On a hot Indian summer weekend, Stromae’s tour buses stopped in Denver, Colorado, USA. On the schedule: stop number eight of the 15-date North American tour. A Saturday-night show at the Gothic Theatre, just outside the Denver city limits in Englewood, Colorado.
The doors weren’t scheduled to open until 8:00, but at about 3:00 that afternoon a fan arrived to wait alone under the marquee. Rebecca had flown in from Atlanta just to see her new favorite musician, who she had stumbled across on YouTube a few months earlier. She later learned that she was the earliest-arriving fan of the whole tour up to that date. Some time after she arrived, a local man stopped to talk, explaining to Rebecca that he was originally from Belgium and owned a restaurant nearby. When a white van pulled up to the curb, he seemed to know the passengers inside. The Belgian man exchanged a few words of French with the passengers, and out stepped Stromae. He approached Rebecca and offered to take a photo with her. He was very kind and thanked her for coming.
A little while later, Rebecca proudly pulled out her phone and showed that photo of herself and Stromae squinting into the Colorado sunlight to my family and me as we arrived. We (my husband, 13-year-old daughter, and her friend who came from California for the show) took our places in line behind Rebecca about 3 hours before the doors opened.
Waiting for Stromae at the Gothic Theatre
The first fans to arrive were all American. One young woman had flown in from Texas. A mom and two teenage girls who had learned about Stromae in French class drove down from Cheyenne, Wyoming. We met a woman from Buffalo, New York who has been following the tour since the first night in Philadelphia and plans to attend every show! Two tour photographers were taking countless photos and videos of the earliest fans from every angle. One photographer was Thomas Van Cottom, Stromae’s executive producer. There was so much filming, some of us wondered if a documentary of the North American tour is in the works. The mood in the line was convivial as fans swapped our stories of how we’d first heard of Stromae and excitedly anticipated the night ahead.
About an hour before the doors opened, my husband and I walked to the grocery store down the street. I was waiting inside the store for my husband when Yoshi, one of Stromae’s musicians, walked by and I blurted out “Bonne chance pour le concert ce soir” (“good luck with the concert tonight”). He did a double take before responding with a surprised “Merci.” I also saw Thomas again, now with Simon, Stromae’s drummer. The two were browsing the produce section, salad and bread tucked under their arms. I wanted them to be able to enjoy their privacy, but I also didn’t want to miss my chance to pass along my well-wishes. When I approached and called Simon by name (using the French pronunciation, bien sûr) his eyes widened. I wished him good luck for the concert in French as well, he answered “Merci,” and I beat a hasty retreat.
Simon, Yoshi, musician Manoli, and Dati (Stromae’s brother, a photographer who is documenting the tour on his Tumblr) were all coming and going on the street, mostly without being recognized. One fan had the courage to approach Dati for a photo and he graciously obliged. As the sun set and the sky grew darker, Dati came out again and crossed the street to take photos of the Gothic marquee. We took photos of him taking photos, of course!
I had the impression that Stromae’s team was as excited to be there as the audience was, and that together we were participating in something very human and beautiful: a joyful dance between creators and appreciators of creation.
The doors are open!
The second the doors opened, we headed straight for the front row. I got the place directly in front of center stage, so close that I could easily reach out and touch the stage.
At just about 3 minutes after showtime, the lights went down and the animation began on the giant screen behind the stage. The audience began chanting “Stro-MAY! Stro-MAY!” First Simon and Manoli, then Yoshi and Florian, stepped briskly out and stood at attention at their stations behind their instruments. Finally Stromae himself ran out and stood ramrod straight at his microphone. The crowd went wild, and we were off into“Ta Fête.”
Stromae takes the stage
Stromae poured all his energy and passion into this performance. The sound quality was not great this close to the stage. The tradeoff was an extremely close-up view of the Maestro’s famously knobby knees and equally famous socks, down to the knit. A little roll of sock cuff here, a little dip there suggested that his backstage dressing routine happens in too much of a hurry to get those socks precisely adjusted. I loved this little touch of humanity. We were close enough to read his nickname, “POLO,” printed in white capital letters on the microphone battery pack clipped to his belt. When he was carried onstage for “Papaoutai” his feet were almost in my face and I noticed how worn the bottoms of his custom Papaoutai loafers are now that he’s performed that song hundreds of times over the past 15 months.
Stromae seemed to enjoy being able to make eye contact with his audience. In “Ave Cesaria,” eyes locked, he and I sang along to a chorus of “je te retrouverai, c’est sûr, c’est sûr, c’est sûr.” My daughter was sure he was looking at her while he sang “oh, bébé, oups mademoiselle” in “Formidable.” At moments like these we experienced a connection with the artist and his work that felt like another step in that joyful dance between creator and audience, one that would be impossible in the huge arenas Stromae plays to in most parts of the world. I hoped that the singer, who once rapped about hoping to “touch lives” with his music, found the connection rewarding.
