Spirits and ghosts inhabit Jane Birkin’s “Arabesque”: her mother (who died in June); her nephew Anno, killed in a car crash at the age of 20; andSerge Gainsbourg, her ex-husband and musical collaborator. But there is nothing depressing about the 90-minute concert, which marked Birkin’s Los Angeles debut: It was an unabashed and often charming celebration of life.
Birkin is best known here for her steamy duet with Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime moi non plus,” and as the namesake for the Hermes Birkin bag. Walking onto the Royce Hall stage, casually dressed with her hair tied back, she displayed the earthy grace and gamine charisma that has made her a star in her adopted France.
The program re-created her 2002 album “Arabesque,” which Narada World/EMI released domestically last year. That was prefaced by two straightforward readings of Gainsbourg’s songs, with only piano accompaniment, and her version of “C’est Comme Ça” (That’s How It Is), a tribute to Gainsbourg by French songwriter Zazie.
The remainder of the evening was turned over to her remarkable reinterpretations of Gainsbourg’s music.
With Djamel Benyelles on violin, Amel Riahi el Mansouri on oud and Aziz Boularoug on hand drum, the songs take on the sleek, sometimes mournful harmonies and tempi of Arabic music; Fred Maggi’s piano maintains the song’s western chord changes.
Birkin, who referred to Gainsbourg as a poet, a “modern Apollonaire” and a sensual philosopher, sang in a breathy, tremulous voice that caressed the melodies, bringing a tenderness to provocative lyrics such as “Haine Pour Aime” (Hate for Mate). Birkin explains that the combination came about almost by accident, but it’s a masterful choice.
At the end of the evening, dancing in a striking red gown with her hair let down, her eyes closed and a beatific smile on her face, Birkin tells the rapt aud that she sometimes worries she never thanked Gainsbourg. “Arabesque” does more than show her appreciation: It revitalizes a wonderful collection of songs.