Touring in the time of Corona

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“Les chansons sont des bouteilles à la mer, on les laisse aller, fragiles et légères” The songs are bottles in the sea, we let them go, fragile and light

French prog maestros Lazuli must think they are jinxed. Huge Anglophiles though they are, each time they have set foot on British soil recently,  a national or personal crisis has greeted them.

First, there was a Saturday in March last year.  They were playing a rescheduled date at London’s now defunct Borderline on the day hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against Brexit (all of whom they thought had come to see them play!) This made it almost impossible for them to get to the venue.

Then there is Brexit itself which could in time result in introducing unwanted financial and bureaucratic barriers to them playing in the UK.

In the past, they have also had to cut short their tours with Fish due to singer/guitarist Domi Leonetti falling ill with respiratory problems and now, at the very start of their European 30 date Fantastic tour, which also visits Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, they return as the UK,  and indeed the whole world, is in the grip of the Corona Virus pandemic.

But even when faced with these extraordinary odds, they smile, shrug their slim Gallic shoulders and play on until told otherwise.

Bringing their show to these shores is a huge undertaking, both financially and logistically,  involving a huge road trip up from southern France to the coast to cross the Channel. In this instance, it has been a journey from Germany where they had supported Saga before the Canadian band’s tour was also cancelled due to the virus.

However, under the tender loving care of their beloved tour manager, Nellie Pitts, they arrive at Chepstow’s Drill Hall for the first show on Saturday.

Symbolically, this is highly appropriate because gig promoters Stephen Lambe and Huw Lloyd-Jones were the first people to bring Lazuli to everyone’s attention by putting them on as Friday night openers at the Summers End Festival, then at Lydney, in 2011. For some people, their performance that night was a life-changing experience. The band has also played the Drill Hall before – at another Summer’s End two years ago, as part of a previous UK tour.

This is also a particularly special night for the band because this is the first time they are to perform their new album Le Fantastique Envol de Dieter Böhm in its entirety, their ninth studio album which is a gift to their fans. Imagine how long this has taken to perfect in terms of rehearsals and as we later discover, to create some wonderful graphics to accompany it.

In real terms, it is a huge gamble, in that with the current advice being given out, will people risk coming out to see them? There’s a steady trickle of people arriving but from the outset, there are strict rules of engagement, namely elbow and hip bumps, Vulcan salutes and Namaste greetings. No hugs, or as the French would say, bisous, tonight.

With more than 100 tickets sold for tonight, there is a reassuringly solid gathering, mainly of die-hard fans, assembled in the Drill Hall. With support act Midnight Sun no longer appearing, the stage tonight belongs to Les Gars who come on early and, well, in the opinion of your humble chronicler, probably deliver their greatest show on these shores.

Self-belief

The reason is that they have meticulously continued to develop their performance level musically so that even close to the stage, it sounds honed to perfection. At the same time, their self-belief and mutual trust as a tight-functioning band composed of five very different individuals has grown enormously.

In these strangest of times, opener J’Attends Un Printemps (I Wait For A Spring) does have an ironic ring but it’s a rousing, spirit-lifting song that moves swiftly into the stomping rocker Déraille  whose intro gives Claude Leonetti a chance to showcase his remarkable Léode, his magic sonic stick which defines their striking soundscapes.

Coming out from behind the keyboards to take centre stage on French horn, Romain Thorel blasts out the stunning intro to L’Arbre, their ecologically-rooted classic with its distinctive turn of pace halfway through and an ensuing duel between Claude and luxuriantly dread-locked guitarist Gédéric Byar, who produces a screwdriver for a few runs up and down his fretboard.

That close fraternity between Les Gars is further enhanced in Mes Amis, Mes Frères, another gorgeously poignant song about their childhood and brotherly love.

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Les Sutures

Musical drama Lazuli style is often elegantly understated and never more so than in Les Sutures. Vincent Barnavol’s  solid drumming underpins its complex rhythmic patterns that take on another dimension as Domi and Romain take centre stage facing each other across a snare drum to further beat out this haunting tattoo. It like a peace-time rallying call from a battle front.

At this juncture, it’s time to introduce the new album and this Domi does with the aid of a piece of paper, which he assiduously reads out, explaining the allegorical story line inspired by Dieter Böhm, one of their most devoted fans who, one night, they espied in the audience, his eyes closed, completely lost in the music.

This premise of getting lost in their music sparked the idea for the album’s concept, musicians planting a note, a melody and a song on a desert island then throwing them into the waves like bottles in the sea, hoping that someone will receive them. In this case, Dieter retrieves them and his fantastic journey sees him becoming at one with the music.

Love Letter

This is also a love letter to all their fans to whom the album is dedicated and this is why it is so important for them, in their own inimitable way, to honour and thank them all through their unique musical medium.

The introduction of background graphics, taken from the album’s artwork, provides the storyboard. The album begins with Sol, which has an evolutionary story line about the human condition (a common Lazuli theme), followed by Les Chansons Sont des Bouteilles À La Mer, the lyrics running right across the back screen, looking beautiful in their linguistic unfamiliarity.

Mers Lacrimales (Weeping Seas) builds up the hopes as the songs in bottles make their way across the seas and reach Dieter who feels the music in his chest, and finds it soothing to his heart and soul.

