An Intimate Night at the Opera

By Georgina Benison — Thursday evening saw the auditorium at Royal Opera House Muscat packed to the rafters for a one-off concert by the French-American jazz and Blues singer, Madeleine Peyroux. Paradoxically, the mood of the concert was intimate and informal; it felt as though we had been invited into the smokey living room of a bunch of New York musicians to witness a session for a sound recording.
It is tempting to try to pigeon-hole an unfamiliar singer into categories and ‘sounds-like’, and it is unfair to box a voice as versatile and flexible as Madeleine Peyroux into a single style or genre. The truth is that Madeleine’s performance, while showing the influence of various musicians from the American Songbook, has a voice as uniquely her own as Woody Guthrie’s, who paved the way for American folk-Blues in the 20th Century.
The show opened with a single woman with an acoustic guitar, sitting on a chair on an empty stage singing, “J’ai Deux Amours” from her 2004 album, ‘Got you on my mind’, making no mistake that this was a singer with confidence and control who can hold her own in husky French as well as Bluesy English. It was followed by Elliott Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’, and gradually, she drew the audience into her confidence and circle.
Without a blink, the other members of her Quartet came on stage as she sang — enchanting Edith Piaf lovers all around — a slow, moody version of ‘La Vie end Rose’ with solo guitar, and the band just joined in for the improvised outro. It was too short for me. I wanted more and I wanted the second verse, so silky smooth was her interpretation, but other treats were in store.
Madeleine welcomed us to her concert and introduced her excellent musicians. They spun through so many styles and eras — The Boswell Sisters’ 1931, ‘Shout, Sister Shout’, dedicated to the ladies in the hall; Bob Dylan’s 1975 classic, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome’, from her 2004 album, ‘Careless Love’; the Allen Toussaint funk, ‘Everything I Do Gonna be Funky’ —  dedicated to the gentlemen present with some delightful acapella harmonies; a sensuous original ballad, ‘Our Lady of Pigalle’ in French and English from Peyroux’s 2009 album ‘Bare Bones’, and Stephen Foster’s 19th century minstrel song, ‘Hard Times Come Again No more’.
London-based actor, Oroh Angiama — one of the busiest double-bass players on the circuit — played a delightfully lyrical Habanera bass line in Tom Waits’ 1985 number, ‘Tango ‘Till They’re Sore’. Things moved on a pace in Billie Holiday’s 1944, ‘Getting Some Fun out of Life’, giving veteran electric guitarist, Jon Herrington, a chance to impress with some fast riffs, and here I am going to say it — Madeleine has the distinct voice of Billie Holiday, with that deliberately constrained sound of the upper register.
One of the high points was her purring interpretation of ‘Je Cherche Un Homme’ in the self-proclaimed languages of Eartha Kitt (Santa Baby) and sultry French! She won high praise for this amusing spoof, and Antonio Jobim’s Bossa Nova, ‘Agua de Beber’ was perfectly affective in Portuguese, thanks to Belfast-born, New York-based drummer, Darren Beckett’s Latin backing rhythms.
Peyroux ended her main set with Leonard Cohen’s iconic, ‘Dance me to the end of Love’, to massive applause from punters just waiting to hear it, and they were further rewarded by two delightful encores. She could have played no other but the title track of her 2004 album, ‘Careless Love’ in a highly decorated, improvised interpretation, reminiscent of Lena Horne or even Nina Simone — although I promised not to compare. And then a second encore, which was so impossibly beautiful and moving — Billie Holiday’s ‘This is Heaven to Me’ from her same album — it remained in their heads as the audience reluctantly left.
If she was an unknown quantity before, Madeleine Peyroux is now firmly in the public imagination and hearts of Muscat concert-goers, and she is re-affirmed as a versatile and stunning singer for those who loved her already. What made Thursday’s performance memorable was that feeling that you had been allowed to glimpse inside a private Jazz Club, and Madeleine’s modesty and honesty of performance. There was no sense of an over-polished production; what you saw was you got, and you heard what you did because she is a singer of exceptional stage presence and talent.
Please come back again, Madeleine!

Photos by Khalid Al Busaidi, ROHM