The Park West was a newfound discovery on Wednesday evening, despite having a storied history dating back to the 1920s. The tales told moments earlier that it was a former gentleman's club were easily confirmed upon first sight with its sprawling domed ceiling and elegant black lounge couches dotted everywhere; balcony, floor, and under the stairs. Similarly the svelte Charlotte Gainsbourg made her historic Chicago premiere, despite a music career dating back to 1984 encouraged by her father, Serge Gainsbourg. For the unaccustomed, think of Serge as the Mick Jagger of Europe and you will understand the landmark status of this sylphlike songwriter.
Coming to Chicago for the second time ever, the last being 18 years ago for tourism, Charlotte was celebrating the release of IRM. The French acronym for MRI was ever present as her backing band swept onto the stage with the heartbeat pumping "IRM." The echoing samples of magnetic resonance imaging engulfed the cavernous venue, soaking into the plush noir cushions and subtly vibrating wine glasses. The contemplations over a 2007 cerebral hemorrhage were as haunting as ever, given new life on tour. "Master's Hands" shortly followed with its sing-song staccato over Eric Gardner's precise, concentrated drumming. Charlotte's delicate, breathy vocals were nearly whispers contrasted by Eric's massive bass drum perched aside the set. The fourth song of the night, the classy folk of "Me and Jane Doe," is as bare as Beck can get with acoustic guitar plucks wrapping around Charlotte's plain yet harmonious choruses.
The setlist was a rare showcase of a visibly shy singer, stretching to her songwriting with Jarvis Cocker to exceptional covers of her father's timeless tracks. The delivery, although delayed in being performed live, felt like a time capsule opened and pulling the public back ten, twenty, thirty years in the past-not mentioning the Park West's giant disco ball above. Charlotte's loose, pacifying voice was encircled by a backing band hand-picked by Beck. The aforementioned Eric was accompanied by Bram Inscore (bass), Amir Yaghami (violin, guitar, percussion), Brian LeBarton (keyboards) and Nicole Morier (guitar, percussion). The passionate precision exuded a subdued mastery little seen in concerts, as with "Greenwich Mean Time" that evening. The calculated funk over a garage fuzzed vocals left the mixed anglo-franco audience jouncing and bobbing, much as when "Dandelion"'s blues driven guitar washed through. Nicole Morier's guitarwork exuded the classic 1970's vintage cool, straightforward and determinate without a hint of trying on the track seemingly orchestrated for the Second City.
The evening also unveiled an overhauled "Le Chat du Café des Artistes," which changed from a folksy soundtrack to a noir film to incorporating a complex, funky production out of the mind of Beck. "Trick Pony," a personal favorite, ended the main set with Charlotte's featherlight voice leadened by Eric's mallet drumming and Nicole's grungy guitar. Yet the undeniable moment came when she timidly introduced a cover of her father's "L'Hôtel Particular," stemming from "a beautiful repertoire of songs." As if her debut show in Chicago was not enough, she charmed the French and English crowd-goers with the first cover performance of the track. The moment transported Lincoln Park to 1971 as her punctuated vocals held the same mesmerization as the original, albeit not as deep and throaty as her father's.
The evening's encore closed with Serge's "Couleur Café," after cheering and calling out (although I had been expecting the French "une autre" instead of "encore" given hearing "C'est génial Charlotte!"/"This is amazing Charlotte!"). The lively track stirred the entire venue to life with people singing or dancing to the chorus; a celebratory ending to such an earnest, shy first performance. In a night full of firsts, Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance affirmed her charm over singing, an enchantment far more vibrant and elaborate than anything you would hear on a mere vinyl or album. She perfected a passion through her performance.