Jean Michel Jarre played Boston last week. Let me say that again-JEAN MICHEL JARRE PLAYED BOSTON LAST WEEK HOLY FUCKING SHIT!! The earth shifted on its axis temporarily, the sun came up in the west and set in the east. Up was down, right?
Why get so excited one may ask? Well depending on who you ask, this was his first US show ever, and is akin to Led Zeppelin just showing up to do an unannounced reunion show at the Paradise. This was BIG news for progrock/psychedelic/electronic astronauts, yet many didn’t even know it was happening. (side note: this show, and tour, are criminally underpromoted-no word anywhere. I found out by accident ten days ahead of time. Not one of my long time JMJ friends had ANY idea he was coming). It was the first US show of his first North American tour ever, and the third show of the tour. Most fans had long dismissed any idea of seeing him live. Those with longer memories may recall a single show he did in Houston thirty years ago (more later on that), but many consider this his first US show ever. Why is Jean Michel Jarre such a big deal?
A big deal he certainly is. Jean Michel Jarre is one of the foundation pillars of electronic music. Words like ‘innovator’ and ‘pioneer’ get thrown around pretty frequently. Along with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk (Klaus Schulze and Vangelis to a lesser extent), Jean Michel Jarre fleshed out a group of musicians that single handedly created electronic music as a scene, and by proxy a ‘little’ genre known as techno, now one of the most popular scenes in the world of music today. His devotion to the synthesizer as an instrument of incalculable creative power cannot be underestimated. Tangerine Dream had a trio of dudes chugging away at the complicated and quirky keyboard beasts-Kraftwerk a quartet. TD, Schulze and Kraftwerk were all German–Jarre was the lone French entry into this uncharted and rarely chart-able music scene. The ability to create sonic tapestries alone, and then dare to try to reproduce them on stage was unique at that time. (a nod to Klaus Schulze here for his multitude of solo improvisational shows). Jarre was able to not only play some impressive shows, but shift some major units all over the world. And draw some impressive crowds.
Bastille Day 1979
On Bastille Day 1979, Jarre played the Place de la Concorde in Paris to one million people, the largest outdoor show at that time. No one had ever seen anything like this before-the city was the stage, as lights fountained everywhere. It was a mastery of live multi media performance where the city itself was the stage, and buildings the backdrops for projections and lasers. It was his first live concert. One million people. Wowza! (see above for most of the show). Jarre controlled lighting cues and somehow managed in the pre-MIDI era to keep everything running, playing Oxygene and Equinoxe in their entirety. It was hard to imagine where to go next.
Nobody played China, nobody. Hell nobody WENT to China. But the country was opening to the west, and somehow Jarre got invited to do shows in Shanghai and Beijing. This was China’s first exposure to the west, and it as documented on the excellent Concerts en Chine live album. Electricity was scarce-sections of the city had to be blacked out to provide power for the lights and sound. Jarre became somewhat of a Chinese phenomenon. Hundred of thousands attended.
Now that he’d figured out how to really set up a live rig, Houston was the setting for the high point of Jarre’s live era. He took over Houston-the sky scrapers bore tarps as projection screens. The generally quiet city became a blueprint for the modern rave scene. A ten piece band hit the stage, and 1.3 million Texans were treated to a full on electronic thundering freakout. Once again, Jarre had to draw excess power from the city grid, browning out the local FBI. Ron McNair, a NASA astronaut was due to play saxophone live from space during the performance, but was killed months previously in the Challenger disaster. Fireworks, lasers, searchlights and hundred foot tall projections transformed the cityscape into the world’s largest stage. (A murky version of the spectacle is above). Highways were closed as cars pulled to a stop to watch the spectacle of a city under a multi color hallucinatory siege. TV reporters struggled to describe the largest urban multi-sensory spectacle since WW2:
Paris Bastille Day 1990- la Defense
Seven synthesists and two drummers led a musical charge unlike anything the planet had ever seen. 2.5 million crowded from the Arc de Triomphe to the district of la Defense (the skyscraper district a la Houston). A pyramid stage housed the musicians and singers for the largest performance ever given in history. (for synth heads: a couple of ARP 2600s and two EMS VCS3s were part of the arsenal). Paris was taken over completely in an explosion of light, sound and colour.
