriage of the bass-and-brass phrases, accompanied by what sounded like an over-excited poodle running around yapping in time with the beats – did it matter that I could not understand what the song was saying, other than “let’s dance”?

Stromae was due to perform at Los Angeles in October. I knew that in advance, having kept an eye on the events schedule at the Fonda Theater. I was more interested in La Roux and The Tune-Yards who were playing around the same time. I briefly contemplated buying tickets to go see him, but spending $40 on what I thought was a one-hit wonder – not my cup of tea. Besides, tickets weren’t sold out, and isn’t that a sign that maybe he wasn’t cool enough? Yes, shameful admission: sometimes it feels better to get tickets to sold-out shows. Bam!

A few days before the show, my boss – who is Moroccan – remarked that he was interested in Stromae. He had been listening to his new album obsessively, and mentioned that it was really good. Racine Carrée (which means ‘square root’) was indeed appealing, but did not grab me immediately.That is the thing with music – you need time and patience and maybe a little bit of willingness to get into something new. The one song that sounded super-catchy had the words ‘rendezvous’ in the chorus, and that was the song I kept humming to myself every now and then. It appeared that tickets were indeed sold out, even though they showed up as available on the website. I did some halfhearted Craigslist-scouring, but to no avail. Stub-hub, never one of my go-to sites, showed obscene prices. My Stromae experience was over before it even began.

About 3 days before the show, a friend sent an email to me and a few others about how her friend was traveling to France and would miss the concert; she was traveling at the same time as well, so would anyone be interested in two tickets at the floor price? I was, and another person in the mailing list that I did not know at the time was, too. And that is how I landed up at the Fonda Theater that October night, maybe one of 10 non French-speaking people in the audience.

My ticket was for the balcony. I tried wheedling my way into the floor, but the security guard, normally more than willing to listen, was unrelenting. The floor was packed, the balcony was too. October in LA is not much different from August in LA, and the air-conditioning – even with an expensive beer – were not enough to quell that feeling of impending heat-related collapse. I found out that the Fonda had a terrace with turf carpeting. It was worth missing the opening act to sit under the stars and contemplate cutting and running. Yes, I was this close to just leaving.

I did not leave. I remember dancing like crazy. I remember a French girl in front of me who did not stop screaming, dancing and singing along throughout the show, and her American boyfriend awkwardly looked at her, shaking his head every time she asked him to dance. Douche. I remember being mesmerized by the strobe lights throbbing in time to the tribal drums of the opening song (it was ‘Ta Fete’, the first song in Racine Carrée), the crowd chanting along with the chorus. I remember the trippy animations that accompanied ‘Humain L’eau’, with its nutty, dissonant riff. Stromae taking the piss out of Americans and French people at the same time while talking about french fries (“They are not French and they are not American. They are from Belgium”), neatly seguing into the opening of “Moules Frites”. 2The guy had a bum leg, and still managed to dance around like a maniac. He was a bonafide star, I kid you not. If it sounds like I have a gigantic man-crush, yes, I am not denying it.

It was the first concert where the artiste thanked nearly every member of his crew, from the light-man to the costume designer to the chaffeurs. It was one of the craziest encores I had seen in a while. From collapsing on stage while performing the gut-wrenching “Formidable”, to being carried in like a stiff mannequin for ‘Papaoutai’; from singing an acapella version of the rendezvous song with all the musicians (‘Tous les mêmes’ is the title), sans microphones, and with the entire audience shushing each other, to just being plain fucking awesome, Stromae did it all. He promised to be back in LA in 2015, and that is one show I won’t miss this year.

Racine Carrée has been a constant on my play queue in the second half of the year. It is not just the music. The videos – good lord, the videos are incredible. They also come with sub-titles, an added bonus, and it becomes clearer why this guy is such a phenomenon in Francophone countries. ‘Formidable’ was shot guerilla-style at a Brussels tram station; Stromae appeared drunk, incoherently shouting at passersby, later accosted by policemen who tell him they are big fans and ask if they should drop him home. ‘Ta fete’ shows him at his flamboyant best, overseeing a gladiatorial contest in a get-up that comes with a beret, trenchcoat and a microphone cane, how cool is that? ‘Tous les mêmes’ has him in drag, playing both the male and female adversaries in an eternal war of the sexes, that culminates in a dance-off. It also showcases Stromae’s complete unself-consciousness in front of the camera; one minute, he is a rakish nose-picking boor, grabbing at his girlfriend’s ass while heading out the door; the other, he is a seething woman remonstrating her boyfriend’s lack of interest in her.

