Review: Caravan Palace @ Albert Hall, Manchester

Caravan Palace kept the continental fire alive in a blazing set at the Albert Hall in Manchester on Friday.

Let’s be frank, January 31 was not necessarily a great day for the United Kingdom. After years of prevarication, many deeply unpleasant feelings bubbled to the surface like a scum. Notices in apartment blocks informing residents to speak only English circulated on social media. The usual to-ing and fro-ing in the streets ground on, most now largely numbed to the vitriol being exchanged.

In the midst of all this anger and sadness, it is easy to define our former relationship in purely economic terms, forgetting some of the more joyful elements of our cousins across the Channel.

On Friday, Caravan Palace gave Manchester a small taste of the verve and energy of the contemporary French music scene.

Caravan Palace are one of several impossibly chic French acts to break into the UK scene over the last few years. Their style is rooted in electronic music, with heavy use of samples and drum machines to create an intense, thick sound which fills the striking space at the Albert Hall.

Whilst many British electronic artists look to grimier influences rooted in rave culture, Caravan Palace do not. Instead they turn, rather surprisingly, to the likes of Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappelli to create their music.

The result is a playful blending of old and new, with the songs more often than not using the rhythmic structure of swing and jazz. Other songs move into a modern feel, with a straighter beat and more familiar rises and falls.

In a recording, Caravan Palace do successfully convey the decadent, whimsical energy that is their trademark. Live however, they become something else entirely.

The show they put on is more a cabaret than a gig. Zoé Colotis is as much a compère and a leading lady as just a singer, performing deceptively simple Charleston routines, and teasing and goading the audience.

At the same time, her enormous presence does not pull focus from the rest of the band, whose high level of musicianship is self-evident. Many songs are intercut with virtuoso piano and vibraphone solos which demonstrate a dazzling level of skill.

Periodically, two men hiding at the back of the stage leap forward to deliver ripping trombone and saxophone solos, blast out the main theme of a song, or dance a routine with Zoé. They play off each other, effortlessly swapping solos before melding back together.

Aside from the brass section, there are three sampling desks who switch between piano, vibraphone, double bass, and guitar, as well as providing backing vocals. We are treated to scat singing put through an effect which makes it sound almost robotic, because at this point why not?

Every musician onstage switches between multiple instruments throughout the performance, and each of them is clearly a consummate performer in their own right. Together, they are formidable.

It would be so easy for a band this reliant on sampling to feel cold, but the group’s physicality does away with this fear entirely. It sounds obvious, but it’s as simple as every member clearly being immersed in the music even when they are not playing.

They perform simple dance routines, or crouch and look up at their band mate playing a solo. There is no sense that anyone is trying to be the star, everyone has their moment in the spotlight.

As a special treat, there is also a dancer. Entering the stage, he performs routines inspired by a blend of old-school Charleston and Lindy-hop with modern street and break dancing. For one song, Rock it for Me, there is even a partnered routine.

Caravan Palace clearly understand the importance of physical performance. Their show is an immaculately choreographed sensual delight. They are at once playful, provocative, and impeccably tight. They delight us on a sad day, and remind us through the joy of music and dance that although our relationship with Europe may be broken, we still have more in common than different.

Mostly though, they are an enormous amount of fun.

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