Music Reviews

All too often, St. Louis is overlooked by touring musicians from near and far, leaving the music fan limited in their options as their favorites drift by at a distance. For the dedicated, this can sometimes mean a short road trip and a weekend away, but when the Parisian electro-swing septet Caravan Palace came to Chicago last Saturday, the excitement of a packed house spilled across the globe in a live-streaming event. House of Blues Chicago was a welcoming host to this all-ages event.

The experience began with the venue itself, nestled in the shadow of Chicago's famous Marina Towers. The doors opened even before the early 6:30 time printed on the tickets, but the line of eager young fans, dressed in an array of retro fashions that occasionally glanced off the desired swing era chic, stretched down N. Dearborn St. nearly to the river and was bustling in excitement. Despite the franchise tag, the building had a classically formal design, dressed in velvet and wood molding and surrounded by art in many forms. High above the floor, the room extended with two balconies, graced with traditional opera boxes on either side and a wide mural depicting religious unity across the top of the stage. While the performance would be shared with the world, the character of the venue belonged only to the ticket holders.

Chicago's Inverse Universe had the honor of opening the show. The duo of Tyler Thompson and Adam Stephens mixed live drums and guitar with sample driven production. Largely focused on creating music deeper than two musicians can offer live, they delivered a groovable final product that was well received by the young crowd. They built their set well, increasing the energy as they progressed and received a particularly explosive reception to a track that blended samples of Dr. Dre and Marvin Gaye.

Anticipation climaxed between acts as the venue's playlist of jazz tunes suddenly dropped and the stage went black. The familiar sound of Caravan Palace's "Comics" and the introductory sample loop slowly filled the air, until light exposed the band at the first drop of the beat. The stage offered ample open space at the center, accommodating a variety of active instrumentalists, vocalists and even dancing as the night moved on. At the back right of the stage, Mighty Mezz and his arsenal of DJ equipment stood atop a low platform, fronted by a large neon light shaped like "<I°_°I>," the visual title to their 2015 album, referred to as "Robot Face." The rest of the instruments surrounded the stage in a squared off horseshoe, and the team of multi-instrumentalists would do their share of running from point to point.

Looking to ignite the crowd early, they moved quickly to "Lone Digger," the most popular track from the new album, and vocalist Colotis Zoé's first chance to shine. Principally the center of attention, Zoé made a number of wardrobe changes throughout the set, coordinated with a well-polished stage show. Her vocals ranged from swingy jazz in the likes of Billie and Ella to fast and frantic hip-hop rhymes and she displayed the persona to match. Late in the set, a little burlesque flavor entered the show as she teased other bandmates from a stool and enticed the crowd with little swings of the hip that made her skirt pop up in back. "Tattoos," another popular track finished the set, culminating with Zoé and Mighty Mezz showing off their swing dancing skills.

Caravan Palace's distinctive electro-swing style sounds like it could have been simply created using samples and DJ techniques but, in fact, is created by a team of musicians with talents across many instruments. Chapi was often at the forefront with the clarinet and baritone sax, never more prominently than the driving sax riff of "Wonderland," and boasting the ability to be nimble on his feet as well as across the keys of the clumsy horn. He was often joined in the open stage by Hugues Peyen, whose contributions included the violin and picking up the microphone for a number of rapid-fire scat sessions. 

Peyen also joined the barrage of synthesizers at the left of the stage. This area was Charles Delaporte's home and playground for the show, offering not only synthesizers but also a stand-up style, electric contrabass that drove many of the jazzier moments of the set. Arnaud Vial played a similar role on the guitar and a computer based instrument of his own at the right of the stage. The crème de la crème of this backline team was Paul-Marie Barbier who managed to gain the spotlight with his instrumental prowess alone. Often running around every section of the stage, he was the sole provider of the piano and keyboard, as well as an electric vibraphone where he offered a few solos during the show.

The set featured a majority of their most recent releases but didn't neglect their earlier work by any measure and included a cover of Lead Belly's "Black Betty," prompting the crowd to sing along with the chorus. While not often singing, the crowd was regularly prompted to clap along and to jump for the most exciting moments, a request that thoroughly shook the floors of the entire building. They concluded with a two-song encore, opening with "Star Scat," from their 2008 eponymous release that featured Mighty Mezz using autotune to create a deeply funky scat riff before "Brotherswing," a song released on the same album concluded in a danceable fashion.

While the venue holds 1,000 and was nearly full, Yahoo Music offered a live stream of the show on loop for the next 24 hours, available and promoted to a much larger crowd. Quick glances to the stream showed a production equal to the performance in its excellence. While nothing can replace the live experience, even fans stuck in St. Louis were able to enjoy the French band for the excitement of their U.S. tour. Blending yesterday's big band swing with today's technology and urban styles, Caravan Palace creates an unmatched performance to be enjoyed in whatever means available.

Setlist: Comics, Lone Digger, Suzy, Midnight, Wonderland, Clash, Je m'amuse, 12 Juin 3049, Wonda, Black Betty, Jolie Coquine, Aftermath, Tattoos / Encore: Star Scat, Brotherswing

Photo by Wil Wander.

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