On Wednesday night I drove to the airport to pick up my friend Yen. Yen and I “met” a few years back when I stumbled upon her blog while I was googling some information about Quebecoise singer, Isabelle Boulay. We’ve been chatting about France and French music ever since. When tickets went onsale for Isabelle Boulay’s latest tour and Yen snagged two front row seats to each of the shows in Montreal, she invited me to go with her. I was a little nervous about spending three days with Yen. Would we get along as well in person as we do in print? Turns out I had nothing to be worried about. We got along great. We never ran out of things to talk about, even with 10+ hours in the car.
Believe it or not, one thing we didn’t really agree on was music. Go figure! It’s not that Yen doesn’t like the stuff I like. She just has a smaller number of artists she pays attention to. She reasoned that part of this helps curb the expense. I can appreciate that. I drop an average of $100 on CDs every time I go to Canada and I’m always on the lookout for new stuff I’ll like. If I just stuck to new releases from a couple of favorites that would certainly cut things back. But I just don’t want to do that. I like being able to turn on the radio in Quebec (or France) and know what’s going on, know who’s who, and really “get” the scene. It’s hard to do from afar, but I do a pretty good job.
Appropriately, the first thing Yen and I did in town after checking into the hotel was hit up Archambault. The store on the corner of Saint Catherine and Berri streets (and conveniently across the street from our hotel) is the flagship store. It’s four floors of French media magic. CDs and fiction on the first floor, DVDs in the basement, non-fiction and youth on the second floor, sheet music and classical on the third floor. I could spend hours in there. HOURS, and I’m not exaggerating. I was excited to be going with Yen. All of my previous experience visiting Archambault has been with people who share no interest in francophone media. No one ever complains when I drag them there (especially my mom) but I still feel guilty about taking too long. Long story short, I hadn’t even been to all the floors of the Berri store yet when Yen told me she was “ready when you are” to go back to the hotel! She only left with one DVD and one CD. I left with one DVD and… five CDs. Honestly that’s tame for me. I decided to control myself. I tend to get carried away because procuring francophone music in the US is not as easy as walking into Best Buy. But really, there’s always next time. Quebec isn’t exactly going anywhere.
Here’s the part where I wax on about the stuff I bought. Feel free to skip this (very long) paragraph if you don’t care. But you should care. I like good stuff. 🙂 The DVD I bought is a movie I’ve never actually seen, but it was cheap and it’s supposed to be really good. It’s called Bon Cop Bad Cop, and it’s about two cops, one from Quebec, one from Ontario, who have to work together to solve a crime despite the language and cultural barrier they face. The movie switches back and forth between French and English. I first heard about this movie a couple of weeks ago when I was looking up the translation of some Quebecois slang and stumbled upon this thesis paper from a Concordia student that examines the effect of context and society when translating a text, specifically this movie! The thesis is a bajillion pages long so I haven’t read it all, but I’d like to. Maybe after I watch the movie. I bought two CDs whose music I actually had already in the form of mp3s acquired through less-than-legal sources (remember, I can’t get them any other way). But I’ve always wanted hard copies. I am a strange anomally in this digital world. I got Marie-Mai’s Inoxydable, and I also finally got Garou’s first album, Seul. I have picked up and put down that album on several occasions across two continents because I can never remember if I already own it. Not being able to keep track of your stuff might be the first sign of a problem. Just check me into “French Music Buyer’s Anonymous” already… Next up, I got Chimène Badi’s new Gospel and Soul album. She’s actually a France French artist, and this album has been on my Amazon.fr wishlist since I returned to the States. I was surprised to find it in Quebec. In the past, the shared language has never meant much in the way of shared music, but things are obviously changing. I also found the new Inna Modja album. She’s a Malian artist whose hit single “French Cancan” is huuuuge in France right now. It was even up for a Victoire (a French Grammy) this year. Ironically, both the Chimène Badi and Inna Modja albums are largely in English, but you can’t get either one of them in America. For a melting pot, we are a very narrow-minded people. Last, but certainly not least, I picked up the (now two years old) new album from Marc Dupré. Holy crap, how did I never discover this guy before!?! Marc Dupré has his hands in music all over Quebec. He produces a ton of stuff and he writes songs for lots of other artists. He’s also Celine Dion’s step son-in-law (married to René Angélil’s daughter, Anne-Marie). He actually co-wrote one of my favorite songs, Annie Villeneuve’s “Ce Soir,” with the man I previously called my “favorite French song-writer,” Jean-Francois Breau. I say “previously,” because I think Marc Dupré just took the crown. His latest album, Entre Deux Mondes is so fabulous. It’s just an honest-to-goodness pop/rock explosion. There’s a bit of an 80s thing going on (think Bryan Adams) which is probably what draws me to it. Check out “Pour qu’on se garde.” It’s my favorite.
Other than Archambault, there’s not much exciting around the hotel Yen and I were staying at, something we discovered when we tried to find a good place for dinner. We ended up at a little pub down the street where the food was decent, but boring. I had a turkey club. Très Quebecois, non? Non.