The crowd-pleaser of the album is undoubtedly ‘Papaoutai’ (“Where are you, papa?”), which is ironic considering that this has the saddest setting ever. A kid tries to engage with a glassy-eyed mannequin of a father while other kids have their real dads with them. “Everybody knows how to make babies/ but nobody knows how to make papas. Mister know-it-all would have inherited it, that’s it/he probably learnt it while sucking his thumbs”, says the lyrics as the song jumps from sadness to anger to resignation, even as it pulsates with thumping beat and a chorus worthy of hosannas. I find the tone of the song- and Stromae’s delivery of these lyrics – reminiscent of some of Eminem’s best work. Is it worth noting that the artiste’s father – a Rwandan architect who later died in the 1994 genocide in his home country – was absent for most of his childhood?


  1. Fun fact: Renato Carosone’s Sicilian original plays in a scene in the George Clooney movie ‘The American’, which I watched recently. The song plays on the TV when the actor is sitting down for dinner at a cafe. That brought back memories of my first week in Romania, when in my third visit to a pizzeria near my apartment, I noticed that everybody in the place had gone quiet and were pretending not to glance at me. A quick look at the TV, and I realized why – Raj Kapoor’s Awaara was playing on national TV, with subtitles. “Vagabondul”, remarked the waiter as everyone, myself included, broke into laughter.
  2. Obviously, I did not know the song titles back then, it was only afterwards, when I got into the album with the intent of reliving the sounds I heard in the concert that I was able to figure out which song was what.
Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: Ariana Hall, Live At The Hotel Cafe

The Hotel Cafe, located on Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, is an odd little place. You’re supposed to enter around the back, and they don’t card you when going in – or maybe I just looked over 21. You walk inside, pass through a corridor – a door to the side says “Performers only” –  and enter the main hall. There is a stage inside, and six tables close to it, a bunch of chairs clustered around them. That’s it, six tables.  And a bar. And you ponder why this place is considered one of the best music venues in the US, popular enough to warrant its own nationwide tour. A look at previous lineups reveals names like KT Tunstall, Imogen Heap, John Mayer, Weezer and Badly Drawn Boy have played there before.

Oh, and they have a really funny FAQ page.

I was there last evening because pals Amy and Andrew told me about Ariana Hall performing there. Both of them knew Ariana personally, and I had met her before through them. We had a nice dinner together, all four of us, at her place last November, one night before she was due to leave for a tour. While I had heard her CD before, I had never seen her perform. Andrew wasn’t able to make it last evening, but Amy and I decided to go. We bus-ed it to Hollywood. Reached early, strolled along Hollywood Boulevard to the venue.

It’s nearly a year since I’ve been in LA, but going down the the Walk of Fame, seeing the bronze stars engraved in the sidewalk below my feet – known and unknown names on them – still feels surreal. I subconsciously try to avoid walking on the stars themselves, it feels kind of disrespectful. I think the day I begin walking on them is the day I stop making a big deal of being in LA. Don’t want that to happen.

We decided to pop into Umami Burgers, where I ordered an Earth burger. Yes, vegetarian, don’t ask. On the patio outside, they were screening ‘Back to the Future II’ for a bunch of fans – the lovely LA weather made it a beautiful night. The food, though meat-deprived, was delicious.

Done with dinner, we arrived at Hotel Cafe to find all the tables taken, just as the reviewer on Yelp had said (“get there early. Or be prepared to stand around holding your beer”). I tried scouting for a strategic location to do just that, but Amy miraculously managed two chairs around a table where a single lady was sitting. A pretty waitress came by – I liked the way she asked “you guys ok?”, instead of “what can I get you?” We were, but I ordered a Corona anyway.

There was someone already on stage – a pretty lady with a guitar, singing sad love songs, with the right amount of humor in between (“That was supposed to be a downer”, she quipped, when the audience whooped in appreciation after a song). Her name, I found out later when looking up the calendar, was Brooke Northrop. She’s pretty darn good – listen to ‘Room to Breathe’ on her page. “Just wait till Ariana starts”, Amy whispered, noticing my reactions.  Hmm, talk about expectation-buildup. Brooke finished her set with a Ben Folds cover, and the crowd suddenly began to swell. In about 4 minutes, there were four taps on my shoulder, people asking if I was staying for the next show. Oh yes, I was, thank you.

