Reviews: Cafe Brel
Indi'spence'ables. By: Stuart Spence.  20th November 1998.  Sydney Morning Herald

Who are you?
"John Waters, actor, musician"
What's indispensable in your life?
"Music,  Hearing Hendrix go, Scuse me while I kiss the sky", John Waters, at this point, is quietly going off, a la Jimmy: "that lives in my mind forever."

From a wee age, Waters, growing up in south-west London, always had his indispensable music floating around. "My Dad used to sing all day. He was one of these guys that would always have a little song, when he was washing up or putting coal in the fire. I thought everything had to be accompanied by music when I was a kid."

When it comes to music, Waters has "two particular loves". He thought rhythm and blues was simply "sex on a stick" when he first heard it transmitted from the Continent on pirate station Radio Luxembourg. He had to hide under his pillow to listen to the radio, the music's "decadence" just too hot for home at the time. His other love is Jacques Brel.

Can't quite place Monsieur Brel, John.
Waters picks up his axe and purrs out a smokey, sensual, sad little tune in perfect French.
Quite luscious Johnny, but listen, while you've got the guitar out, you couldn't, well, ...
Without hesitation, Mr Music changes channel, from SBS to the ABC. "There's a bear in there, and a chair as well ..."
John Waters performs the songs of Jacques Brel in Cafe Brel Downstairs at the Seymour Centre from Tuesday.
Show boasts French polish.  By KEN LONGWORTH.  28th January 1999.  Newcastle Herald

John Waters' new tribute show, Cafe Brel, features the popular performer singing for 90 minutes in French. A foreign lingo? He must be off his rocker!

Not so, according to critics and audiences in Sydney, where Cafe Brel premiered in late November.

This collection of two dozen of the songs of Belgian-born Jacques Brel (1929-1978) has won standing ovations, with attendees finding that Brel's passionate music, Waters' heart-felt delivery and the accompaniment of a piano-accordion-accented five-piece band makes the language unimportant in obtaining an understanding of the emotions expressed.

While many of Brel's songs were recorded in English translation in the 1960s and 70s by artists including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles and Rod McKuen, Brel himself would only ever perform them in the original French.

Brel, who made Paris his home early in his life, believed that the passion of his lyrics about love, loss and social injustice came through most intently in the language in which they were written.

Waters, who sang Brel's songs in late night shows at the Chevron Hotel in Sydney's Kings Cross in the early 1970s, agrees.
So he took the brave step, when developing Cafe Brel in association with musical director and long-time friend Stewart d'Arrietta, of deciding to honour Brel's intentions and perform in French.

Waters gives a brief English paraphrase of each song before launching into it ? just enough explanation to make non-French-speaking audience members receptive to the bitter-sweet, satiric or wistful vein that follows.  The emphasis is on the songs. There is none of the biographical element of Waters' popular John Lennon tribute, Looking Through a Glass Onion.

Cafe Brel will be staged (in more than the normal sense of the word) at Newcastle's Civic Theatre on February 12 and 13.
To get the right cabaret atmosphere, the audience will be seated at cafe tables on the theatre's stage, with waiters providing a drinks service during the show.  John Waters and the band will be on an extension of the stage covering the orchestra pit, with the theatre's beautiful classic auditorium as a backdrop.

Indeed, Newcastle audiences will get a better deal than their Sydney counterparts.  In the capital city, the show's five-week premiere run was in the concrete-bunker-like downstairs theatre at the Seymour Centre, with a token handful of cafe tables replacing the front row of seats and audience members only allowed to bring in drinks purchased in plastic cups before the show.

The big question is whether there is an audience in Newcastle for Brel's songs, 21 years after his death. While the titles of his songs, such as Mathilde, Amsterdam, Next and If You Go Away, may ring only faint bells, audience members probably will find the tunes familiar.  As for the quality of the show . . . well, even the French-language newspaper Le Courrier Australien found Waters' French to be `impeccable' and called his Brel tribute `a brilliant hommage'. Cafe Brel's February 12 and 13 performances will be at 9.30pm (time for a good French meal first!).
"Waters makes the French connection.  By Bryce Hallett.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 1998

The songs of Jacques Brel are anything but distant or passive - they crowd around you, so that you feel like a commuter stuck in peak hour. The cacophony, the escalating emotional dramas, the howling wind and the enveloping force of the language and rhythms threaten to sweep you away.