Egypt 2000-the Millennium Show
Jarre was asked to perform at the last surviving of the 7 Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid at Giza for New Years Eve 1999-2000 by the president of Egypt. The logistics for this one were daunting. Sand + synthesizers is a bad equation (ask any Burning Man performer), plus electricity in the desert? Good luck. 120,000 attended.
(a quick aside: Many Egyptologists are aware that there are some difficult to explain anomalies associated with the great pyramid, and that it likely was not designed as a tomb, but as a device. What this device is–well, nobody is sure. Hints from ancient Egyptian texts speak of the ‘activating of the pyramid’ ceremony. The current pyramid is flat topped-the original had a large-ish white marble scaled down pyramid to continue it to towards a point. This flat topped marble pyramid was topped by a gold pyramid that fit on top, topped by a crystal pyramid, and then the final piece, what they called the ‘mustard seed’, which supposedly activated the whole thing. It’s anybody’s guess what this ‘seed’ refers to, the secret is still hidden to this day. Fast forward to 1999, and quietly the Egyptian government discussed the reactivating of the pyramid ceremony as something they might try for the millennium, helicopters lowering pieces into place. Blame it on the fog, blame it on some nervous Egyptian officials talking to Egyptologists who asked “what if this works? We don’t actually know if something might happen?” Discretion being the better part of valor, they-perhaps wisely-decided at the last minute against trying the ceremony)
As noted above, it was fairly improbable that Jarre would ever tour North America. Fans had long given up any hope of him playing the States. Boston would be fairly low on my list of cities he’d hit, but nevertheless, his first US show of his first ever North American tour landed at the Blue Hills Pavillion, literally on the edge of Boston Harbor, show three of a nine city tour. Opening the show, a low key French DJ spun some Jarre-ish techno. His small DJ booth with no backdrop did not prepare the audience what came next.
Chain mesh curtains cast three dimensional images in layers, projections flickered everywhere, multicolored lasers fanned the audience. Pieces of the sonically familiar wove in with newer looks. (Like Mike Oldfield, Jarre seems bent on re-creating Oxygene several times. Tubular Bells VII anyone?). Pieces from Oxygene of all eras melted into Equinoxe and continued morphing from borderline techno then back to the classic electronic analog melodies that made his sound so original in the mid 1970’s. setlist here A head mounted go-pro camera gave us a look at his rig, which was fairly high up on a podium. Knobs and dials in bunches swirled by, ensuring us that he was playing this stuff (Kraftwerk in Boston 2015 was less clear about what-or who-was responsible for the sounds).
His session with the laser harp is usually a show highlight. Here in the somewhat weather susceptible venue, Jarre ventured “ok, I’m naught reely sure eef thees will work in zee outdoors, but less geev eet a try”.
Above is him giving it a go in 2016. He dons the gloves, tests the beams, and Boston Harbor shook in a fashion that suggested a Godzilla sized entity might be lurking under the waves somewhere offshore. He nodded: “ok eet works” and he was off. He beckoned to the less than half full audience to come closer to the intimidating stage area, and the crowd gathered closely to the stage. He began to stick his hands into the laser beams as the crowd gathered ’round. Visually stunning? Sonically stunning? The pavilion levitated a few centimeters as the earth shifted. It was one of the most literally breathtaking displays I’d seen in electronic music-a visual and audio sensory overload that profoundly warped reality. The founder of electronica came to the Boston shore to remind all the laptop and turntable jockeys-“don’t forget where this revolutionary sonic stuff all started…” You hadda be there.