Amy was right. Ariana live knocked my socks off. She started with ‘Mmm(I Like You)’. I had heard the song before on her website, and it did not do much for me. But live, stripped of the violin and the bells and with just a voice and a guitar, the song bubbled with delicious passion. For the next bunch of songs, a bunch of musicians joined her – a guitarist and occasional banjo/ukulele player, a drummer and a bassist switching between a double bass and an electric bass guitar. Ariana herself switched between the guitar and the piano. Most of the songs she sang were original compositions, some of them were co-written, and nearly all of them were like gut-punches that made me grin like an idiot.

The positive response from the audience was tremendous. At one point, it felt like Ariana knew everyone in there; knowing her, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched. One of the songs that stood out for me was  a musical interpretation of a Tony Barnstone poem called ‘The War is Over’, because of the playful way it began, and the words. Umm, not that I knew who Tony Barnstone was before Ariana mentioned the source, his book Tongue of War, a collection of poems on World War IIAnother song had the musicians step away from the microphones to go totally unplugged, made possible only because of the intimacy the venue offered. Every note, every strum rang clearly through the hall, and the applause at the end of it was impressive. Amy’s whoops, for the record, put everyone else’s to shame. I tried matching up, but a recent cold had soaked away my vocal chords. Ariana went on to play one of her songs from the movie Au Pair Kansas, and ended her set with a two-song medley, one of which was from an upcoming Judd Apatow movie. (Where she sings. And plays herself. This woman is unstoppable.)

At the end of it all, Ariana sang out her thank-you’s, but we did not let her go that easy. She wrapped it up with a single-song encore – which I found a bit of a downer, but hey, you can’t have it all. I’ve decided I like Hotel Cafe a lot, and apparently the Pierces are playing there on January 17th. For the $15 admission fee and the kind of vibe about the place, it’s totally worth the price of admission. I am so there.

Then I got back home and ironed clothes until 2 AM, with ‘Mmm (I Like You) playing in my head.


(Not from yesterday, but a good live performance of the song by her. Ignore the noise of the crowd.)

Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: The Tune-yards, Live at the Music Box

I missed the Tune-yards when they performed at the Troubadour this July. The show was sold out, and I was not clued in yet to the complex rituals of obtaining second-hand tickets to LA concerts. Thankfully, Merrill Garbus was back in town four months later, and last Wednesday, I found myself part of the pandemonium that accompanied her Music Box performance.

Seriously, I run out of superlatives.

Picture this. Two opening sets have come and gone. The first, Pat Jordache – and what appeared to be four of his family members accompanying him on instruments, always interesting to see family bands together – had catchy hooks and a very disquieting vocal palette. (Track of note: ‘Phantom Limbs’) The second was turntablist Cut Chemist, previously known for his work with DJ Shadow and Ozomatli, who got everyone grooving to his percussion-hopping, genre-squishing vinyl shenanigans. And then Merrill comes on stage, wearing a purple dress with green papier-machey necklace and a cheerful smile that appears completely at odds with the warpaint on her face. She closes her eyes briefly, and then launches into a 3-minute vocal outburst that is part yodel, part gutteral wail, part ritualistic war-cry. The crowd roars with her. She finishes , the band has slid into positions, and they launch into the thumping ‘My Country’. The song is a propulsive, celebratory melody that made me want to run around the house, shrieking with glee, when I first heard it early this year. Hearing it live makes me grin like a maniac and frantically try record it on the phone. The band clangs on pans and utensils to get the chaotic feel of the song just right, Merrill’s voice is powerful enough to make chandeliers sway and hair stand on end. The synth line comes in, I give up futile attempts to record for posterity and just give myself up to the music.



Merrill, on stage, is funny, whimsical and so totally at ease with the complicated loops she creates on the fly, multi-layered textures of her voice for different phrases in the songs. She switches between drumsticks and a ukelele – the second ukelele performance I had seen that week, more on that later. Some of the drum loops – especially the bass thumps – are pre-programmed (I think), with the fill-ins layered by her live, and at times she even hits her microphone stand to get the right sound. The other musicians include a bassist and occasional knob-twiddler, and a saxophonist and a trumpeteer. Nothing fancy, but the overall effect is one of an insanely well-coordinated outfit that knows how to gut-punch the crowd.

Cut Chemist comes out again, joining the band on ‘Gangsta’, overlaying the song – already a catchy number – with a delicious scratch-track. Pure fucking magic. One of the best concerts I’ve seen so far, and I’ve seen pretty great bands this year. When the Tune-yards are coming back to LA – and they most definitely are – I am going again. Yes, it’s that good a band.