What comes to mind when I say the words “dance music”? If you’re familiar with the current trends of the music industry, then your first mental images may very well include electronic DJs (meaning DJs that spin electronic music, not electrically-powered robot DJs), underground raves, and massive throngs of people jumping up and down. But this is only this decade’s version of dance music. If we travel back through the history of music, we pass by the synthpop of the 1980s, we say hello to the rise of disco in the ’70s, and we predate the birth of rock and roll as we settle down in the early 1900s. Imagine the scene in America at the turn of the 20th century. The European tradition of ballroom dancing had carried over into American culture, but the sudden rise of jazz out of the South soon took the world by storm. Before anyone knew what was happening, big bands and swing music became the new craze sweeping across the nation, and artists like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Glenn Miller became household names.
Now, swing music was all well and good, but that died away many decades ago, didn’t it? Well no, that’s not entirely true (certainly not if Brian Setzer has anything to say about it). As I talked about in my post several months ago on Nekta, an artist going by the name of Parov Stelar is generally credited as the pioneer of the latest swing revival movement, this time fusing it with modern electronic music to form a brand new fusion of genres: electro swing.
Enter Caravan Palace. The group was founded in 2005 by Parisians Arnaud Vial (guitar, vocals), Hugues Payen (violin, vocals), and Charles Delaporte (double bass, synthesizer), as a trio group primarily influenced by the legacy of Django Reinhardt and his authentic style of Gypsy jazz music. A year later, they had added four additional members – Paul-Marie Barbier on vibraphone and percussion, Antoine Toustou on trombone and electronics, Camille Chapelière on clarinet, and Zoé Colotis on vocals – and were successfully touring across France.
After a breakthrough performance at the Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival in 2007, Caravan Palace was signed to the indie label Wagram Music and released their debut self-titled album in October 2008. Their music has had an explosive reaction online, and they began touring more extensively across Europe. So here are the reasons why I’m writing about them: a) they released their highly-anticipated follow-up record Panic in 2012, and it’s absolutely magnificent, and b) they’ve recently embarked on their first North American tour, and I had the privilege of seeing them live at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood a few weeks ago.
Let’s talk about the album. The first thing you hear as the music starts playing is the slow drag of “Queens.” Right from the start, it’s easy to identify the telltale signs of the group’s French origins: the heavy influence of gypsy jazz, the vintage style of production, and the intimate mood reminiscent of a small Parisian café. The main outlier, of course, is the electronic groove that becomes omnipresent throughout the entire album, coalescing with the more traditional elements to form what has become the definitive electro swing style.
Panic follows an extremely well-planned energy contour. In other words, the album starts off on a fairly laid back note, but quickly evolves into a fast-paced, energetic vibe by the third track, “The Dirty Side of the Street.” It then regresses back to the chiller atmosphere of “12 juin 3049,” before once again rising up for what is arguably the most dance-oriented song on the album, “Clash.” The entire record progresses in this manner, always maintaining the perfect balance between upbeat grooves and more easygoing tunes.
After having listened through the album countless times, the live concert was an incredible follow up. The energy captured within the recorded music is nothing compared to the effervescence that flows out of them on the live stage. Despite the abundance of electronic elements in their music, Caravan Palace succeeds in reproducing the majority of their sounds in real time. The punch packed by Delaporte’s live double bass performance was like nothing I had ever heard before. The vocalist, Zoé Colotis, has a tremendous stage presence, and she absolutely owns it. Their set was an excellent blend of material off of Panic and off of their first self-titled album.
Perhaps the craziest thing about the show, however, was the swing dancers. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it. It is electro swing music, after all. It would certainly be within reason for a few of the audience members to engage in some light-hearted dancing. Well, what if I told you that an entire troupe of professional swing dancers was on tour with Caravan Palace, and that they dispersed themselves throughout the audience and showcased their amazing dance skills for the entire duration of the evening? That would be pretty damn cool, eh? Of course, that’s exactly what happened, and it combined with the live music to create a truly inspirational multimedia experience.
Caravan Palace has found a niche in the music world, and they have become the masters of their own dynasty. Although they were not the first ones to develop the electro swing style, they certainly the ones to popularize it throughout the world. Their music is nostalgic yet modern, traditional yet electronic. It is the perfect fusion of styles from contrasting disciplines and time periods. If you haven’t heard of them before, it is definitely in your best interests to check out this band, starting with Panic.