These songs are shot through with delicious melodies and distinctive rhythms that Domi delivers in a superb narrative style. With Romain on keyboards and Vincent on marimba,  he excels on the supernaturally beautiful ballad Baume (Balm), where his laser beam voice hits extraordinary emotional heights. It’s one of those wow moments which will capture everyone’s imagination and hearts when it is eventually played live after this corona hiatus.

The story further unfolds, with subtle sound effects such as ethereal voices and waves. The pacy instrumental interlude L’Envol (The Flight) takes us further into Dieter’s fabulous journey. That flight results in him becoming at one with the music, particularly melding with the guitars. As if to emphasis this point, its final sequence has Ged executing the most divine, dreamy, soulful guitar solo which seems to float off into its own special world. Be prepared for plenty more wow moments here.

This live show elevates the sheer brilliance of the album into another realm of excellence for the band and the audience responds accordingly. It’s obviously a reassurance to the band that they have delivered something special to them both musically and visually.

Dancing

It’s back to business as usual and straight into the dancing part, Le Miroir aux Alouettes, possibly now their signature song. As usual, halfway through, Romain swaps keyboards for drums, Vincent marimba for djembe while Claude and Ged play off each other for fun both musically and facially, while Domi goes stomp-about on stage. It’s the nearest Prog gets to a six minute rave!!

They end this remarkable set with the toe tapping Le Lierre (The Ivy), including another veritable tonsil-defying work-out from Domi. He then goes walkabout in the audience during traditional closer Les Courants Ascendants, when Romain comes to the fore again on French horn and Ged again absolutely dazzles with his razor sharp runs up and down the fretboard. 

It’s difficult to know where the set ends and the encore begins, but around now is the natural place as Romain and Vincent  take centre stage to unleash their improv duo, picking up the themes of Les Courants Ascendants. Romain incorporates jazz, dance, electronica and classical into his flourishes, Vincent following his flights of fancy in his rock solid, unflashy, totally dependable way.

The lovely part about these little showpieces is the fact that the other band members gather around to watch them go through their musical motions – in this instance, from the wings of the stage so as not to get in their way.

In customary fashion, the marimba is finally brought to the front of the stage for the finale, Nine Hands Around A Marimba. No matter how many times you experience this truly remarkable musical tour de force of intricate timing and precision, it never fails to astound and delight. Tonight, there are passages from Nena’s 99 Red Balloons,  Gotye’s  Somebody That I Used To Know (whose opening notes did sound very much like Baa Baa Black Sheep!), the Beatles’ Michelle and Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill.

Several curtain calls and several selfies later, it’s all over and it’s been quite mesmerising.

Southampton

There has been a palpable air of uncertainty throughout these initial days as the Bigger Picture keeps changing on a daily, if not hourly, basis. For our part, we return home the following morning to be greeted by messages from friends who have elected not to come for the second night at The 1865 in Southampton, which is perfectly understandable in the circumstances, but for now, the show goes on.

The venue, in contrast to the quaint community meeting point feel of the Drill Hall, is a large, cavernous venue with more of a nightclub feel to it, and much more space. It’s customary for tables and chairs to be laid out when ticket sales have not reached a certain level, and tonight, they’ve been positioned about 15 feet away from the stage on the other side of the dance floor, like some kind of unconscious social distancing.

Fortunately, the venue begins to fill up and there’s a decent sized crowd up front bearing in mind the circumstances in which this gig is being presented.

Though there are people watching them from closer proximity on both sides of the dance floor,  the gaping chasm between band and seated audience stays intact for the first half of the show – until one lady decides she has had enough of the disconnect and moves her chair right in front of the band, which they gratefully acknowledge. By the final leg of the show, there are a few more lady dancers up front and it’s beginning to feel like a party at last, especially when Domi comes down off the stage to join in during Miroir.  The band really do feed off the energy of their audiences – and chorus lines are always welcome!

It’s another superlative performance, but there’s a lingering sense of how much more there is to follow before the proverbial plug is pulled, so conversation after the show focuses on wishing, praying and hoping that the Liverpool show will take place.

Liverpool was also to be the gig at which the eponymous Dieter was planning to join the tour, but with Germany in lock-down, it is unlikely he could make the trip.

As it transpires, it is not meant to be as it is later announced the French borders will be closing, so the band, who were en route to Liverpool on Monday, have to make the heartbreaking decision to stop the tour and make a hasty dash back to the coast to get a shuttle back to France.  Thankfully, they return home safely earlier today (Tuesday) before the border portcullis comes down.

However, what has happened with Lazuli is just a microcosm of the Bigger Picture as March is traditionally a very busy month in the music calendar. This year is no exception, gigs, festivals and cruises having to be cancelled or postponed left, right and centre in extraordinary circumstances.

Musicians and their support teams rely on live shows as a primary source of their income and will now be relying on their fans and supporters to help them through these challenging times by buying their merchandise now and tickets for the rescheduled shows as soon as the current pandemic crisis is over.

In Lazuli’s case, the sight of the new tee-shirts with the album’s cover on the front and the list of 30 gigs on the back really brings home the scale of this current crisis.

Meanwhile, many thousands of fans, who could have been at the 30 concerts over the next four months, now have to wait patiently to finally enjoy the show which is totally dedicated to them.

Photographs by Martin Reijman