The Fox Theater, Oakland, California, April 10, was the second of two consecutive nights at the venue for the Belgian musician and the third Stromae performance I’d attended. I’d flown in from Denver to stay with a friend in San Francisco. She wasn’t up for hours waiting in line herself, so I took BART across the bay to Oakland on my own.
Rounding the corner from the BART station brought the majestic Fox marquee into view. For his American tour, Stromae has exhibited a real knack for choosing gorgeous historical venues that inspire dreams of the night ahead. Built in 1928 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater was refurbished and reopened in 2009 with a capacity of 2800.
For this show, I’d worn a Mosaert sweater with the Racine Carrée pattern. The first interesting moment it brought me came just moments after I arrived in Oakland. With several hours to spare before the concert and no one lining up yet, I had set out to walk around and see a little bit of the neighborhood. I was just about to pass by the back parking lot gate of the venue when I was stopped short as the automatic gate began to swing open. Looking up, I saw the white van from the venue pulling slowly into the lot, crossing the sidewalk right in front of me. Stromae’s technical team–I recognized the costume assistant and the sound and lighting technicians–were inside, and as they inched by I could see that a few of them were remarking on my sweater. Mouthing “bonjour,” I smiled and waved. It was an honor to have the opportunity to welcome the team who plays such an important behind-the-scenes role in making Stromae’s shows so successful.
After exploring the neighborhood a bit more, I circled back around to the Fox about four hours before the doors were to open. Spotting the first fan waiting in front of the venue, I took my place behind him.
That impressive marquee and the growing line attracted considerable attention from people passing by. Several wondered aloud who Stromae could be. The best response came from a group of teens walking home from Oakland School for the Arts. As they waited at the light there on the corner, they discussed the mystery performer. One boy pulled out his phone and pronounced “STORMAY” into it a couple of times before the light changed and he walked off, shrugging and pocketing his phone. A missed opportunity there…
A passerby mentioned that he’d seen Stromae on the sidewalk in front of the venue a few hours earlier, talking on his phone. A girl in line told the same story: Stromae had been on his phone, surrounded by his four musicians, in full costume. The scene, which was clearly staged, was being filmed, so a surprise of some kind is obviously in store.
The moment the doors opened, I rushed to the center of the front row. Los Angeles-based duo Freedom Fry provided a refreshing 60’s-influenced California pop opening set. Frontman Bruce Driscoll said they’d met Stromae at SXSW last month, where he’d invited them to tour with him on the west coast. “Yeah, we like him too,” he said, to audience roars. (Maybe it was their name that first drew his attention. Stromae does an onstage bit at his shows where he tries to convince audiences that French fries should be called “Belgian fries,” and Freedom Fry’s name touches on another problem with the name “French fries.”)
Stromae takes the stage
The lights went down and the show began. The audience loved the animation intro and sang along enthusiastically with “Ta Fête” and “Bâtard.” Before “Tous les Mêmes,” Stromae did an extended monologue with much silliness.
He even trotted out a version of his favorite joke about the egg and the kiwi. In fact, there was a higher-than-average silliness level throughout the show, as Stromae brought out several new grimacing faces and crazy dance moves I hadn’t seen before.
But “Tous les Mêmes” was all about the sashaying. For the numerous clusters of teenage girls in the audience, Stromae’s every hip sway elicited squeals. They screamed at their idol’s every glance their way and stretched their arms out to try to touch him.
For “Ave Cesaria,” musician Manoli Avgoustinatos took center stage with a ukulele. At the end of the song, Stromae’s onstage hobbling, this time under a stark white spotlight, made such a powerful finale to his tribute to Evora that I was moved to tears.
The audience cheered especially loudly for “Carmen” in appreciation of the video released just days earlier. Stromae took several deep bows after the song, doffing his bowler hat from one side of the stage to the other.
