Christine Bovill’s Paris show at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh tonight brought the spirit of “Chansons Francaises” to the Edinburgh stage with a collection of songs from the classic 1920s to 1950s period (and a little foray into the 1960s at times). With informative insights into the history behind many of these songs, Christine introduced us to some of the greatest names in French songwriting when writers and performers of the status of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Barbara, Juliet Greco, Charles Aznavour, Claude Francois, Charles Trenet, Gilbert Becaud, Charles Dumont, Georges Moustaki, Michel Rivgauche and others created an amazing body of works that to me embodies the arts of songwriting and performance at their very peak.
What made these songs so special that they are still entangled into the very core of “Being French” to many French people today? There is no one answer to this question – performances of them by greats like Barbara, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour are certainly part of the story, but there is something else at work here - the songwriting is outstanding. Words are the very core of the foundations upon which these songs are built, and their use in rhythm, language and phrasing is very French (this changes in approach when Rock’n’Roll comes along and the English language approach to songwriting starts to take over). The only body of work out there at the time rivalling this period of “Chansons Francaises” is “The Great American Songbook”, but for me, the French one is always far superior in the way that it uses words and song to often look at the darker and seedier aspects of life and relationships that its cleaner counterpart would not dare to go near.
For anyone singing these songs to a largely non French speaking audience there is always going to be a potential language barrier, so there are limited options to deal with this problem. You can just ignore the problem and sing everything in French, or you can sing the often better known English language version. The latter creates its own problems too as the translation often has subtle but important differences and of course loses the original poetry and phonetic rhyming of the originals. Sometimes too, our better known English language version is a completely new lyric with no relation whatsoever to the French lyric, written over the original melody. Christine Bovill adopts a safe course here in these shows by combining all these options to make the songs as accessible as possible to her audience. These songs however often need little to be done with them. These songs were so well written that they often created little moments in time of peoples lives and captured it forever. Somehow, no matter what language Christine is singing in, the spirit of these songs tells its own story.
With a show that has the musical scope of “Paris”, Christine is always going to have to skim along the surface of this huge catalogue of work to condense things into the running time of the show. Along the way, there are songs that are impossible to avoid as audiences simply expect them to be there –Edith Piaf’s now immortal “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” being one of them. Christine Bovill’s Paris is a fluid show that changes its set list constantly, and there are always new songs going in and others coming out. For me, that tonight meant not having my favourite Edith Piaf song of all in the set list, one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, the amazing “Hymne à l'amour”. That disappointment was balanced by Christine’s version of a song I do not hear too often – "Comme d'Habitude” by Claude Francois (co-written with Gilles Thibaut and Jacques Revaux). This is a wonderful song about a couple at a very difficult moment in their relationship, and it has references to Claude’s own relationship to singer France Gall in its lyric too. The original song is not that well known outside of France, but songwriter Paul Anka heard the song, made arrangements to purchase the melody, wrote a completely new lyric over the melody for a song with Frank Sinatra as the performing artist in mind, and gave to the world one of the best known and most recorded songs of all time - “My Way”. I still think the original subject matter far better suited the melody. We got both versions for the price of one here.
Another song best known to English language listeners in its completely different lyric form was in the set, and one of my all time favourites –“Let It Be Me”. The English lyrics by Manny Curtis are probably best known to many by the classic version by The Everly Brothers. This version has a special place in Christine’s heart along with the original version “Je t'appartiens” by Gilbert Becaud. The original is simply a submissive hymn to God, but the English language version is a great song too.
Nice also to hear Christine paying tribute to possibly the only female singer ever to come close to Edith Piaf, the very individual and iconic “Barbara” with one of her more “abstract" songs -“L'Homme En Habit Rouge”. I have to admit that Christine Bovill is responsible for me finding this awesome talent, and other Barbara songs like” L’Aigle Noir” and “La Solitude” are now haunting me too.
I’ve only covered a few of the many songs in this set as it changes show by show, and to be honest, the set list is almost secondary here as it is the very spirit of these amazing songs that is important, and that very spirit of “Chansons Francaises” is what seems to almost possess Christine Bovill as they are performed. Every Christine Bovill performance is a performance from the heart, and there is no other way to sing any of these songs; try it and you will simply fail. That may seem a blunt statement, but in the wrong hands these songs can become words only. They are wonderful words creating a world of magic in their own right, but when the perfect performer like Christine Bovill comes along who truly understands them, then both words and performer take on a new magic together.
One day I hope (hint) that Christine strays a little later than usual date wise for her set and manages to fit in one of my favourites –“Le Premier Pas” by Claude Michel Schönberg.
Any Christine Bovill show that I have been to is a simple and basic format. Christine on vocals, usually a pianist, maybe one other instrumentalist, and that is all these songs need. The very special acoustics of The Queen’s Hall are just a perfect venue for this type of performance too. Accompanying Christine on stage tonight were the always impressive Michael Brawley on piano and Charlie Stewart on double bass and fiddle. Charlie was Young Traditional Musician of the Year (BBC Radio Scotland) 2017.
You can keep up to date with what Christine Bovill is doing at
Talking of dates, Christine will be back in Edinburgh for some Fringe 2018 performances and one pre-Fringe performance. Details are below
Sun 5 Aug, 8pm - PIAF - Fringe by the Sea
Fringe - New Town Theatre, 21:10pm
PIAF - 13 & 20 Aug
PARIS - 14 & 21 Aug
If you are thinking of going to any of these shows, my advice is book your ticket as early as possible as demand is always high for them.
Review by Tom King