The mood at the Paradise Rock Club, or any other venue like it for that matter, isn’t usually very electrifying. Very few people will dance and what little dancing that does occur will likely be of the vertical variety, only occasionally accompanied by nodding heads and pumping fists.
Such was not the case when Caravan Palace visited the Paradise at the beginning of this month.
Few if any bands today have the energy and chemistry displayed by France’s reigning electro-swing darlings. Carrying on the tradition of earlier counterparts like Parov Stelar, Caravan Palace’s versatile multi-instrumentalists represent the forefront in a genre that aims to marry the musicianship and complexity of jazz and swing with the thumping, bass-heavy beats of electronic music.
Although they’re still not any huge force with American audiences, Caravan Palace’s eponymous first album placed 11th on the French charts, and their 2012 release, Panic, placed 20th, perhaps because of their distinctly Francophone roots. The band’s style is predominantly a mix of mellow gypsy jazz and French house music — much more refined and careful than big band swing or American electronica.
Caravan Palace’s lack of popularity outside of Europe has meant that the band tours constantly to make ends meet. And while it’s usually sad to see a group burn the candle at both ends this way, anybody who’s ever been to a CP show would have no reason to complain about the frequent tours.
To begin with, the flawless composition of the band’s studio recordings isn’t just good producing — They’re actually that tight. Often, violinist/vocalist Hugues Payen and clarinetist Camille Chapelière’s parts were so harmonically resonant that it was difficult to distinguish the two instruments. Those who have played jazz or swing would instantly recognize the sidelong glances that occurred between members across the stage, each motion and nod the movement of a cog in a well oiled and precisely rehearsed machine.
This isn’t a hunch. Anyone can look up the band’s performance of “Rock It For Me” on YouTube and see that frontwoman Zoé Colotis and trombonist/synthmaster Antoine Toustou dance the same routine at every venue. They plan every jungle beat breakdown. They know what songs the audience is chomping at the bit to hear and they save them for their two (planned) encores. Caravan Palace puts on a show in a very precise and deliberate sense of the word.
One of the highlights of the show came during “Suzy,” when the scat solos shared by Colotis and Payen slowly turned into a scat battle. At first determined by displays of vocal strength, the verbal wars soon became displays of brutal childish tomfoolery as Payen stole Colotis’s microphone and tried to clip the audio in her earpiece. She returned the favor and the two continued back and forth until neither could take it.
Similarly, any song requiring guitarist Arnaud Vial and bassist Charles Delaporte to migrate to keyboards resulted in a showy test of wits and skill. Hell, if an upright bass and a guitar could be on they same playing field, they’d be competing the entire time. With so much talent present in one venue, it was difficult to decide what to look at.
As mentioned, the band clearly knew that they were expected to play “Clash” and “La Caravane,” arguably their two best songs, during the encores. In a beautiful display of anticipation, the synth vocals for the latter began before anyone had even returned to the stage, to the rabid excitement of the audience.
But the astonishing climax of the whole concert was the performance of “Star Scat,” which this critic had previously thought impossible in a live setting. The heavily altered vocals of both the titular scatbot and his backup “ooh-ahs” sound so dense and overproduced on the album, it seemed that no performance could come close. Not so. After “Clash,” Toustou — who hadn’t sung a word until that moment — pulled out an old-timey microphone and out came that haunting techno-scat. Multiple jaws dropped.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a shame that Caravan Palace’s routine is so polished and rehearsed. Do we miss some ad-libbed and unplanned madness? Sure. Yet we also get our full money’s worth in excellent showmanship and music.
Most importantly, Caravan Palace offers a show that can be danced to, a rare thing in this day and age. They’re coming to a town near you this year — and next year, and the next one. Go see them. You owe it to yourself.