John Waters's Cafe Brel starts with a roar, then dips tentatively into what begins to feel suspiciously like a history lesson about the Belgian-born singer-songwriter and his affinity with Paris. But not for long. By about the fourth song, Waters lets the rich dimensions of the utterly human "stories" hold sway.

Dressed soberly in a jacket, shirt and tie, the actor-singer almost devours the microphone as he and his terrific band led by musical director Stewart D'Arrietta, work brilliantly to get under the audience's skin. The 90-minute production, with effective lighting by Peter Neufeld and excellent sound, manages to cast an entrancing spell, the emphasis firmly on the texture and colour of the songs. Cafe Brel would, however, be all the more varied and stronger if the fine musicians surrounding Waters were highlighted more.

While the concept of Cafe Brel smacks of a number of recent tribute shows, it is refreshingly free of indulgence and pretension. That Waters has been inspired by Brel's "performance" songs - finding a deep connection with the drama and soul of his songbook since he was in his teens - is without question. Apart from a few choice words in English to set the scene or context, each song is, rightly, sung in French. As the show progresses, the landscape it seeks to draw becomes understandable and clear in our minds: the wind chiming through the steeples of the unrelentingly flat Belgium; the bleak, grey skies dissolving into waterways, the frenetic rush, sensual caress and engulfing romance of Paris - the city where Brel found faith and freeing expression.

Although Cafe Brel could do with a bit more light and shade, it succeeds admirably in arousing our interest in the world and music of Brel, not just through the efforts of the talented Waters, but through the gifted, superbly entertaining band: Michael Kluger (piano accordion, piano, glockenspiel); Idris Jones (guitar, banjo, clarinet, flute); Greg Henson (percussion, drums); bassist Tony Mitchell and D'Arrietta on keyboards. The rapport that Water and Kluger establish, and the spontaneity and spark they summon, give Cafe Brel vitality and warmth. It would be wonderful for a recording to be made, so good is the band.

While the concrete box downstairs theatre at the Seymour Centre isn't conducive to this type of act - Sydney has no cabaret venues - a few token tables have been added to create an intimate, informal atmosphere where audience members can take drinks (plastic cups only) and be intoxicated by the spirit of Brel.
Plunging into the unknown.  By: DENISE EVERTON.  27th November 1998.  Illawarra Mercury

In the Australian entertainment industry John Waters is a true chameleon. Dedicated to the task of constantly re-inventing himself, this prized performer finds no challenge too daring.

Many artists would have cringed at attempting to capture the subtleties of John Lennon - the man and his music - in a one-man show but Waters did it brilliantly with Looking Through A Glass Onion.

Now the man, who is arguably one of Australia's most versatile performers, is taking his most unexpected step by presenting Cafe Brel, an intimate performance of the songs of French singer/songwriter Jacques Brel. A fan of the musician's work since he was just 16, Waters admits it is a daring production for an Australian audience but is delighting in the plunge into the unknown.

"I really do want to do what appeals to me whether it's in film, television, theatre or music," he said during the rundown to opening night. I want to showcase talents people don't know I have, like singing in French.  I don't like to stagnate. I think of myself as an entertainer but whereas in something like An Ideal Husband (a stage show he starred in at the start of the year) I'm strictly an actor, in this show I can be me and that's nice."

Cafe Brel is not the first time Waters has performed the European artist's songs before an Australian audience. In 1971 he put together a show titled Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris but performed the songs in English. This time the show features songs in French with explanations of Brel's life and music in English.  While some of the audience may not understand the lyrics of the songs, Waters says the music is ``infectious and emotionally involving".
"Each song is like a little play, a little piece of theatre. It's a fictionalised account of his life and I'm in character."

If this limited season of Cafe Brel is a success, Waters will plan to tour the show immediately. But whatever happens he's adamant he's having the time of his life. Cafe Brel is at Sydney's Seymour Centre.