One of the things I am always struck by (and love most) about live music is that it is never the same. Even on the rare occasions where I have seen the same (and I MEAN the same) show twice, they always take on a different flavor—echoing the different crowds, venues and general atmosphere to create a truly unique experience. This concept was never so prevalent as the other night when I went to see J.D. McPherson at Paris’ Balajo.
The place itself has an impressive history and is one of Paris’ oldest nightclubs, originally founded by a certain “Jo France,” and like many Parisian sites, the most interesting history is in the building. According to their website, the Balajo used to be the Hotel Vernet, situated on the popular Rue de Lappe—which was already home to many famous clubs. But when a woman was found murdered there, the owners shut down the place and Jo took out a lease. He then contacted his friend (met in a military hospital) Henri Mahé, a Breton painter known for work in brothels including the likes of the Moulin Rouge and the Rex, to do the interior decorations and the Balajo was born, officially opening in 1936.
Over the years it would be shut down during the war and play host to some of France’s most famous personalities—the venue’s slogan reads, “Tout le monde est venu, vient, ou viendra au Balajo (Everybody came, comes, or will come to the Balajo).” In the beginning it was Mistinguette, Jean Gabin and Maurice Chevalier (among others), then Edith Piaf, Django Reinhardt, Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, and later even Brigitte Bardot and Auguste Le Breton frequented this space. Today it’s still going strong, offering two nights of salsa and one of rock and swing dancing during the week before traditional club fare on the weekends.
It’s what I always imagined clubs would be like when I was little. All I really knew about them was what I’d see in old movies. Intimate, with crazy art, friendly staff, and lots of dark corners. And beyond the tiny stage it was the perfect place for McPherson to play. Like his music, which manages to stay contemporary while evoking earlier decades, the Balajo (and one could argue Paris itself) holds on to history, keeping it in our hearts and minds, while staying present and valid. We go for the nostalgia, but also because both are founded on the unshifting principal that music, booze, and dancing can lead to an incredible night.
Similarly, J.D.’s music never felt quite so timeless as when it was performed in this space. I’ve often been struck by how he managed to bring audiences an appealing and authentic version of rock and roll…his concerts walking a fine line between being innovative and nostalgic. Rock and roll for those of us born after it’s death. Performed at the Balajo, we felt that nostalgia more than ever. The music’s timelessness combined with that of the venue, and the crowd—decked out in leather jackets and ’60s silhouettes—danced the night away.
I felt like I’d stepped into another world, neither in Paris nor the U.S., not in 2015 or 1960…somewhere in between all of them. But I suppose that’s often the way in Paris: this city, like McPherson’s music, is transportive. As for the Balajo? Je reviendrai plus tard.