Jean Michel Jarre goes back to basics in more ways than one on his most recent tour of the seminal album Oxygene. But as he attempts to do it with all of the original instruments that recorded the work — some 40 pieces of classic gear — reliability issues will surely see the French synth pioneer hoist by his own petard, right? Mais non!
As you probably know, Jean Michel Jarre's live experience is normally hi-tech, high glamour, high cheese and definitely high profile. From lasers over London's Docklands, to breaking down the Bamboo Curtain playing China, to rocking millions at Houston and Disneyland, this is one man who knows how to put on shows of enormous significance and capacity. But for his most recent tour of the classic album Oxygene, Jarre has been toning down the glitz and glamour, toning down his on-stage frolicking, and going back to basics with the technology. Consequently, he's delivered the most personal, moving and arguably relevant performances of his career.
Tonight's crowd at Birmingham's Symphony Hall might not be of the capacity that Jarre is used to, but it's a packed venue and the atmosphere generated by said audience is what you might call electric, albeit backed up by occasional doses of the fawning adulation that Jarre seems to attract. The age range is surprisingly varied — from teenagers to pensioners — and there's a definite air of geekdom filling the venue, enhanced by the fact that the banks of classic keyboards are free for all to view on stage as the auditorium fills. Indeed, a few people wander to the stage to admire the rig and argue over its contents, no doubt right down to the actual serial numbers of the keyboards on offer. More of this synth spotting later, but suffice it to say that gone are the laser harps, gone are the gimmicks, there are no multi-tracks or computers in sight, and there are a lot of leads and, you get the impression, as many fingers being crossed backstage before the show too
Even before the gig starts you feel that, as well as it all being a more low-key affair, it's going to be far more intimate and consequently more real. As the crowd enters, expectation levels rise and reach a peak when an egg-shaped chair appears. Those 'in the know' realise that Jarre is sitting in it with his back to us (although it's pretty obvious to the rest, it has to be said), but when he spins around you'd think it took everyone by surprise, such are the whoops and cheers.
No backing tracks
Jarre explains that we're going to witness Oxygene played live with the original synths and sequencers from start to finish. No backing tracks, no computers, just untrustworthy machines whose unreliability might come to the fore to dramatic effect as the concert progresses. More whooping from a crowd that, frankly, wouldn't care if the machines short-circuited and spat molten electronics all over them. He goes on to explain that the problem with all of this old technology is, of course, that much of it doesn't stay in tune, so there follows a ten-minute tuning session that Jarre cleverly makes a part of the show. It's not exactly an orchestra tuning up as Jarre leaps from keyboard to keyboard to great effect, but if anything it only heightens expectations for the main event, which kicks off with barely an intro. As Oxygene Part I swims into earshot, so appears a sea of telephones recording what turns out to be one of the most visually stunning examples of technology you'll ever see on stage.
As we progress through the album, the first thing to hit you is the sound quality. There might be problems with the gear — that's a given — but that's not taken our attention away from the glorious sound that these old beasts can make. The rich analogue fatness is something that perhaps has been missing from our digital worlds, despite what soft synth manufacturers have been telling us. Make no mistake, though, what we are seeing and hearing tonight is the real deal. Can we ever go back to plug-ins?
It seems almost inevitable that we're talking about the synths again. And why not? Watching these machines — and we counted around 40 classic analogue instruments in action — actually being played really is something to behold. Each is lit and highlighted, seemingly from within, so that you can often spot more obviously which is being played. And Jarre, so often the showman, grinning, leaping and gurning around the stage in the past, seems happy on this occasion to play second fiddle to the synths, or, as he calls them, the 'old ladies' on stage around him. At one point he even tells us that he wouldn't be here without them with a sincerity that shows he really does believe it
What is happening on stage is then revealed to an astonishing degree as this worship of analogue synthesis reaches an even greater peak, fittingly during the 'hit' — Oxygene Part IV. A huge mirror lowers above the stage, turns 45 degrees to reveal Jarre and his 'band' from above in all of their 'really playing this and sequencing that' glory. Jarre's three fellow players — Dominique Perrier, Claude Samard and Francis Rimbert — are shown to be wrestling with at least half a dozen synths each, while Jarre himself parades between a square formation of around a dozen at the front. We can see them all play and we really can see it when those keyboards go wrong. And we can also hear the tuning issues, volume issues, and even phono plugs being accidentally disconnected. At one point, a mobile phone interferes with the sound. ("The concert in Birmingham went OK," says Jarre later in his blog, "except that Claude forgot to switch off his cell phone before the concert and we had a lot of interferences." That's told him then.) As each of these mistakes occur, the crowd looks around, smiling, because it really doesn't seem to matter. It surprises me, in fact, that the mistakes aren't applauded, such is the level of love from the crowd — and such is the realism that those mistakes add to the performance.
