Jacques Brel aficionados Dead Belgian were praised from many quarters for their 2012 debut, Love & Death (read our review). This month they continue their ingenious and irresistible re-workings from Brel’s hugely influential repertoire with a five track E.P., Grand Jacques. Following the departure of vocalist/guitarist Fionnuala Dorrity, whose gritty and impassioned performance was an essential aspect of the band’s sound, their growing fan base were no doubt relieved to hear the void has been filled by none other than Brooke Sharkey. Brooke’s two E.P.s and debut album, One Dress, have brought attention to her considerable skill as a bi-lingual singer/songwriter, and her live performances leave audiences enraptured.
Typical of Dead Belgian’s expansive sound is the opening number; Grand Jacques (C’est Trop Facile). From Brel’s debut album, this rant against the church and the heart is resplendent with saxophone solos, brushed snares and rich backing vocals. Brooke Sharkey’s debut on lead vocals is a delight – crisp, clear and building almost imperceptibly from a soft, lulling opening to an enraged crescendo.
Jojo takes us forward to Brel’s final album and a song written in memory of his dearest friend. In this beautifully poetic English translation Sharkey delivers a whispered, fragile and heart-wrenching performance.
I’ll go back to nowhere clothed in your dreams / like an orphan happy to know I’m heading your way.
Jojo closes on a haunting knife-edge and leads to the dark, mysterious instrumental Mazurka Limouson, a gently flowing polka with an intricate accordion / saxophone duet and a ghostly chill in the backing vocals.
In Les Bourgeois (English version) Dead Belgian re-visit a number from Love & Death with a translation of Brel’s parody of the middle classes. Enjoying a fresh, lighter arrangement; Les Bourgeois is delivered with more than a hint of comic opera; and a performance in which you can almost hear Sharkey pouting, strutting and thrusting her chin.
Bookending the E.P. is the anti-thesis of the opening tirade against love and religion, Demain L’on Se Marie (Tomorrow We Will Marry) a celebration of love, full of hope for the future. It’s difficult to imagine a Brel song better suited to Brooke Sharkey’s style. A gently sighing vocal over a simple guitar arrangement fills the speakers with warm sunshine. This track has a far more laid back, uncomplicated structure than we’re used to with Dead Belgian. Its inclusion enhances their repertoire even further and closes the E.P. with a breath of spring.
There are several excellent reasons Grand Jacques works so well. Exceptional arrangements that exploit every talent of every performer to the full. Translations that, rather than simply convert songs from French to English, take the songs as a whole and skilfully adapt them for a new audience. And vocals that, whether delivered in French or English, entrance, delight and astound the listener. There’s also one over-riding reason – Dead Belgian bring the passion and grace of Brel’s songs to a modern audience like no one else can.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Friday 11th April – Mollington & Backton Village Hall, Cheshire
Saturday 12th April – The Met, Bury
Friday 25th April – The Kazimier, Liverpool
Saturday 26th April – Ye Olde Rose & Crown, London (E17)
Sunday 27th april – Baker Mamonova Gallery, Hastings
Friday 2nd May – Barbour Institute, Tatenhall
Saturday 10th May – Holmfirth Festival