Nouvelle Vague hit the 9:30 stage on Sunday night, a rainy evening before the hurricane. A French band (as you may have guessed) and featuring rotating female singers, the band does quite a few cover songs, which is part of their schtick (from a loose Google translation, “transpose standard directory punk / new wave and (re) discover obscure titles more or less 80 years, offering an original rereading rooted in modernity“) One of their first songs Sunday night was “Blue Monday:” a great tune, an easy cover, not obscure, a cutesy beginning. But there was much more to this seven piece band (including one back up shadow dancer / singer). Their first few songs cascaded into a movement much bigger than I expected.
On one of the first songs, Zula the shadow dancer (and later, singer) sensually passed a wireless florescent bulb over the one of the two front women for that evening, Liset Alea. Zula caressed her with this piece of industrial equipment throughout the song, which was evocative, and sexual, but not incredibly sexy. It was the Brechtian approach to sex. In her tight black catsuit, Zula later had a slow dance between herself and that same skinny bulb, her eyes lit up variously from below and above and all around. Lighting and visuals in general turned out to be a pivotal part of the show. Sometimes it evoked water, sometimes blinding lightning. The band aspired to be a cosmic event, or at least a meteorological one rivaling the perfect storm about to hit the east coast.
They brought along a tiny melodica (also called a “blow organ” by the way), which while I understand is not strictly French, struck sounds that, for me, looped in imagery ala France (long fields of lavender in Provence) especially on a complex 60s-rock influenced ballad like “Master and Servant.” You may also be able to guess, from this title, this was one of the many ways Nouvelle Vague was coy. Teases, all of them! During a soft, airy song (evoking Sonic Youth), the audience was trained to sing “ba bum ba bum ba bum,” and when they did Liset Alea said, “Don’t stop!” Ho ho, Liset.
She and Melanie Pain also polled the audience on what to do if, ”no matter how many tutus you put on,” one couldn’t get over that certain someone. Pain said Canadians had a wonderful idea, “Fromage! Fromage.” The 9:30 Club, filled with an exponentially higher number of short men in leather jackets than usual (I wish I was kidding), suggested drinking, finding someone else, and other normal ideas. “In France, we have another solution,” she said, both singers giggling and drinking. They launched into “Ride My Bike,” while Zula rode around on a pink tricycle with foil streamers on the handles. Mon dieu!
Nouvelle Vague’s actual instrumentation felt alien and out of place at times, quiet and layered and multi-leveled. It was in style with the mishmash of a somewhat magically disjointed presentation- a strange echo of a synth underneath ambling bass and drums and the slowest count in French, their arrangement occasionally swelling and blaring coordinated with blinding white lights from above- but mostly, it was background for the singers. Well coordinated, well played, jazz-influenced, it was not meant to be the feature of the evening.
The band played a few new original songs, including “Precious.” Alea spoke with fervor, whispering, “There’s always a buzz, it’s like it doesn’t go away,” before launching into a lyrical sticking point, “I’m a human fly.” She also channeled her inner Janis Joplin, singing “What can I do, boys, boys, boys.” Before ending the show, Pain sang a wonderfully camp “Too Drunk to Fuck” (another NV original), stumbling around the stage while the band sloshed in the background, Alain and Zula feigned drinking from behind a lit screen, like some kind of bedroom farce drama. After Zula, begloved and lovely, did a somber performance of a song called “Forget America” in French, Pain asked the audience, “Do you want another one? No kidding, because we want another one too.” Their last song was also a cover of note, which they “improvised” on. All lined up at the edge of the stage, they pounded bongo drums, whisper beatboxed, growled, screeched and generally made a big mess. What they played was a simultaneously edgy and soft acoustic cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” To end the show, they took an arms-hooked-together theatrical bow. Tres bon, Nouvelle. Tres bon.