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In concert: Jane Birkin

Jane Birkin's first ever Washington visit packed the French Embassy. (Kate Barry)

By Michele Langevine Leiby

“I didn't think anyone would come at all,” the celebrity chanteuse Jane Birkin marveled to a full house of 300 blizzard-braving fans at the French Embassy Tuesday night. “Bless you, bless, you, bless you.”

It was Birkin’s first-ever visit to Washington on a tour meant to highlight her strengths as a singer-songwriter as she finally steps out from the shadow of her late lover and collaborator, the legendary French star Serge Gainsbourg. At 63, her voice is fuller and rounder now but it retains the charming, breathy quality for which she was best known in the late-'60s and '70s. With stylistic nods to Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame) she flitted effortlessly between her native English and French, delighting the audience with Gainsbourg standards as well as seven songs from her 2008 album Enfants d’Hiver (Winter Children),” which marked her late coming of age as a songwriter.

(Strolling through Serge's songbook, after the jump.)

Her four-piece band -- upright bass, cello, piano and guitars (and a ukelele for good measure) -- filled the intimate space, ably supporting a 95-minute set that ranged from romantic ballads to playful cabaret numbers. Different aspects of Birkin’s personality shone through. She stood military-straight center stage as she delivered a flinty and embittered “Aung San Suu Kyi,” protesting the imprisonment of the Burmese Nobel laureate. Later, she was the sweet gamine, leaving the stage carrying a parasol made entirely of lights to stroll the auditorium aisles and serenade the audience with “Yesterday Yes A Day.”

She appeased Gainsbourg fans with songs from his expansive catalogue: a punchy “Ford Mustang,” swinging “Pauvre Lola (Poor Lola)” and a hauntingly nostalgic “Je Suis Venu Te Dire (I Just Came to Tell You)” that would strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been young and in love in Paris. Gainsbourg (who died in 1991) and Birkin had a 13-year love affair and a daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now a star in her own right. Sadly, without Serge, Birkin could not resurrect their sexually explicit first duet, “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus (I love you … me neither),” the 1969 No. 1 hit denounced by the Vatican and banned by the BBC.

Nonetheless a kittenish sexuality still came through, both in song and stage presence. Her infamous bangs are long gone, her hair cropped short and tousled. She dressed a la garconne in black trousers, a white men’s shirt, a black vest and tie knotted loosely around her open collar. Although Birkin never found fame in the States, her popularity never waned among Europhiles, and it was easy to see why, especially amid the whistles and roars that prompted two encores.

By David Malitz  |  February 10, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Jane Birkin  
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