Irish-French chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan is tearing up the stage in a brief run at the Irish Arts Center in New York with the songs of Jacques Brel. It helps a bit if you know the music of the great Belgian songwriter; O’Sullivan shouts and speaks and often twists the melodies to her own emotional bent, and I found myself filling in the chord changes in my head behind her two a capella numbers and wondering how much someone who didn’t know the songs would appreciate them. But O’Sullivan is an artistic force of nature all her own, and could make a powerful show out of any material she chose, known or unknown.
Though I’ve titled this a “concert review,” O’Sullivan really does put on a show, albeit one that rewards Brel fans in particular. Backed by a fine four-piece band, including multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Glasson, whose musical menagerie includes the saw, and pianist Feargal Murray. she opened the show dramatically enough with an a capella rendition of “Marieke,” one of Brel’s most passionate songs. Like most of her choices, it will be familiar to those who know the 1968 show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. (Brel died in 1978, shy of his 50th birthday). But O’Sullivan’s interpretations are wild new animals.
Singing in a mix of English and French, she brings the looseness of a blues-rock singer even to the ballads. Ragged emotional heft matters more to her than pitch-perfection as she marshals her theatricality in the service of brutal honesty. Heavy-metal-style guitar provided an effective introduction to the proto-punk “Next,” to which O’Sullivan brought a shouting riot-grrl fire. She drew tears with “Old Folks” and dragged us into the depths of desperation with Brel’s biggest hit, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
She brought a wide-eyed Janis Joplin-esque swagger to “The Bulls” and exploded “Les Bourgeois” in a burst of prog-rock theater. Her band cloaked “My Death” in sweeps of comic-horror sound effects.
Camille O’Sullivan’s run at the Irish Arts Center ends Oct. 22.