sat 22/09/2018

Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall

Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall

A full-bore, take-no-prisoners British headlining debut from French rock‘n’roll legend

The seemingly indestructible Johnny Hallyday contemplates les rosbifs

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.

Yet Hallyday has never focused on les rosbifs, even if Melvyn Bragg dedicated a South Bank Show to him in 2004 after his well-reviewed appearance in the 2002 film L’Homme du train while Radio Two broadcast a documentary series on him in 2008. In France, he played what was advertised as his farewell tour in 2009, but that was curtailed when complications in surgery led to him being put into a medically induced coma. Now, here he was after playing Paris’ massive Stade de France and being hospitalised in August with heart problems. Seemingly, he is indestructible. He will see Cliff and Tom Jones off.

Hallyday has never embraced musical restraint. His current album, Jamais Seul, is a gale-force collection of guitar-centric songs that rock. Hard. Even the ballads. He could teach Jack White a thing or two. The album’s closer, “England”, declares “La musique is in England / You understand”. After this concert, it’s impossible not to.

President Chirac awarded Hallyday France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, in 1997. Fifteen years later, on the evidence of this performance, that’s not enough. Hallyday deserves a special one-off award. It could only be called Le Johnny.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Johnny Hallyday performs Jamais Seul’s Jimi Hendrix tribute “Guitar Hero”

Last night was more than an explanation of Hallyday's very particular magic. It was a baptism, communion and exorcism

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Editor Rating: 
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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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