On we go through Oxygene, and Jarre adeptly orchestrates his moments of glory; at one time mastering the Theremin — a notoriously difficult instrument — another time grappling with a Doepfer ribbon controller, and yet another picking up his Moog Liberation for a spot of strap-on synth action. We work our way through the album, reaching Oxygene VI, and a huge 3D rendition of the album logo (a skull within the planet Earth) appears on screen behind the stage to remind us that the album was one of the first 'environmental' recordings ever made. Despite myself, it's quite a moving moment, especially as VI was always, to my mind, one of the unsung heroes of Oxygene.
|Dominique Perrier, Francis Rimbert, Jean Michel Jarre and Claude Samard.|
Encores follow as Jarre treats the crowd to several moments of ad-lib madness. The audience responds to the final moments with a standing ovation — even those with walking sticks — and you have to say that the night is a triumph of technology. Yes, of course the machines don't always play ball, but I'd go as far as to argue that such mechanical hiccups add to the impact of the night. The errors show that perhaps our refined technology, our computers on stage, our soft synths, our vast workstations, our backing tracks and all that outboard processing that has become such an essential part of today's live experience is sucking the very life out of what should be a 'live' performance. And behind it all there's an irony that a man regarded for his love of technology needed to return to synthesizers from the dawn of time to realise what it was that made him so great in the first place, and while doing so he has perhaps unwittingly taught us all a lesson in live performance. Tonight we've witnessed technology from the past telling us that today's perfection perhaps isn't so 'right' after all. Men and machines in imperfect harmony, you could say
Jean Michel Jarre: (centre right)
Moog Memorymoog with 2 x 'table-top' EMS Synthi As.
EMS Synthi AKS.
RMI Harmonic Synthesizer and Digisequencer, custom-built over a six-month period by a team of four engineers led by Michel Geiss in 1992.
Oberheim 2-Voice and OSC Oscar programmable monosynth.
2 x EMS VCS3s either side of an ARP 2600.
Eminent 310U and Roland Jupiter-4.
Yamaha CS80 and Alesis Andromeda A6.
Ribbon controller (Doepfer RM2) played live.
Dominique Perrier: (left)
Eminent 310U with Moog Voyager above.
Moog System 55.
Claude Samard: (centre)
Eminent 310U and Moog Minimoog.
Linn LM-1 and 2 x Keio Minipops 7 drum machines.
Moog Taurus MkI.
EMS Synthi A.
Moog Little Phatty and a Roland Juno 106 above.
Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus.
Francis Rimbert: (far right)
Eminent 310U and Roland Jupiter-8.
Sequential Circuits Prophet 5.
Korg PS3300 with Korg PS3100.
Pedals used by all include Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser and Electric Mistress flanger.
Jarre on Oxygene live
Jarre tells us why he dusted down the classics for one more road trip
"I did it with these very instruments, very specially made and by crazy guys," Jarre says about the recording of Oxygene, pointing to his on-stage setup. "All of these instruments can be compared to the Stradivarius of classical music or the Gibson Les Paul, or, say, the Fender Telecaster of the early '60s. They are absolutely unique in their sound, and I am here [hugely successful and playing Oxygene live] probably because of the mad creators who devised them. Actually, today is a dream, standing here in 2008, I [feel like] a violin player who is playing on an instrument that was devised four centuries ago. It proves that somehow people who have a special know-how with special secrets are able to create very sexy instruments."
Jarre adds that the other reason it's important that Oxygene is unleashed again in 2008 is that its original inspiration — that of environmental issues affecting the planet — is now very much at the fore in people's minds. "Another source of inspiration for Oxygene is the concept about the future of the planet," he says. "The title, the globe with the skull inside there weren't many of us thinking about the future of the planet [back then]. Here in the UK, you have been quite ahead of our times by being quite concerned about the future of the planet even 30 years ago, but nowadays the vision of Oxygene could almost be Al Gore's logo. It's the reason I'm so honoured to be playing and performing the music linked to our environment, our biosphere, and I have always been involved in environmental issues and the ecology in my music, and I am very happy to share that message."
And of his fellow players? "They are very good friends who all know the instruments and have a very special relationship with them. It's become a ritual on this tour before we start to tune these old ladies because they can be a bit difficult sometimes. We don't have any computers or anything on stage — it's a pure plug and play experience! Sometimes we might have accidents, but we share them!"