It’s five o’clock on an atypical Saturday in London, a day during which one million people have taken to the central city streets to protest about a political and democratic decision which threatens the entire nation, its relationship with Europe and indeed the whole world.
Discarded placards are stacked up against railings in Trafalgar Square, symbolic to a degree because of the history of the place. There, on top of his high plinth, stands the British naval hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was partly responsible for curtailing the expansive ambitions of French emperor, Napoleon Buonaparte.
So much has changed in the ensuing 214 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, the country now totally at war with itself over the European referendum, the deadlock in the differing political ideologies causing fear, anxiety and confusion.
But tonight, in the city, there’s a far more discreet French invasion taking place in a subterranean corner of Soho, adjacent to the massive earthworks of the Crossrail train engineering project.
Jokingly, the band in question, the Gallic fivesome Lazuli think this incredible turn-out on the streets on London is for them. In a saner world, Lazuli would indeed be filling huge auditoriums. In these extraordinary circumstances however, it has taken them nearly four hours to navigate their way around motorways and roads into London to get to the venue.
With one of their staunchest fans, who took part in the day’s protest, in possession of a European Union flag, they are fully aware that they are among friends here at the Borderline, a popular if slightly claustrophobic music venue/nightclub, which has undergone a significant facelift since they were last here two years ago.
There’s around 160 in the venue tonight, a very healthy number considering a sizeable new prog festival is happening about a two and a half hour’s drive away and there are a couple of major gigs in town the following evening (Lifesigns and the Neal Morse Band).
This London date has been rescheduled from the previous autumn when the band embarked on a mini-tour of the UK, culminating in a triumphant third headlining appearance at the British flagship prog festival, Summer’s End.
Back under the tender loving care of tour manager, Nellie Pitts, a second show has been added the following night at Level III , another fascinating basement music venue located in the south-west English railway town of Swindon.
But tonight’s is a completely different show to the ones delivered last autumn to promote their thoughtful, achingly lovely album Saison 8 (to reflect this being their eighth album). This is a two and a half hour celebration of their finest and most popular songs.
But first for those unfamiliar with Lazuli, this band is very much a family-centric enterprise, which began with brothers, the elvish Dominique and Claude Leonetti, whose base is just outside the southern French city of Nîmes.
Claude was the guitarist in the early incarnation of the band, but a motorcycle accident in the 1980s robbed him of the use of his left arm, rendering guitar playing impossible.
However, he had a prophetic dream about an instrument which would allow him to continue playing. And behold, the unique Léode (a combination of his second and first names) was created, a box of sonic programmable tricks – a cross between a guitar, synthesiser and musical saw – from which he can produce the most extraordinary effects, which gives the band their iconic original sound.
The present line-up has been together nearly a decade and represents a steady ascent in their popularity across Europe, notably Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with, alas, less recognition in their native France. The UK has also embraced them especially after they toured with one of their heroes, Fish, in the autumn of 2015, when the crowd reaction seemed to be along the lines of “What on earth was that!?”
An understandable reaction indeed to a band, influenced among others by the Beatles, Peter Gabriel and the inimitable Fish, who also appears on one of their albums. It might also be down to the exquisite sound and visual experience they provide so spectacularly.
Along with Claude’s Léode, Domi plays electric and acoustic guitars, one of which has been custom made by his son Elliot, again underlining the family connections. Domi’s distinct clear high register voice is effectively another instrument especially to the ears of non-French speakers who can concentrate on and marvel at his incredible perfect pitch.
You can find the expressive, animate multi-instrumentalist Romain Thorel on keyboards with added bass (there is no bass player in the band), drums and French horn, while the solidly reliable ‘timekeeper’ Vincent Barnavol takes care of drums, djembe and marimba. As for the flamboyantly dreadlocked Gédéric Byar, his guitar does all the talking with a little help from a screwdriver and a veritable battery of effects pedals.
Visually, the front three resemble the cast of an unwritten Lord of the Rings chapter, their extravagant hair tied up or braided, Domi sporting his customary plaited beard, costumes sombrely black with ‘aprons’ and bondage trousers included somewhere in the mix, while the clean-shaven, ever-smiling duo of Thorel and Barnavol make up the back line.
However, together, their live show pulsates with a transcendental energy seldom encountered on the world’s stages and the love they feel when they perform transmits directly to the audience. As I have said previously, they simply gather you up and take you on a magic carpet ride to their own musical universe.