The tiny stage meant that the lighting and effects that happen in the arenas were scaled down here. Instead of the rising square-root platforms, smaller stationary square-root lighted props stood on the stage. Sometimes Stromae’s lanky body barely seemed to fit on the tiny stage. That didn’t hold him back, though: his dance moves and gestures were just as exaggerated as ever, and one time during “Humain à L’eau” I nearly hit him in the head waving my hands in the air as he dipped forward at the front of the stage. Also, one of the photographers who’d been snapping pics on the sidewalk earlier kept slipping in and out of the narrow space between me and the stage and it was hard not to hit him too.
Between songs, Stromae spoke almost entirely in English, with just a few phrases of French. Only a handful of people seemed to have enough history with Stromae to know the “taataa” sound he uses between chapters in his YouTube “leçons.” (For lovers of the Belgian comic, he joked that in English, we’d say “Tintin.”) Even though the crowd was probably only about 20-25% native French speakers, the majority of the audience sang along enthusiastically with “Formidable,” “Papaoutai,” and “Alors On Danse.” A glance up at the balcony showed rows of perpetual smiles even on faces that weren’t singing along. Anytime he shouted “Denver!” the audience went wild. Anglophone or francophone, Stromae had this audience captivated.
My husband took this video standing next to me:
Last June, we attended a large arena show at the Centre Bell in Montreal with about 15,000 almost exclusively francophone fans. Four songs Stromae played that night in Montreal were not on the setlist at the Gothic: “Je Cours,” “Te Quiero,” “Silence” (all from his first album, Cheese), and “Sommeil” (from Racine Carrée). This made the evening seem all too short. We weren’t ready for the a cappella version of “Tous les Mêmes” that ended the show. But we were drawn into an especially riveting performance of the song, and being close enough to hear the singer’s natural voices without amplification was such a gift. Dati stood behind the singers, apparently shooting photos from the back of the stage. On the last line of the song, Stromae accidentally switched one of the choreographed gestures he was supposed to make and the quick embarrassment in his face was evident. He immediately brushed off his faux pas with a big crinkly-nosed guffaw at himself, of course. The sincerity, humility, and down-to-earth good humor he’s known for shone especially brightly at that moment, just before the Maestro, with a gesture in the air, switched off the lights.
After the show, security hurried us outside. Roadies quickly unpacked the stage and rolled crates out the front door to the truck. The parking lot, backstage alley, and buses were soon tightly guarded by security. We’d heard Stromae had come out to greet fans an hour or two after almost every show on the North American tour, so we hoped to have the chance to meet him. We were worried too, because we knew the team had a tight turnaround to make it to show #9 in Salt Lake City the next night. One guard yelled, “He’s not coming out.” We were all tense and tired after being on our feet for over seven hours. After more than an hour, there were about 30 audience members still waiting. A security guard suddenly yelled “Make a line!” We snapped to it, and a few minutes later Thomas, the producer, crossed the parking lot towards us. Speaking in French (about half of those waiting seemed to be French-speaking), he explained that there wasn’t much time tonight. Stromae would be coming out in about 20 minutes, and he had time for one quick photo with each of us. No autographs would be given. No screaming or fuss, or the photo session would end immediately.
Right on schedule, Stromae emerged from the darkness behind the truck at the other side of the parking lot with Dati and Thomas, looking polished in his marled pink sweater, pink no-wale corduroy pants, light gray socks, and moccasins. The group of fans gasped slightly and there were whispers of “There he is!” The female security guard quietly warned, “No screaming, no screaming.”
Appearing tired but relaxed, Stromae crossed over and stood at the edge of the sidewalk to pose for photos. He greeted his fans one by one, politely thanking each of us for coming and for waiting to see him, switching easily between English and French. Each of us plotted what we’d do and say in our 10 seconds with Stromae and tried out our cameras with and without flash. Dati shot more photos nearby as the fans posed. My daughter delightedly noticed that, according to his T-shirt, Dati is also a fan of Totoro, a character in a Miyazaki movie she loves.
My turn for a photo came quickly. My husband was ready with the camera. I stepped up next to Stromae and greeted him with “Bonsoir,” and he answered the same. I was very aware that I was standing with my arm around a person I admire very much but that it felt completely normal, and that his sweater was soft. I worried that I wouldn’t look natural for the camera.
I had brought a little book of Colorado photographs to give to him as a souvenir and a gesture of appreciation for all that he’s given me. After we posed for the photo, I offered the book to him, telling him in French that I’d brought a little gift for him. He seemed genuinely touched and took it, saying “Merci, c’est super gentil.” (“Thank you, that’s super nice.”) There was an awkward moment and some fumbling French on my part as we tried to decide whether he or I would pass the book to Thomas to hold. Stromae did it. Then I said “Bonne soirée” (“have a good night”), he answered the same, and I stepped away as he turned to the next fan who was waiting for him.
For more videos of the show, search “Stromae Denver” on YouTube. There are some great front-row videos from the show.