Published May 02, 2014The term living legend gets bandied about rather loosely these days, but it unquestionably applies to Johnny Hallyday. While most English speakers will be unfamiliar with the 70-year-old singer who has often been described as the "French Elvis Presley" — a lineage Hallyday himself would not deny — the numbers are indeed staggering: 48 studio albums, more than 100 million records sold, more than 3,100 concerts in 40 countries to an estimated 28 million fans in a career that spans seven decades. That Hallyday has never made a dent in the English or American markets makes these numbers even more impressive, and his current North American tour of smaller venues somewhat puzzling.
Although the Danforth Music Hall was not sold out, the crowd — which ranged from French teenagers to French baby boomers — was electric with excitement, the anticipation palpable as the lights went down and Hallyday's eight-piece band stepped onto the stage. When Hallyday, dressed in a tight black sequined suit and carrying a silver guitar, opened the show with "Je suis né dans la rue," one of two songs from his classic 1969 LP Rivière...Ouvre ton lit (featuring contributions by Small Faces' Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, as well as Jimmy Page and Mick Jones, it is the one absolutely unimpeachable full-length in his long discography), the audience immediately rose to its feet and rarely sat down for the rest of the 95-minute set. That itself is a rare sight in Toronto, but the crowd went a step futher, singing and clapping along and chanting "Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!" each time the music stopped.
The setlist relied heavily on French adaptations of English-language hits (no less than half of the songs were covers, including songs by the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Rick Nelson, British bubble-glam group Smokie and skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan), but Hallyday often made them his own: an over-the-top "Le pénitencier" ("House of the Rising Son") was nearly as foreboding as the Animals' version of the song, and a searing "Fils de personne" ("Fortunate Son") showed that Hallyday's voice has lost little of its power.
That Hallyday's originals, consisting mostly of proggy, theatrical power ballads ("Ma gueule," "Que je t'aime") and melodramatic, wordy mid-tempo rockers ("Diego libre dans sa tête," "L'envie"), often contrasted sharply with these covers but never sounded out of place is a testament to the wide stylistic range of music Hallyday has recorded over his long career. Coming across like a blend of 1969 Elvis, Neil Diamond and Tony Joe White, the hugely charismatic Hallyday remains a ferocious live performer and never sounded less than fully committed or running through the motions — unlike his idol in his mid-1970s Vegas nadir — despite having played most of these songs countless times, mostly in much larger settings.
While a fine actor, on stage Hallyday is a man of few words — his longest bit of banter came before an energetic cover of Elvis Presley's "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)," when he spoke of the impact of hearing Presley's music for the first time. — but he seemed genuinely moved by the warm reception, thanking the audience profusely, shaking hands and walking into the crowd during "Quelque chose de Tennessee."
After one last encore (the moving "L'attente," accompanied a single acoustic guitar and a piano), Hallyday walked off the Danforth stage for the last time to more chants of "Johnny! Johnny!" from a boisterous audience still in shock to have gotten the opportunity to see France's eternal idole des jeunes in such an intimate setting. He may never return to Toronto, but those who saw him on this night won't soon forget it.