Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews
Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall
A full-bore, take-no-prisoners British headlining debut from French rock‘n’roll legend
The Royal Albert Hall is pretty big. It's a prestige venue, but everything is relative. For the overwhelmingly French audience, the first British headlining show by Johnny Hallyday was the equivalent of seeing Paul McCartney, Tom Jones and Cliff Richard sharing a bill at the back room of the Dog & Duck.
Hallyday is a stadium-packer in France and the French-registered cars and coaches parked around Kensington Gore testified that this was an international draw. He sang mostly in French, spoke in French and was, well, French, even though his music is very firmly a blues, soul and rock'n’roll stew.
Hallyday is wired into the mains of his inspirations, like a preacher
For most Brits, Hallyday is either a mystery or a gently sniggersome figure. The French Elvis? Oh yes, ha ha! Last night was more than an explanation of his very particular magic. It was a baptism, communion and exorcism. There’s nothing remotely tongue-in-cheek about Hallyday. This man is wired into the mains of his inspirations, like a preacher. The back projections said it all: handcuffs, knives spinning through the air, dice rolling, the cross hairs of a gun sight, the bars of cell, a roulette wheel – the iconography of life on the edge, one lived outside conventional rules.
His cowboy boots, studded trousers and Matelot jacket were almost welded on. Which was just as well, as his face looked fixed too. Even so, when the hands of the faithful in the front rows reached out, he broke into a smile. They had never got this close before. After taking a couple of swigs from a water bottle, he tossed it into the audience and people swelled up to catch it. Again, he smiled.
But without the music and his voice, this could never work. Beginning a two-hour performance with a roaring “Allumer le feu”, Hallyday arrived like a bulldozer. Thrusting like Otis Redding and straddling his mike stand, his voice sounded tremendous, emanating from his upper chest. He held notes just long enough for them to surrender to an earthquake-level vibrato. Powerful is the least of it.
The set cherry-picked highlights from across his career. A band featuring guitars, backing singers, a brass section, harmonica and two keyboard players meant anything could be accommodated. A “Que je t'aime” in which the audience ended up hijacking the verse and choruses, was the magnificent highlight. “Oh Marie”, a letter-in-song from World War I, was simple and filled with emotion. A sit-down, unplugged segment devoted to his early rock‘n’roll-era hits was effective, but highlighted that this most masculine of mature performers can never again be the kid inspired by Elvis and James Dean that he once was.
Hallyday is 69. He released his first record in 1960. As 1961 ended, he was anointed France’s King of Rock. Ever hip to what was going on, as the decade progressed he recorded with James Brown’s JBs, Small Faces and a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page. He was instrumental in providing a platform for Jimi Hendrix ("Hey Joe" was another high here). His guitarist since the mid-Nineties and current musical director is Robin Le Mesurier, son of John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques.
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