Shot! Jean-Michel Jarre at Brighton Centre

The legendary French electronic artist lights up Brighton with an ‘intimate’ gig

What the French call son et lumière we call audio visual, but in France the term describes something that’s a bit more of a spectacle. And no Frenchman does spectacle more spectacularly than Jean-Michel Jarre. Still best known for his 1976 hit, Oxygene, the best selling French record of all time, the 67-year-old from Lyon has been putting on a big show everywhere from the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt, to London’s Docklands and Moscow’s Red Square where in 1997 he played to an estimated crowd of 3.5 million. Playing huge events to huge numbers is his pain et beurre, so it was quite a surprise when he announced he’d be coming to little ol’ Brighton for the second date of his Electronica world tour.

With less than 5,000 seats, the Brighton Centre must be about as intimate as a gig gets for Jean-Michel. Indeed, that small scale made one wonder how he was going to wow with spectacle. These days almost every headline act puts on an impressive light show and it’s now common to perform in front of a huge LED screen. How was Jean-Michel going to magic up something special?

On the beach almost directly outside the venue, a somewhat smaller crowd had gathered hoping to see another spectacular light show. The remains of Eugenius Birch’s iconic West Pier were being illuminated to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its opening. As good as it looked lit in white or red or green or blue or mauve, six lights do not make a light show. For that, you had to be at the Brighton Centre.

Those wanting the best view had paid an eye-watering £245 for their seat in the front four rows. For that, they did get to have a selfie with the man himself, a glass of fizz and a goodie bag full of goodies. To be honest, the seats they paid for weren’t the best in the house as this was one of those shows best experienced from some way back.

Supported by two multi-instrumentalists, Claude Samard and Stephane Gervais, Jarre was centre stage, a diminutive figure in aviator sunglasses, dressed in black behind several keyboards. One’s first thought was where is all the sound going to come from? To create the scale anticipated of a Jean-Michel Jarre event, you kind of expected a stage full of musicians, not a trio.

The reality was the three of them, almost certainly aided by backing tracks, produced one of the best sounds I’ve heard at the Centre since James Taylor’s sound engineer gave a masterclass in sonics almost exactly two years earlier. It was a pulsating soundscape of clarity and power, without being so loud that the bass reverberated through your body. Without such awesome sound, I suspect the music would have washed over the audience in much the some way it did with the DJ who provided the show’s support.

The truth is, more than the music, many people go to a Jean-Michel Jarre concert for the lightshow, and I have to say he didn’t disappoint. The technology came from Denmark and the company behind it was Wahlberg Motion Design. In essence, what they used involved layers of computer-controlled floor to ceiling moving see-through LED walls (it was hard to tell whether it was two or maybe three layers) This meant they could achieve subtle (and, at times, not so subtle) lighting effects as one LED screen moved in front of another. Add to this the usual moving lights and the most gorgeous show-stealing lasers and the ‘immersive experience’ so often-used to describe a Jean-Michel Jarre concert was achieved.

If one were to be really harsh, you could question whether it really mattered that Jarre himself was onstage or not. Much of the time he was only visible through the light curtain, meaning he could almost have been projected. Perhaps in recognition of this, on three or four times he stepped out from behind his keyboards and came to the front of the stage for a chat. His English was excellent, although he seemed awkward standing in the spotlight with a microphone.

As well as his array of keyboards, he played several other instruments. A brief guitar solo was unexpected, an appearance with the keytar appeared gratuitous and his piece de resistance, playing the laser harp, even if it wasn’t, felt like an illusion. Now we’ve all seen this before, where Jean-Michel Jarre stands behind a fan of vertical laser beams and uses his hands to break the beam and make a sound. I guess it still looks cool, which is why he’s retained it, but like so many modern-day DJ’s, he seems far more comfortable head down, behind the decks.

Like the lighting, the music was impressive. As good as it sounded, one couldn’t help feeling it could have been even better. Often, it was hard to tell where one song ended and another began. Quite a few were culled from his 18th studio album, Electronica: The Heart of Noise. One that stood out was Exit which he wrote with Edward Snowden in Moscow, not because it’s a great song or because it features the American whistleblower, but because it was different from his usual material. Another, Brick England, a track featuring the Pet Shop Boys, was memorable for the same reason. But perhaps it was no surprise that the stand out song of the evening was Oxygene, (or to give it its correct title, Oxygene 4) still sounding as good today as it did back in the day.

We did get to hear a new version, confusingly called Oxygene 17, which apparently had only been played once before at the previous gig in Cardiff. As good as it was, I can’t help but feel Jean-Michel Jarre has built an entire career around the original Oxygene. Some forty years later, many would probably agree that it’s still, by some margin, his best, most memorable and most enduring song.

For me, the music, as impressive as the sound was, always played second string to the lighting. As a light show it was a tour de force, as a live show, at times it borders on being sterile. Don’t get me wrong, it far exceeded my expectations, but I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to have to sit through the whole thing again. I also wondered how any other band’s lightshow is ever going to compare to this.

The next day, Jean-Michel-Jarre played London’s O2 Arena, the largest indoor venue in the UK. This photo from the event shows what the same performance looks like in a big space.

Setlist: The Heart of Noise | Automatic 2 | Oxygene 2 | Circus | Web Spinner | Exit | Equinoxe 7 | Conquistador | Oxygene 8 | Zero Gravity | Brick England | Souvenirs de Chine | Immortals | The Architect | Oxygene 4 | Equinox 4 | Glory| Time Machine || Oxygene 17 | Stardust

To me, live music photography is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance.

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. This was a really challenging gig to shoot. First, I had to shoot from a seat behind the lighting desk. That’s about three-quarters back, and a long way from the stage. I could not move from my seat, nor could I stand up. The combination of flashing imagery on the LED screens, similarly fast moving lights and lasers, together with one man dressed in black crouched behind some keyboards, meant it was really testing for the camera. Add to that Jean-Michel Jarre being hidden for a lot of the time behind a LED curtain. But perhaps the most problematic thing from a photography perspective was the abundance of red light used. Ultimately, shooting from the back meant I couldn’t get the close-up portraits I usually aim for, neither could I get any shots that weren’t just head on. That said, given the conditions, I’m actually surprised I came away with quite the number of good shots I did. Shot in Brighton on 6 October 2016.

Follow Jean-Michel at @jeanmicheljarre

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