Fini l’heure de danser
Stromae’s North American Racine Carrée tour drew to a close at Madison Square Garden on October 1 with a triumphant show that put on a full display of his energy and originality before he said his goodbyes.
Performing at the legendary Madison Square Garden had been a dream for him. It was just over a year ago, in September 2014, that he hesitantly went public with his dream. At the time he’d said, “Of course, if you can, you know, it has to be sold out, you know. Just make a Madison Square Garden completely empty, it’s not really interesting.”
By that definition, things got really interesting on the afternoon of October 1. Just hours before the doors opened, hard work paid off and the tickets sold out.
As Stromae posted the announcement on his social media accounts, under the smaller of those two marquees a line was already forming. The earliest fans had arrived around 10 a.m. for this historic occasion. It was the first time a Belgian performer had headlined at the world-famous venue, and the first time an act singing exclusively in French had headlined. My 18-year-old daughter and I joined those fans.
Fans often say that an artist has changed their life. But what does that really mean? For Allison, a congressional assistant who traveled from Washington, D.C. for the show, knowing Stromae means being inspired to learn French so she can apply for an international relations graduate program at Sciences Po in Paris.
For Kendra, a teacher of beginning French in Minneapolis, Stromae is an inspiration to her teaching. When she introduces Stromae’s work to her students, he does most of the work for her, she says. Intrigued, students go home and research the singer. Voilà! Practicing their French at home doesn’t feel like work anymore. Kendra starts them off during a classroom unit on family relationships by playing the “Papaoutai” video with the subtitles off. Her students who come from difficult family situations immediately grasp the song’s message, even though their French is so rudimentary that they only understand a single word: “Papa.” She finds them more engaged in their education thanks to the experience.
And for Joanna, a fan from Poland who flew in to see him perform in Toronto, knowing Stromae means bringing a beautiful gold box of Polish chocolates along with her to Canada just so that another fan could offer them to those waiting in line at Madison Square Garden.
A very Belgian drizzle started at about 5:00, and just before six were were told that we would be allowed inside to line up in a hall out of the rain. General admission ticket-holders were divided into two groups. Those with “East GA” tickets, nearer the stage, received white bracelets.
As soon as security let us, we flashed our white bracelets and secured our spot just left of center in the front row. Jidenna played a three-song set, then Janelle Monáe took the stage. Afterwards, we waited. Just 15 more minutes…
This was the first and last time the full arena presentation of the Racine Carrée tour was performed in the United States. That means a longer setlist, more lights, and a fuller stage production. The more modest venues Stromae has performed in elsewhere as he’s criss-crossed the United States, while they offer the advantage of a more intimate experience, can’t support the full production. So it was an especially exilharating moment when he first leapt across that wide Madison Square Garden stage during “Peace or Violence,” as if he’d been set free from the cage all those smaller venues had constrained him in.
Visibly emotional, he greeted the crowd with “Madison Square Garden. It’s a big deal.” Later, he repeated that he was “proud and honored” to play there. “You have to know that,” he emphasized. The crowd seconded that emotion, obviously proud and honored to see him. The audience responded to his energy and enthusiasm with their own. This sold-out crowd–as far as I could tell, a majority of it was American–didn’t care what language he sang in, they were right there with him every step of the way. They seemed at least somewhat familiar with his work and many even seemed to know his stage jokes.
The amount of press coverage at this show was impressive. The Belgian daily Le Soir sent a journalist, who even interviewed fans in line, to cover the show. A cameraman from Belgian RTL TV was there, as well as countless other members of the press.
The combination of disparate elements that inspire Stromae’s music and dance is stunning in its originality. But while his performances are mostly scripted, it also seems that at every show, he manages to introduce a new vocal embellishment or a different twist of the leg that surprises and astonishes. Every performance is fresh and unexpected, and this one was no exception.
“Te Quiero” was a new addition to the setlist at American concerts this fall:
The production of “Je Cours,” with the rising square-root platforms, was impressive. It is the oldest song that Stromae still performs:
The beatbox ending of “Je Cours” was especially haunting:
The crowd was into the arm-waving during the chorus of “Moules Frites”:
The instrumental extended ending of “Formidable” was a stunning demonstration of Stromae’s musicians’ talent:
There was one small misstep in the performance. Following his costume change after “Formidable,” Stromae usually goes straight into “Carmen” at his U.S. shows. Whether the error was his own or the fault of someone in the lighting crew, someone had apparently forgotten that this time the setlist called for “Silence.” Stromae bounded out on stage, the spotlights that are used to start “Carmen” were trained on him, and he started singing “Carmen.” But suddenly, the curtain fell, the lights flashed, and the musicians began playing “Silence.” From the front row, Stromae was visible behind the sheer curtain, pacing around to shake off the mistake, grinning incredulously at himself and at his musicians, shaking his head. Ironically, fans stood for a moment in shocked silence. His musicians didn’t skip a beat, though. They charged ahead with the introduction for “Silence.” Stromae collected himself quickly as they powered on, and was back in the game by the first word of the song. Stromae continually stresses that he doesn’t work alone, and his musicians’ support of their boss was beautiful evidence of that truth as the group onstage turned the mistake into a powerful moment of teamwork.
Here’s a snippet of Stromae the percussionist and the energy of “Silence” close up:
“Carmen” was next. The dance at the end is one of the highlights of the show, and the song was met with much audience appreciation. Stromae took the occasion to doff his bowler hat in all directions.
“Humain à l’eau” brought the extended ending. Stromae told the audience that his drummer, Simon, was angry. Do you know why?
After that, he concluded, “New York can dance.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the arena show is the “Strobox.” At smaller venues, Stromae is simply carried out from backstage by two of his musicians. At the arena shows, he’s pushed onto the stage in the “Strobox.” This lifesize box is designed to look like the box an action figure might be packaged in, with a clear plastic front, Japanese writing across the top, and “as seen on TV” written in French on a sticker. With the singer packaged as if he’s being sold, it’s a commentary on the over-mediatized nature of modern celebrity. It also dramatizes the mannequin character very effectively.
Stromae offered extended thank-yous during the extended Congolese remix at the end of “Papaoutai.” He mentioned that two of his musicians, Florian and Simon, had their mothers in the audience. Not only did he thank his musicians and his team as always, but he also thanked his own family. He mentioned each of them by name, saying they were “all here,” from his mother to his little nephew Tao (who was visible peering at his uncle just off stage left, wearing giant white sound-protective headphones). And in a very public declaration of their relationship, he thanked Coralie Barbier, referring to her as both “the one I love, my girlfriend” and “the fashion designer.”
And after those expressions of appreciation were concluded, he thanked Madison Square Garden, New York, and the United States:
He thanked the audience once again with the encore, “Merci”:
He brought members of his technical team onstage for a couple of bows:
He waved to the audience and bowed some more:
Stromae has the skills to bring an audience of 20,000 to silence for an a cappella. “Tous les mêmes” a cappella was the second encore. This performance featured a special new variation on the ending:
After that, first Manoli and then Simon thanked their boss by hoisting him up in their arms as if he were the winning captain of their football team.
He played with the audience a little more, tiptoeing towards the back of the stage to their loud boos and back forward again to cheers. The video below must be edited, though, because the stage didn’t go dark at that point.
Instead, this concert ended as his always do, heartbreakingly, simply. The performer, standing alone on the stage, reaches up, miming that he’ll pull a string to turn off a light.
He did that, and only then did the stage go dark.
photo credits: Amy Van Vranken