On Saturday evening I had the rare—in fact probably the only—privilege to see Charles Aznavour perform live in Yerevan’s Republic Square. I cannot say just how many people were in attendance, but 2,000 available places for paid seating were sold out, and there seemed to have been tens of thousands standing around the main stage and audience, which both occupied the entire fountain area as well as walkways. A friend estimated that the crowds numbered at least 100,000 people. One jumbo-sized video screen flanked each side of the gigantic steel stage, and a third faced the throngs occupying the areas in front of the Marriott Hotel and the Converse Bank/Post Office buildings. Aznavour’s trip to Armenia also coincided with that of President of France Jacques Chirac, who is on a historic diplomatic visit and also attended the concert along side President Robert Kocharian, both of whom actually walked right past me and my wife while smiling charmingly. The concert, presented by his long-time manager Lévon Sayan, was sponsored in part by the “Arménie Mon Amie” series of cultural events that will take place through the end of this year and into the next.
As most people who know me understand, Aznavour is a personal hero of mine and has been since I can remember walking and talking as a small boy. During those years I would often be seen walking about the house holding something in my hand representing a microphone, like a wooden building block or whatever was handy, and rambling on in my own made-up babble that was supposed to sound like if not be the French language. I nearly got the songs’ melodies down, but I was obviously stumbling over the words. But no one cared, especially relatives who didn’t know what to make of my daily matinee performances—even those visiting from Marseilles, France as I distinctly remember.
By the time I grew a bit older, entering my teenage years, I had already placed the Aznavour records on the shelf for just short of a decade to explore other areas of music, namely rock and particularly jazz, when at the age of 16 or so I discovered John Coltrane, my other hero in song. Both Aznavour and Coltrane seem to be worlds apart, but if you examine carefully, you’ll notice striking similarities. Both were born in the 1920s coming from impoverished roots. They both struggled for nearly two decades before they would find their own distinct voice that caught the attention of the public at large, around 1960 or so. Their songs would reach out to and influence millions of devoted listeners in countries all over the globe. And both artists would expand their own musical realms in their own unique ways—Coltrane helming the avant-garde jazz movement, while many of the melodies for Aznavour’s songs were growing more intricate by the late 1960s to early 1970s. Alas, Coltrane did not physically endure as long as Charles, although his music certainly has.
The evening show was billed as Aznavour and His Friends, as he had about five opening acts, including the famous French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri, Hélène Ségara, and the great legendary arranger and songwriter Michel Legrand, who performed the love theme from the musical film “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.” Then Aznavour burst onto the stage, as vibrant as he did when he was 40. I occasionally watch a video I have of him performing at the Olympia theater in Paris from 1968, and his motions on stage really have not changed much, but his presence has certainly become more intense. He wore all black, his signature of late, with a velvet suit jacket, cotton dress shirt, a cummerbund, and trousers, contrasted by his mane of silver gray hair, and he looked simply fabulous.
Aznavour mostly performed his signature songs that have sold hundreds of millions of records around the world. Since he was performing for a largely Armenian audience as well as for his fellow countrymen, he sang—thank god—only in French. Although in between songs he joked with the masses in Armenian. He started the set with his not-too-recent hit “Les Emigrants,” and later sang the title track from his 2002 album “Je Voyage” in a duet with his daughter, Katia. He also performed “Paris Au Mois D’Aout,” “Je M’voyais Déjà,” “Il Faut Savoir,” “Les Deux Guitares,” “Que C’est Triste Venise,” and some personal favorites, “Les Plaisirs Démodés” as well as “Desormais”—dad, eat your heart out. After he sang the last stanza of “La Bohème,” he tossed down in frustration his white handkerchief symbolizing the painter’s rag, as he has done possibly more than 10,000 times during the last 40 years. The backing orchestra included a string section, backup female vocals, and piano player, all of which always accompany him, and the usual drums, guitar, and bass, but there was no horn section as you sometimes hear in his live performances. Yet it didn’t matter. On stage was Aznavour.
I am biased when it comes to Aznavour, his performances, his look, charisma, and so forth, but I will have to say that his voice is still impeccably good. He is a hell of a performer on stage, whether you love him or not this fact cannot be denied. The entire time I was in a kind of trance, distracted from time to time by my wife at my side who wanted to get my attention, feeling jealous somehow. Although it was technically the fourth occasion I saw Aznavour perform in my life, it was as if it was indeed the first time I was able to watch the master of French song up close, and actually hear him live, instead of live on a concert recording. In fact just shortly after he had begun to sing I found myself being moved slightly to tears, although my trance thankfully suppressed them from flowing. It was simply an amazing concert, and I still cannot believe he gave one in Armenia—I honestly never thought it was going to happen.
The people in the audience—and even those watching the televised broadcast at home—indeed were very lucky Saturday night. They had an unique opportunity to see before them one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of popular music that has ever lived and thankfully is still living. Aznavour only last year released yet another disc, entitled “Insolitement Vôtre,” of original songs, all of which he wrote both the words and music himself (as opposed to songs he has co-written—he naturally only records and performs his own material). In 2002 he vowed he would never give a world tour again, but like many great talents do, he went back on his word. He just finished touring the United States with a stop over in my native Boston, and I heard that he will soon be off to Japan, where he is also beloved. It was a rare glimpse at the fantastic world of Aznavour, the undeniable genius of Aznavour.
Vive la chanson Française! Vive Aznavour!
Labels: Music, Personal Experiences, Photography, Social and Cultural