Bâton Bleu ‘Weird and Wonderful Tales’ CD (DixieFrog) 3/5

La belle France is not necessarily an obvious place for the blues to thrive (though historically expat American blues musicians such as Memphis Slim have positively thrived when performing and recording in France), but thrive it does with a duo that have soaked up the early folk-blues tradition. Bâton Bleu comprise Maria Laurent on vocals, banjo, guitar, Mongolian lute and flute and Gautier Deganot on vocals, thumb piano, bass harmonica and percussion. The music, primarily in English, has a folk-pop sensibility, and is heavily influenced by the French chanson tradition, with the corresponding soft delivery of vocals from Laurent, that is reflected in the reworking of a classic June Carter Cash song such as ‘Ring of Fire’, which here is taken at a slower tempo with the sole instrumentation of banjo to accompany the female lead. Both musicians deserve credit for trawling through the history of the folk-blues, listening to and taking on board the instrumentation of the seminal Harry Smith anthology and the guitar genius of John Fahey. That rubs off in various ways as with the multi-layered vocals and banjo of ‘Trouble All The Time’.

In places, the music is quite experimental, which takes some getting used to, but is definitely linked to the creative French way of thinking. More problematic are some of the vocals in English which are a little difficult to fathom as with ‘Sick Ship’ and ‘Buffalo 7’, where the distorted male lead vocal is a tad grating and the softer female vocals bring some welcome relief. It would not be out-of-place for both vocalists to incorporate some songs in their native French and French folk singers such as Maxime Le Forestier, Georges Moustaki and never forgetting the later and great Georges Brassens are excellent sources of material to rework.

This is a case of a brave and praiseworthy first effort that requires some refinement on the vocal front in English, but is certainly heading in the right direction from an instrumental perspective. As with perfecting any foreign language, spending time in the country of origin is indispensable and both members of Bâton Bleu would find that their mastery of the English language and ability to ad-lib comes on leaps and bounds with greater exposure to native speaker American voices as well as continuing listening to the original music. Full marks to DixieFrog for putting the music out there in the first place.

Tim Stenhouse