I love The Roundhouse. It's like a miniature Royal Albert Hall, dropped like a steampunk flying saucer into the heart of Camden, almost as though Victorian aliens just knew that one hundred years later the area around Chalk Farm would be one of the most culturally exciting neighbourhoods within the capital, and would need a suitably eclectic venue.
The truth, as is often the case, is rather more mundane. The Roundhouse was built in 1847 by the London and North Western Railway, and was known as The Great Circular Engine House. Basically, it was a garage for steam trains, which would enter and leave using its central turntable. Unfortunately, as steam trains got longer, they rapidly outgrew their garage. A bit like today's huge SUV's failing to negotiate the parking spaces in our old NCP multi-storeys. Nowadays it is a 3000 capacity arts venue, having opened as such back in 1964. My first visit was during my first term at college back in 1976 when I made the three-bus journey across London from Chelsea to see US teenage punk band The Runaways.
Then, as now, walking into The Roundhouse elicits an awesome inspiration of breath as you gaze upwards and take in the wonderful cast-iron skeleton of the building, the circular seated gallery, and the huge stage. I am back here tonight, with a standing ticket, to see French musician Héloïse Letissier, better known as Christine and The Queens.
Earlier this year I reviewed the English language version of her debut album for Outline Magazine ( http://www.outlineonline.co.uk/music/albums/christine-and-the-queens---chaleur-humaine ), and from memory awarded it 9/10. It only lost a mark because I would have preferred it to have also contained the French-language versions of songs like Tilt, perhaps as bonus tracks. The original album, Chaleur Humaine, released almost two years earlier in France, had been a huge hit, then was re-worked with English lyrics for the American market. I was too late to get a ticket for her London show at Koko in March (tickets were re-selling for up to £250 each), so made sure that I bagged one for the Roundhouse gig as soon as the date was announced. Shortly afterwards Christine and The Queens were announced for this year's Latitude Festival, and they have appeared on Later With Jools Holland.
Tonight's London show is another sell-out, even with the larger venue, but the majority of the audience do appear to be speaking French. London has a huge ex-pat community so this is not a complete surprise, but I guess that I secretly hoped that a few more English music fans might have picked up on Christine and The Queens by now.
Support comes from Dutch electro-pop duo Klyne - Nick Klein on vocals and Ferdhous Dehzard on synths, with a back-up drummer. They do pulsating synths and pained vocals reasonably well - the Roundhouse's rich and resonant sound system beefing up even the most delicate of electronic trilling, and tracks like Waiting, Closer and Paralysed are warmly received. They remind of a mid-tempo Metronomy at times, but nothing to get really excited about.
Christine and The Queens take the stage just as the Gallic anticipation is reaching its chattering climax - Héloïse leading out her four male dancers whilst the three-piece band take their positions on the plinths behind - two synth players and a guitarist. There is time to play the entire track list of Chaleur Humaine - sometimes supplemented with video projection contributions from collaborators Perfumed Genius and Tunje Ige (as in Jonathan and No Harm is Done), sometimes with Héloïse silhouetted by a lone spotlight against a darkened stage, but often with some energetic, acrobatic and well-choreographed dance moves. The muscular frames of the four males shadow and extend the drama created by Héloïse's diminutive, suited form. There are elements of Michael Jackson, Prince and even Madonna in the way they use the stage area, but it is the big grin and gurning expressiveness of our French heroine that carves out the performance as a spectacle rather than a tribute.
The partisan crowd constantly shout for her to speak in French to the point where it is easy to forget that you are not actually in Paris. Her English is fluent, although when she tries to use metaphor and nuance between numbers to explain her philosophy on individuality and gender expression it quickly becomes rather clumsy and stilted. The moment when she brings on a bouquet of flowers and holds herself up as a plain stem against the roses of Beyoncé and Rhianna doesn't quite work on a crowd that is just wanting her to throw the blooms into the pit of adoring fans.
There are another couple of things that don't go quite to plane. The synths on one song don't kick in on time at the beginning, causing a re-start, and her suit pants unceremoniously rip in the crotch area during one particularly exertive dance move. Ever the trouper, she simply grabs a piece of black fabric from the stage, wraps it around her waist and continues to the end of the number, microphone held in one hand, black wrap-around secured with the other, but still dancing. An impromptu unrehearsed costume change follows.
For the encore, though, the costume change is intentional, when in a slightly bizarre course of events, our star stilt-walks onto the stage in a spangly glittery suit for the final number, and for the first time in the evening dwarfing her dancers. It is all a bit bizarre, but then that is what Christine and The Queens is all about - a theatrical, emotive, mis-fit embracing individuality openness and honesty. Be whatever you want to be , and do it to the best of your ability, and allow others to do the same.
Now, let's get a few more English fans along to her Latitude appearance in the Summer, and let's give a little bit of that love back.
Christine and The Queens website - http://www.christineandthequeens.com/home/
Christine and The Queens Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/christineandthequeens
Klyne on Soundcloud - https://soundcloud.com/thisisklyne
Klyne on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/ThisIsKlyne/
Buy 'Chaleur Humaine' from Amazon - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chaleur-Humaine-Christine-Queens/dp/B00KGLR3DA