Jean Michel Jarre at Wembley Arena : Old School

>Let’s be honest, admitting to a liking for Jean Michel Jarre in the UK is about as cool as admitting you are a trainspotter these days. People look at you with the puzzled and rather pitying look they give to life’s losers, like West Brom (or Middlesbrough or Newcastle) fans. Music wonks are the worst of all, loftily preaching that Kraftwerk are obviously infinitely superior. However, any man who has spent time studying with both Schaeffer and Stockhausen is not to be sniffed at. So, I can say rather unironically that the music of Jean Michel Jarre has been a major part of my musical apprecation for pretty much all my adult life. Friday evening’s perfomance at Wembley Arena is the sixth time I’ve seen Jarre perform live (Docklands night 1, Maine Road Manchester 1993, Manchester Nynex 1997, Aero 2002 and Oxygène at the Royal Albert Hall last year are the others) and it was a surprisng experience in many ways.

This is not the first time that JMJ has undertaken an major arena tour. In 1997 he toured Europe with a show that contained many elements of his outdoor shows: lasers, projections; the whole nine yards. This time there were lasers, but gone were many of the accoutrements of earlier shows. Indeed, this time round the feeling was very much more like last year’s Oxygène excursions. There was little else in the way of visual garnish and that let the music speak for itself a bit more.

The opening of the gig left me feeling aurally underwhlemed though. JMJ dramatically appeared from a curtain of light to begin playing the opening number. Unfortunately, from my seat in the back top corner (stage left, block N9 for anyone familiar with Wembley Arena) Industrial Revolution 2 sounded way too loud, with a nasty muddy bass sound that dismayed me and drowned out everything else. This may have more to do with Wembley’s fairly ordinary acoustics and my own ears than with any setup problems given the amount of care taken with soundchecking. It fairly soon seemed fixed to me, however, and the sound quickly settled down and improved markedly to my ears. Magnetic Fields 1 sounded much, much better and things never looked back from that point.

In recent times, JMJ has had a tendency to tinker with his back catalogue somewhat, reworking older pieces like Equinoxe 7 in live shows to give them a more contemporary feel (see the versions that appear on the Aero album, for example). This wasn’t the case this time: this was Jarre old school, with many older analog synths on stage. The first proper indications of this came with old favourites Equinoxe 7 and Oxygène 2, which sounded like I hadn’t heard them played for a very long time.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a JMJ show without the laser harp. This time, the instrument looked a lot like the set-up from the 1997 tour, and still sounded great on the old favourite Rendez vous 3. Oxygène 12 sounded wonderful, but I missed the movie that has accompanied it in its live outings since 1997. The time lapse photography it contains really adds something to the music.

Magnetic Fields 2 was quite simply the very best live version I’ve heard of one of my favourite Jarre pieces (better even that the superb version in Paris in 1990, a gig I still regret missing). It was so good it had the hairs on the back of my neck rigid and a big silly grin plastered all over my face. This alone was worth the ticket for me. It was also the first time Equinoxe 5 has poked its head over the parapet in a live setting for a while. The juxtaposition of part 4 and 5 sounded fabulous and 5 itself was a treat. It also served to up the ante for Chronologie 6 and 2. They didn’t disappoint!

Clearly there had to be an encore, because he hadn’t even wheeled the really big guns out yet. And obviously, as soon as you hear those five notes, you know what’s coming. The crowd did and gave him a huge roar for his pains.

It was at this point that JMJ talked a little about his recently deceased father, with whom he had a famously distant and sometimes strained relationship. Calypso 3 was apparently written in London at a time of rapprochement with Maurice Jarre and it was this that was played next. I liked the sentiment, even though it is actually my least favourite thing on Waiting for Cousteau. I don’t dislike it, I just like 1 and 2 more. Finally then, came Rendez vous 2, a piece that I am usually rather ambivalent to. I’ve always found it overly bombastic and plodding for my taste, though with some things melodically to enjoy. But not this time: it was punchy, driven and played with real energy. And the laser harp section was played by a Jarre clearly enjoying the evening.

He even managed a second encore, coming out for an Oxygène 4 reprise and a quick blast of the opener before taking his leave for the evening.

This is, in fact, the best live show I’ve seen Jean Michel Jarre play for ages. The four men on stage looked like they were genuinely having some fun and the audience did feed off this, even up in the gods where I sat. The guy dancing in block N8 was an additional treat, especially when he was seemingly conducting along to RV2. Taking Oxygène out live again last year seems to have given JMJ a new lease of life, ditching most of the gimmickry and providing a show full of things that fans will love, including some things not heard for a while. The one thing that was noticeable though, is that there was nothing in there (aside from Oxygène variation III) from after 1997, and nothing from Zoolook either. This was sad, because a Zoolookolgie like 1990’s La Défense version would have gone down a storm here amongst fans who truly get it. Still, you can’t have everything, and this was a really special night and a great show.

Set List:

  1. Industrial Revolution 2
  2. Magenetic Fields 1
  3. Equinoxe 7
  4. Oxygène 2
  5. Rendez vous 3
  6. Oxygène 12
  7. Souvenir of China
  8. Magnetic Fields 2
  9. Oxygène 5
  10. Oxygène Variation III
  11. Equinoxe 4
  12. Equinoxe 5
  13. Chronologie 6
  14. Chronologie 2

Encore 1:

  1. Oxygène 4
  2. Calypso 3
  3. Rendez vous 2

Encore 2:

  1. Oxygène 4
  2. Industrial Revolution 2 (outro)

PS: Caroline Sullivan in the Guardian on Monday May 25. Were you actually there? I don’t seem to recall Equinoxe 1 even being played. Still, it’s one more star than the Oxygène tour got last year, with almost the same review. Isn’t that nice? This review in the Scotsman was far nicer. It was nice to actually hear a British writer say it too.

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