Published Apr 08, 2016St. Germain, the stage name of Ludovic Navarre, is one of those artists that fans never expected to see in the flesh. The reclusive French DJ came out of the French Touch scene of the 1990s, which produced mega-acts like Daft Punk and Justice, and his 2000 release, Tourist, was one of the most successful albums of that period.
Its songs were ubiquitous for a handful of years, popping up in what felt like every movie, commercial and retail store with any ambitions of being "funky" and "euro-chic." In that respect, Tourist was basically the French version of Play by Moby, but unlike that record, which was an exercise in hit-making that used well established sounds, Tourist broke new ground by combining jazz with house music. It seemed like the manifesto for a musical revolution. But then St. Germain disappeared.
When Navarre took the stage at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto last night (April 7), it was for his first tour in over a decade, in support of his first album in over 15 years. His self-titled third LP came virtually out of nowhere last October, and featured familiar house beats accompanied by lush Malian instrumentation. It left the question of whether the songs, which were full of improvisation that clearly went beyond sampling, would be recreated by Navarre alone in a live setting, or if he would bring musicians to play with him. That question was answered even before he made it to his DJ booth: this incarnation of St. Germain featured an eight-piece live band of musicians from Mali, other parts of Africa, and France, all playing over Navarre's tracks throughout the show.
Throughout the lively performance, the band did much more than recreate St. Germain's songs, using them as a springboard for improvisation that moved way beyond the original studio recordings. With an assortment of Malian string instruments, plus percussion, guitar, bass, keys, saxophone and flute, they went in and out of St. Germain's recognizable hooks, lifting each song to new heights. The Tourist staple "So Flute" started with the familiar flute riff, but moved within seconds to a far different percussion and bass jam, while the bluesy "Sure Thing" gave the guitar player a foundation for some of the most mind-bending guitar work of the night.
In the background of all of this, Navarre stood quietly behind the decks, only emerging at the end to take a quick bow with the band. The lack of engagement was unsettling at first: Did he want to be somewhere else? Was he really meshing with his band mates? What was he even doing back there?
But across a long series of subtle interactions between Navarre and the band throughout the night, it became clear that his quietness was characterized by a certain modesty that made him appear all the more self-assured and talented. Where too many composers try to steal the spotlight from their performers, Navarre had the good sense to stay in the background and offer a foundation upon which other incredibly talented musicians could build. He was more curator than performer, a person who had fallen in love with a rich musical tradition, and knew where to insert his sound and where to let it move organically.
Once again, as with his work in the '90s, St. Germain has created something rich and masterful, but also full of potential, with this live setup. Now, it's left to see whether he'll do more with it now, or disappear for another decade and come back with something totally different.