Oxygène “Unplugged”

One of the major criticisms of Jean Michel Jarre made by those who don’t usually listen to him much, like achingly cooler-than-thou music journos, is that his performances are dominated by the visual element, mainly to distract from the fact that the music itself is just too dull to stand alone.

Anyone who holds to that received wisdom should have been at the Albert Hall on Sunday. This was the fifth time I’ve seen JMJ perform and each time has been different: Docklands in 1998, with its industrial grandiosity; Maine Road Manchester, with its joie de vivre and summery party atmosphere; Manchester again on the Oxygène 7-13 tour in 1997 where he played arenas for the first time; Aero in Denmark with its rain and windmills and sense of wide open space, and then this show, which was smaller, more intimate and more like a recital than a gig, though that is precisely because it was.

The reasons were plain: Jarre’s own introduction to the show (again, longer than he’s spent at any other show I’ve been to) talked about the venerable equipment he was using in orchestral terms, even describing them as “old ladies” and gave the evening a more “serious” air. Indeed, because of their age, the instruments needed to be tuned and warmed up first, which in itself was good, seeing just which things made which noises [Obviously, if like me you have already watched the DVD that goes with the reissue of Oxygène, then this will not be a surprise]. And then it was into the piece proper. Tonight the visuals were definitely relegated to the periphery, to allow the music to be centre stage.

I was in the gallery, so it meant that I didn’t have a great view of the stage itself. In fact I was standing directly behind the follow spot used to highlight JMJ at the beginning of the show in particular, seated in his rather distinctive chair stage right. The guy on the spot spent most of the evening fiddling with his phone and laptop

The sound was amazing, though.

My first real shock of the evening came at the start of Oxygène 2 when the first real basslines kicked in. This wasn’t just bass, it was bowel shaking. Literally. I could fell bits of my body (and the building) rumbling. It was acoustically by far the best JMJ show I’ve seen, with no loss of resolution or definition in the music within any range. The bass was a major feature of the evening. It was mesmeric. You could understand why he is sometimes credited with a having a guiding hand in the evolution of trance.

The only real visual quirk for most of the show was a mirror, suspended to allow the audience to see the musicians working from above. I suspect the view was a little better from floor level, though it was perfectly acceptable from where I stood in the gods. Audience reaction was great too, acknowledging where right, but allowing the musicians to actually play without undue distraction.

My only (and it was only slight) disappointment came in Oxygène 5, which I love. The bass line for this piece has a droning, hypnotic quality that I adore and was eagerly anticipating. Oddly though, it sounded a little less punchy than I personally would have liked. But this is a minor quibble.

The most visual parts of the evening were left till last, with Oxygène 6 being accompanied by a fly-through onscreen of the album’s cover, then by an abstract that went with the final “variation” piece that followed.

Then, as a very pleasant surprise, came Oxygène 12, together with its attendant movie, which I loved first time I saw it in 1997 and am still enjoy watching even now. Then, all too soon came Oxygène 13, dedicated to “the one you love” and that was it.

The audience reaction was ecstatic, which just seemed in keeping with the atmosphere of the night. Everything fitted: the audience, the music, the players, the setting. Perfect.

The Guardian review was a shocker. Why bother sending a journo who clearly didn’t get the bloody point or even like the artist? And, oh what surprise, he threw in the hoary old ‘lift music’ cliché. Ah well, it wasn’t unexpected (or even original) because critically he can’t get arrested here now. Still, we enjoyed it and that’s what matters.


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