We actually chose the hotel because it was two blocks away from the Olympia Theatre, where Isabelle Boulay was performing. We made our way to the theatre about a half hour early which turned out to be a good thing because entering the venue was a very disorganized process. They were sending everyone in through a door that opened up to a large staircase that led down to the coat check area. The door into the theatre was around to the side. Most people, including Yen and I, were bypassing the staircase only to be told at the side door that coat check was obligatoire! Everyone pushed and shoved their way back around and downstairs. I was horrified to discover that the mandatory coat check cost a mandatory $3! How dare they force me to check my coat and then make me pay for it? I decided, right then and there, that I would certainly not be wearing a coat to the venue the following night. They would have my $3 once, but they would not have it again. Fast forward for a moment to the next night. As we stopped in the hotel to drop off our coats, I worried that Yen was having second thoughts. She added another layer to her street clothes, and I told her she didn’t have to leave her coat behind just because I did. But she was as stubborn and determined as I was, so she did it. Now, two blocks in 30-degree weather is nothing to my cold, New England blood. Afterall, I told Yen, I’ll go get the mail in a T-shirt back home. But my poor Georgian friend power-walked her way to the theatre in misery. When we arrived, all defiant and proud… there was no mandatory coat check that night. What the heck?! I should have said something to management right then and there, but I didn’t think of it in the ridiculousness of the moment. I do plan on writing a strongly worded letter to the theatre, particularly if I find out Yen caught pneumonia…
As we were waiting for the show to start, the older gentleman seated next to Yen overheard us talking to each other in English. “Excuse me,” he said. “I have to ask, you know the music tonight is in French? It is Isabelle Boulay?” We laughed. Of course, we knew it was in French and that it was Isabelle Boulay. We understood French. We were fans. We went on to have an amusing conversation with this man who was completely shocked to learn there were fans of Quebecois music living in America (“Just the two of us,” joked Yen.) He was particularly incredulous when we told him we had travelled all the way to Montreal exclusively to see the shows. Yen even had to show him her driver’s license to prove she really was from Atlanta. After the show, he was still talking about us. “My friends won’t believe it when I tell them I was sitting next to two Americans at the Isabelle Boulay show!”
The show itself was great. I think I have yet to run across a bad audio mix at a French or Quebecois concert. I think they make a special effort to balance the vocals and instruments because lyrics are so important to the francophone music culture. The lighting design of this show was also particularly gorgeous. More often than not, if you notice the lighting it’s because the lighting is bad. Good lighting usually doesn’t call attention to itself. But this show used lights in such an interesting, thoughtful way, lots of shadows and lines that created really beautiful effects. Isabelle Boulay wore a conservative black suit with black open-toed heels. If it weren’t for her red hair, she may have easily blended into the dark scenery. She sang a real mix of music, old and new, hers and others. Her career started out more pop-like, but her last few albums have gravitated distinctly toward country. In fact, the album this tour was promoting, Les Grands Espaces, features a duet with Dolly Parton. In addition to that song, “True Blue,” she also sang a handful of other English cover songs, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Etta James’s “At Last,” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis, obviously). The woman sitting next to me felt the need to sing along all night, even with the English songs that she didn’t really know the words to!
This was Isabelle’s first show in Quebec after returning from a French tour. She literally arrived in Canada the night before, and you could sense that her performance was a little off balance. Early in the set, she actually forgot the lyrics to the chorus of “Fin octobre, début novembre,” the new album’s lead single. But she laughed it off graciously and blamed the décalage (jetlag). She said a “big black curtain” came down on top of her and erased her memory. That infamous curtain resurfaced a few more times throughout the night, most noticeably when she forgot the setlist and tried to introduce the band one song too early!
Speaking of the band, they were a mutli-talented group, four men playing a mix of six different instruments: guitar, bass, drums, accordion, fiddle, and pedal steel. The latter was played by musical director, Martin Bachand. According to Isabelle, Martin actually married a fan he met at a show. The woman had spent the entire show looking at him instead of Isabelle. Isabelle, therefore, (jokingly) credits herself with the marriage and in return got Martin to agree to tour with her for the next 15 years gratuit (free). The catch: he agreed to play guitar for free. Pedal steel costs $40,000 extra!
Overall the show was enjoyable, but at times a little dull. Isabelle Boulay has a pure, smooth voice, like pouring maple syrup from a bottle. Her last two albums put me to sleep… but I mean that in a good way! Chansons pour les mois d’hiver (Songs for the Winter Months) is exactly what it sounds like it should be, the kind of music perfect for an afternoon by the fireplace with a cup of tea and a good book. It doesn’t translate well to a live show. Thankfully Isabelle really knows how to connect to an audience. I can’t speak for the people in the balcony, but sitting in the front row, I often felt like she was looking right into my eyes, singing to me. She also really knows how to craft a setlist. A few more of those sleepy songs would have been too much. My favorite moments of the night were when she sang two of her oldest, and biggest, hits, “Je t’oublierai, je t’oublierai” and “Parle-moi,” both more on the pop side of her repetoire.
When she came out for an encore, a woman in the back of the theatre yelled out “Muchas gracias!” prompting Isabelle to peform an unrehearsed Spanish song. She only made it through the first chorus, perhaps another black curtain of jetlag? She said she and the band hadn’t played that song in years so it was impressive they made it that far either way.
That’s it for night one. Stayed tuned for part two of my adventures in Montreal!