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“She’s a national treasure,” whispered the critic next to me, his hangdog eyes ogling the stage in boozy, and reverent, admiration. “She’s like royalty.”

Charlotte Gainsbourg has quite the pedigree. Her father, Serge Gainsbourg, is perhaps the most famous French singer-songwriter of the 20th century, while her mother is Jane Birkin: British actress, model and singer. Yet Charlotte Gainsbourg is better known for a burgeoning film career (Antichrist and I’m Not There). However, enter Beck and the release of their collaboration IRM, and suddenly Gainsbourg is headlining an 80 minute set at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom.

I have to admit I had some concerns going into the show. Gainsbourg, though very talented, has a limited voice and most of her vocals on IRM are awash on effects and filters. I wondered how well she would come across on the naked stage, a setting miles away from the trickery of the studio.

As Gainsbourg and her five piece band took the stage and began the show with the new album’s title track, it took only moments for her star power to win me over. There are some people that just suck you in with their magnetism. It has happened for me with Michael Stipe and it’s happened with Bono. Gainsbourg, dressed in a grey T-shirt and jeans with leather trim, demanded the audience’s full attention and I’ll sure as hell admit that she had mine.

They next moved onto “Greenwich Mean Time” and “Master’s Hand,” Gainsbourg’s vocals completely unadorned. Though she seemed nervous, openly admitting this was her first tour and first time ever in Portland, Gainsbourg needed to do little work to captivate the attention as she sang, played a drum or even just stood there with her hands in her pockets.

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After the somewhat ridiculous “Me and Jane Doe,” current single “Heaven Can Wait” made a surprise, early appearance in the set. Stripped of Beck’s vocal, the naked song became Gainbourg’s only, played at a much faster clip and without the album version’s murky production. Next came “Set Yourself on Fire” from 2006’s 5:55, the somber “In the End,” the spare and whispery “Time of the Assassins” and the creepy “La Collectionneuse” that ended with as spoken-word monologue in French.

But it is impossible to see Charlotte Gainsbourg without remembering the music of her father and it was not lost on the singer. After versions of “AF607105,” a menacing “Vanities,” a delicate cover of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and the rollicking “Dandelion,” the daughter finally addressed her father’s legacy, citing his “most beautiful” libretto. “I never thought I’d dare to sing one of his songs,” she admitted in her soothing voice, a strange mélange of French and British English, “but I’m going to dare.” The band then launched into a faithful cover of “L’Hotel Particulier” from Histoire de Melody Nelson.

The set ended with “The Operation” and “Trick Pony,” with Gainsbourg taking a moment to thank Beck. People shouted, “J’taime, Charlotte!” and “Merci!” as she and the band walked off the stage.

The band returned to end the show on an all-French high note. First came “Voyage,” a pounding disco-beat encouraging the audience to dance. Next came a strange, almost hip-hop version of “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes,” which robbed the song of its sly charm. The encore also took a strange twist when DJ Brian LeBarton interrupted Gainsbourg a few times. He commanded the audience to dance, but the comments seemed inappropriate, taking the spotlight away from the true star.

But Mr. LeBarton was soon forgotten as Gainsbourg dipped into her father’s songbook once more, finishing the night with “Couleur Café,” sending us off on a rollicking, jovial note that got not only the audience dancing, but everyone on-stage also.

by David Harris
[Photos: Lauren Daniels and Kate Rossiter]
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