Just after “Humain à l’Eau” finished, Simon brought up the vocal loop again (“humain à l’eau-o-o-o”), and Stromae explained the “reason”: “Simon’s just saying that he’s really angry. Do you know why? Because he saw nobody dancing. Everybody stand up upstairs. Everybody, everybody. Now, we want to see everybody jumping! I want to see everybody! 4, 3, 2–Cali à l’eau!” He had the audience under his thumb. The first time they’d played the song, I’d been jumping so much that I wasn’t paying any attention to whether anyone else was or not, but as far as I could tell, every last person danced for this reprise. I managed to tear my eyes away from the stage long enough to turn around and confirm that everybody in the balcony was, in fact, jumping. “California CAN dance,” Stromae concluded.
Since this was my third concert, I was able to take in a little more of what was going on on the rest of the stage. Manoli was having loads of fun, grinning at his boss and basking in the audience’s energy. Florian Rossi’s face glowed, and serious Yoshi Masuda especially seemed to enjoy making eye contact with the audience. They make an incredibly impressive group of musicians, and I was grateful for the time Stromae gave us to applaud each of them in turn at the end of “Papaoutai.”
But for me, the best moment of the show was yet to come. That was the moment Stromae took his place beside his musicians for “Merci.” Microphone set aside, the spotlights turned away, on the dark stage he became one of his own musicians. As he drummed in the darkness and the animation turned to thunderstorms and pouring rain, I thought of the little boy who’d drummed on his mother’s pots and pans and stared goggle-eyed at a Stomp performance. “I want to do that,” he’d said–and now he is.
Dressed identically to the other musicians now, he shook each of their hands in turn and the five of them came to the front of the stage to thunderous applause. Stromae had a hard time calming the rowdy audience for the “Tous les Mêmes” a cappella. Simon urged, “He said silence.” Nothing worked, so they just started singing. There were more hoots and claps, but by midway through, the now-hushed audience was mesmerized, hanging on every harmony.
There was more clowning around when the song ended, the musicians clutching at each others’ chests, Simon scooting away from Stromae with sidelong glances. More precise deep bows. The top of Stromae’s curly brown head in the middle of a line of black bowler hats. And then, inevitably, the darkness came as he turned out the lights.
As the house lights came up, people on all sides were exclaiming “That was amazing.” I heard only a smattering of French in the audience. More than a few teenage girls declared “Oh my God, I’m in love.” This evening at the Fox presented a picture of a humble French-speaking musician who doesn’t want to be called a star, who’s from a tiny European country he once called “ridiculous,” swept up in an incoming tidal wave of American stardom.
But if he’d prefer, we’ll just call it “success.”
Heading towards the door, I found myself in step beside Thomas Van Cottom, Stromae’s executive producer. I took the opportunity to thank him and he responded, “Merci à vous. Vous avez un très joli pull.” (“Thank you. You have a very nice sweater.”) He added something about telling Coralie that I couldn’t quite catch in the crowd before we parted ways.
Fans were making their way to the side gate of the parking lot. A group of about 50 gathered there. Several were returning from the night before. After his performance the previous night, Stromae had slipped away unobserved for a well-earned night on the town. Now these undaunted fans returned to wait for him in the chilly Pacific air for a second night. Having been introduced to his work through Pentatonix, Pandora, or YouTube, they all hoped now that the musician they admired, with nothing on his schedule but the long bus ride to Coachella, might come out to greet them. I already have a photo with Stromae and don’t need another, but I hoped to have the chance to say hello, so I practiced repeating “Bienvenue encore aux Etats-Unis” under my breath. Thomas came by and announced that the team was showering. A security guard told us it was very likely he’d come out by 12:30 and we shouldn’t give up before 1:00.
By 12:30 the crowd hadn’t thinned a whit–and Stromae hadn’t appeared. At 12:35 I accepted that I’d have to make my way over to the BART station if I wanted to catch the last train back to San Francisco.
On the BART platform, a young European man was playing “Up Saw Liz” and “You Feel Disco” on his phone for a couple of friends. They danced… the beat echoed through the quiet station… and I was already looking forward to Las Vegas. I’ll be seeing Stromae there–again–next week.
all photos for this article by Amy Van Vranken