Admittedly, the meanings of the songs probably get lost in translation, but as Domi once declared, “I have the soul of a Frenchman, so it would be very difficult to sing in English.” Their songs are full of imagery and metaphors which would not flow if imagined in English. But such is their humanistic view of the world, they are not afraid of tackling big subjects such as the environment, climate change, immigration, injustice and male violence against women.
For tonight’s show, it’s a walk-through Lazuli time (literally) to revisit some of their most popular songs from the past including the sublimely beautiful Cassiopée and the volcanic L’Abîme (The Abyss).
However, for your humble reviewer, two other “old” songs provide the highlights, one being the fabulously evocative 15 hr 40 (Twenty to Four) in which they perfectly capture the sound of a ticking clock locked in the moment of the hour. The following evening in Swindon, they meet the fan who originally asked them to put the song back in the show and duly dedicates it to him.
The other is Naif, a song from their first album Amnésie, which struck a chord when we first saw and fell in love with them in 2011 at the Summer’s End festival, but which Domi explains that he wrote when he was an idealistic youth, and probably still is. This is a particularly clever acoustically driven song on which Thorel crafts a regimented pattern of beats on a snare drum while Barnavol taps out the song’s underlying rhythm on his beat box. It still resonates as strongly as it did nearly eight years.
Despite his halting English, Domi has rehearsed his lines well enough to crack jokes about his recent bout of flu, which, unlike the true tenor tuning made his voice sound like Barry White – which he then changes topically to British Prime Minister Theresa May when she lost her voice during a Brexit debate in Parliament.
He also sounds a more serious note when introducing Les Côtes, a song about the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and seeking a better life arriving on the southern shores of Europe. “Without immigration, this stage would be empty”, Domi declares, he and brother Claude having Italian ancestry along with Byar’s North African roots.
There’s also an element of gravity to the haunting Les Sutures, a song all about finding each other and relating to one another “under all the sutures of our wounded souls”, whose drama comes when Barnavol begins a military drum beat that is then taken up by Domi and Thorel on a single snare drum mid-stage.
Les Malveillants is another show-stopping favourite, an angry song about malicious people and their evil intentions, which is the nearest they get to prog-metal, this being a full-on, no holds barred barrage of riffage from both guitars and Léode. It comes to a climax when Domi and Byar bravely jump off the stage into the audience and go walkabouts.
Bringing the show to a close, Les Courants Ascendants (The Updrafts) is one of those slow burning songs which suddenly ignites, Thorel going full throttle on the French horn as Byar’s fizzing fretwork suddenly morphs into a ringing, melodic riff, bringing the song to a rousing climax.
As the band leaves the stage, the audience, who know this is far from the end, start singing back the riff and that’s the cue for Lazuli to return as crowd conductors, while Thorel on keyboards and Barnavol on drums duet on some jazzy impro work.
With the passing of this beautiful evening comes the passing of the seasons, Domi launching into the gorgeous Un Automne from Amnésie then brings their story right up to date with J’Attends Un Printemps (I Am Waiting For A Spring) from their Saison 8 album – very apt for a late day in March.
Finally, they regroup for their jaw-dropping finale, Nine Hands Around A Marimba – basically, the five of them playing together on just the one instrument, in which they improvise several familiar tunes, which, tonight include Solsbury Hill and Michelle – all delivered with some knockabout humour.
It’s another phenomenal show from a band who are musical joy bringers. Their fraternal love and respect for each other as musicians and friends (there’s a song in the show called Mes amis, mes frères – My Friends, My Brothers – which sums this all up) is writ large throughout their shows.
Sadly, with the current political situation in the United Kingdom, there’s great uncertainty for bands like Lazuli and other foreign favourites such as the Franck Carducci Band as to how it will impact on future tours to these shores. Already, it is a huge logistical operation to bring their show across the Channel from the south of France and any subsequent red tape as a result of Britain’s drawn-out departure from the European Union could exacerbate this.
As Lazuli’s new tee-shirt slogan so perfectly says, “Music flies over borders”. For now, we can only wait with anticipation for the upcoming new album later this year, which Domi says is a very special one. Let’s hope they will be able to bring it to us live next year.
All photographs by Martin Reijman taken at Level III, Swindon, 24 March 2019.