You’ve probably heard Betty Bonifassi without knowing it. Did you see the loopy French animated cycling movie Les triplettes de Belleville? That was Bonifassi singing the equally loopy theme song, “Belleville Rendez-Vous”.

Bonifassi also did a memorable turn on DJ Champion’s first album, on a track called “No Heaven”. You would have been forgiven for thinking that Champion had unearthed some aged blues singer from the American deep south for that stand-out song. But the pipes belonged to Bonifassi, a French-born singer from France’s deep south town of Nice, who has in recent years called Montreal home.

You would have also been forgiven for not connecting the vocals on “Belleville Rendez-Vous” to those on “No Heaven”. “Belleville” is a jaunty, faux-‘30s romp, while the latter track is grimy and lusty. But the voice on both songs belongs to Bonifassi, an infinitely expressive and versatile singer who seems until recently to have been satisfied with providing the vocal element to other artists’ visions.

Until last year, that is, when she teamed up with composer/drummer/producer Jean-Phi Goncalves to record the eponymous debut album Beast, one of my favorite albums of 2008. Beast provides Bonifassi with an ideal showcase for her rich, growly voice. The dark and somewhat threatening sonic settings devised by Goncalves serve Bonifassi perfectly, and allow her to jump to the foreground. The songs were written by Goncalves and Bonifassi, but the English lyrics are all hers. Imagine a somewhat funkier Portishead, and you will have a fair idea of what Beast is up to.

As much as I loved the album, I thought of it as very much a studio creation. It was hard to imagine the layered textures of sound translating particularly well to the stage. Beast dispelled this impression when they performed at Montreal’s late summer music festival Osheaga. They played in a context that could not have been less congenial to their music: an outdoor stage in broad daylight for music that is both nocturnal and somewhat claustrophobia-inducing. Yet they were among the festival’s stand-outs. Bonifassi, it turns out, is a formidable bête de scène, and she managed to turn the Osheaga stage to her dark purposes.

The truth be told, I only caught the last 15 minutes or so of their set. Osheaga is two days worth of delicious dilemma and inevitable frustration for the music lover: four stages, with music playing on two or three simultaneously at all times. Doubting that Bonifassi and Goncalves could carry off their music particularly well in an outdoor festival setting, I opted for a well-meaning but boring local band on one of the smaller stages, and only made it back to hear the back end of Beast’s set. By that point, the audience had been completely won over, and Bonifassi filled the space triumphantly with her huge but perfectly controlled voice.

Beast recently returned to the Montreal stage for a set of dates at Club Soda, a small club more obviously suited than Ile Notre-Dame to their cinematic sound. I caught them on a cold Tuesday night last week, after lining up outside for half an hour thanks to Club Soda’s inept mandatory coat-check policy, which meant that the small crowd (the venue’s capacity is 850) was only allowed in in dribs and drabs.

The band, augmented for touring purposes by a bass player and guitarist, were met by an exultant sold-out crowd who seemed to know every song by heart. They delivered the goods for the most part, and seemed to send the audience home happy.

To these ears, however, they sounded less fresh than they had at Osheaga. Part of the problem lies with the material. They have been touring this repertoire for more than a year now, and do not seem to have been doing much new writing since the album came out. (There was only one new song, as far as I could make out). There weren’t any real surprises, and the stage effects seemed stale and gimmicky in the absence of any real musical advance. (Grainy black and white video that have become a de rigueur ingredient of the “alt” aesthetic, and what was up with those outfits the members of the choir were wearing?).

There were some great moments: “Mr. Hurricane” is a powerful song that Bonifassi milked for all the drama it was worth, and there was no denying the kinetic drive of “Satan”, which the band played (predictably) as an encore. But the “wow” factor that accompanied both the album and earlier performances has faded. Will Beast have a second act? I hope so, because they may now be running the risk of overstretching the first one.

Opening for them were a local band that I had never heard of, Random Recipe. (Where do they come up with these band names?) I was happy to have made it to Club Soda in time to hear them. Their music, a combination of folk, hip hop and rock, is derivative, to be sure (for the most part of Coco Rosie) but it is catchy and was delivered on the night with energy and enthusiasm. They announced toward the end of their set that an album would hopefully be coming in 2010. They did enough over the course of their 40 minute set to leave me hoping that they would.

Posted Saturday, December 19th, 2009 at 11:29 am
Filed Under Category: Uncategorized
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Response to “In the Belly of the Beast”

Kylie BattName

прикольно! С многого поржал :)

Bonifassi also did a memorable turn on DJ Champion’s first album, on a track called “No Heaven”. You would have been forgiven for […….

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