Michel Polnareff ‘A L’Olympia 2016’ 2CD + Limited edition 3CD/4LP (Blue Wrasse) 5/5

Among the genuine French pop musicians who came to prominence in the mid-1960s, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy are generally considered to be the most successful and ones genuinely capable of rivaling their British counterparts. However, one name is missing from that list and that is Michel Polnareff, nicknamed ‘L’Amiral’ (‘Admiral’) with his trademark white sunglasses and outlandish dress sense. His eponymous 1967 debut recording became a cult classic, with ‘Love me, please love me’ capturing the flavour of late 1960s Paris, and indeed Polnareff continued into the early 1970s. At which point, he decided to move ship to the west coast of the United States and stopped recording altogether. Thirty-five years later in the mid-noughties, he made a well publicised come back tour with a series of ten concerts at Bercy in March 2007 and culminating late that year on 14 July with a concert in front of the Eiffel Tower. This more recent concert captures him live at the prestigious Olympia venue once again on Bastille Day 2016, the very same day as tragic events unfolded in Nice.
Available in multiple formats (a slimmed down single CD also exists, but the more generally available 2CD contains the entire two and a half hour concert), some have noted that the concert unfolds more in the manner of a documentary on Polnareff than the standard ‘Best of’ repertoire and for those who can understand beyond basic level French, there is an amazing and close rapport between singer and audience. To be precise, Michel Polnareff is a gifted singer-songwriter who has an ear for sensitive melodies as well as more uptempo material. However, he became seriously ill during 2016 and at one stage it was feared he would not make a recovery. Thankfully he did, and another overriding impression of this concert is of someone who is simply happy to still be alive and making quality music. What a non-French audience will have to understand is that while the lyrics and content are French, Polnareff has soaked up diverse American musical influences while resident there and thus elements of gospel, soul, blues and rock all enter into his musical universe. That he is well respected among British musicians is indicated by the presence on his debut album in 1967 of a young Jimmy Page (then with the Yardbirds) and of future fellow Led Zepplin bassist John Paul Jones. For the concert, several current American musicians make up his band including bassist Reggie McBride.

From the early period of his singing, the soulful groove of, ‘Sous quelle étoile suis-je né?’ (‘Under what star was I born?’) reveals an angelic voice and a sensitive keyboardist who, at various stages, solos at length and improvises on his most memorable themes. Polnareff has clearly spent a good deal of time listening to harmonies and the female background vocalists provide wonderful support throughout, but no more beautifully than on, ‘Qui a tué grand’Maman?’ (‘Who killed grandma?’).

Sometimes the rock element can become a little too prominent for this writer as on ‘Tam-Tam’, or ‘Dans la rue’, which felt like gatecrashing a party to which one was never invited. However, there is so much to admire elsewhere that the odd rock guitar can be accommodated. The sheer musicality of the songs comes shining through on several songs and is illustrated on, ‘Goodbye Marylou’ and the lovely piano riff to, ‘Ame Câline’, which is ideal singer-songwriter terrain. Jerry Lee Lewis and early rock ‘n’ roll must have been a seminal influence on the young Polnareff and the mixture of early rock and even boogie-woogie surfaces on, ‘Impro piano’, while the singer is in playful mood on the wordless, ‘Tbili’. A medley of his own composition, ‘Je t’aime’ with the late Prince’s, ‘Purple Rain’, is an unexpected surprise that actually works and the laid back groove of, ‘Holidays’, has a Californian flavour with falsetto vocals that again conjur up the sound of angels.

The concert proper ends with an encore of three songs of which ‘Hey you woman’ is sung by those stunning female vocal harmonies plus a funk-tinged Marcus Miller bass solo from McBride before Polnareff finally enters. A picture postcard French tradition singer he is not. However, if you can accept the authentic American influences in his music, then listening to Michel Polnareff in a live context will prove to be a truly thrilling experience.

Tim Stenhouse