I’ve witnessed some effective starts to live shows lately, with the arrival of Mélanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer to the stage at The Gorilla particularly jaw-dropping.
The price of the drinks already had me a little dazed, but this was a far more inspiring moment, Nouvelle Vague’s vocalists descending the stairs from above the bar during a haunting introductory interpretation of Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’, Olivier Libaux’s sparse picked guitar and keyboard accompaniment from co-founder Marc Collin and the night’s other Vaguette, Mathieu Coupat, providing atmospheric backing.
It set the tone for a night which further confirmed this is no mere cover band with exotic gimmicks, the girls carefully threading through a packed dancefloor, Billy Currie, Chris Payne and Midge Ure’s New Romantic trail-blazer afforded fresh head-turning qualities, the five-piece all in place for the last verse and mournful playout.
This was as much a celebration of the music of Manchester as a 15th birthday party for our visitors, their wondrous mix of punk, new wave and synthpop compelling throughout, the vocals blending achingly on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the beauty of the original all the more apparent.
The harmonies impressed all night, while their theatrics also played a part, not least Phoebe’s hammy drug-addled moves on the Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, bringing plenty of smiles, a whole new side to a great track revealed.
This year I’ve already experienced fine tributes to Pete Shelley from Penetration and the Skids, and here was another inventive take, ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t‘ve)’ delivered in bossa nova sing-song style by these Gallic upstarts, yet every bit as respectful.
Lest we should worry that those selections were relatively mainstream, they dug deeper for Richard Hell & the Voidoids‘ ‘Blank Generation’, and – talking of less-reputable old school punk – the girls were tantalising on a measured yet outwardly-shambolic ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’, Jello Biafra’s sentiments reassigned. And for further illustration, Mélanie and Phoebe told us about a wild night in Newcastle just gone, letting us in on the secret that, ‘We’re not really too drunk’. Cue audience swoons.
There was even a little Doors-like keyboard from Mathieu to finish that number before a further slice of reinterpreted Mancunian musical heritage, Mélanie’s breathy ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ translating Morrissey’s miserable touch via her subtle delivery, helping us see it all from a different angle (et cetera).
Alternatively, The Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’ saw Phoebe vamp things up again, owning the stage as she buzzed and careered, preened and ultimately triumphed. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, technical shenanigans necessitating set rethinks, Mathieu switching to melodica for Lords of the New Church’s ‘Dance with Me’, something I’d written off as too goth-like now truly appreciated.
Olivier and the girls provided further raw material as we happily sang along to The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. Such a sublime number should arguably be out of bounds, yet they get away with it, radical in their own way, showcasing the deeper quality of John O’Neill’s songwriting.
Eventually, a bit of turning it off and turning it back on again seemed to do the trick, all well again in time for the Violent Femmes’ ‘Blister in the Sun’, another glorious post-punk anthem celebrated in alternative fashion, and duly appreciated, the audience again joining in on backing vocals.
We returned to pioneering electronica for a heartfelt ‘Enola Gay’, one of three selections from the band’s new collection, Rarities, OMD also getting a respectful Nouvelle Vague reshaping, a whole new spin put on an evocative track. And in a year when The Clash’s London Calling turns 40, the NV version of Paul Simonon’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ magnified the pull of the original.
By way of comparison, ‘Road to Nowhere’ was almost mainstream, but let’s not forget the Talking Heads’ arty roots, something deceptively simple really fairly complex beneath, another great choice. That said, Phoebe called a halt to the proceedings part-way in after a lyrical mix-up, the whole thing restarted when it didn’t really matter.
The inspired choices kept coming, first album closer ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ bringing out the true ambience and nuances of The Specials’ original, another four decade-old classic given new drunken life, head-spinning nights of youth painfully recalled.
Our French visitors rightly attract plenty of adoration, an especially-vociferous Dane out front sharing his love for the girls before Phoebe again sizzled with a sultry take on Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’.
And lest we’d forgotten where we were, they finished – lap of honour-like – with a rousing rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Ian Curtis’ pained lyric given a further compelling twist, this alternative regional anthem ringing out long after Mélanie and Phoebe’s stage exit.
They were easily persuaded to return, a reflective crafting of Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon’ – Liverpool’s mighty contribution to the ‘70s and ‘80s UK songbook again not forgotten – underlining that this is a project that could only have been successfully driven by true fans of great music.
And because this was chiefly about celebration, the band’s 2004 visit of Depeche Mode’s best commercial moment, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, seemed perfect, Vince Clarke’s pop craft shining through. The band appeared conflicted as to whether to return once more, a three-piece finish following (Phoebe and Marc staying backstage), Mélanie seeing us home with a gorgeous rendition of Tuxedomoon’s ‘In A Manner of Speaking’, the last of seven first LP selections on a night to remember, Parisian style.
For this website’s recent interview with Mélanie Pain, head here. For details of further Nouvelle Vague 2019 dates, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, follow her via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and check out her website.