America has a multitude of stars that shine bright long after they pass into the great beyond, never quite leaving the public consciousness—artists such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Prince. For France and Belgium, Jacques Brel is at the top of that list, and Alfredo Merat has made it his mission to share his legacy with the U.S., starting with the Hamptons.
Brel was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1929 and moved to Paris, France to pursue a music career at the age of 24. He released 16 studio albums over three decades, touring Europe, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Canada and New Zealand, before retiring at the height of his career. “He was way more than just a singer-songwriter,” Merat points out. “He was an actor; he was a pilot; he became captain of a boat. All of those elements, I want to bring forward.”
Merat shares a similar story: Born in Madrid, Spain, he was raised in France and also began playing and composing music that mixed languages at a young age. He first heard Brel’s impressive voice at age 15 and was immediately enthralled. “He inspired me in terms of his words and his delivery. The way he performed onstage really marked me.” He adds that his love of the Belgian singer came from hearing him on the radio and seeing him on TV, “I never saw him live; I wasn’t lucky enough.”
It wasn’t until Merat saw the off-Broadway show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris that he decided to begin working on his own musical biography. “America doesn’t know who Jacques Brel truly is,” he says. “I looked at [the show], and that’s when I said, ‘Oh, it would be nice to actually do this.’”
Merat’s first tribute took place in October of 2016, when the sold-out Brel by Alfredo hit the Bay Street Theater stage. Since then, he’s been working on ways to improve upon the show—poring over countless books, performances and interviews to fully understand the complex crooner.
The upcoming Jacques Brel by Alfredo Merat will feature Brel’s songs, such as “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Le Plat Pays,” in their original French, with sprinklings of English. They will be paired with a cabaret-style history lesson in English on the mysterious musician’s career, love life, parenthood, passions, antics, retirement from the stage and premature death. “This time, I’m going at it like more of a one-man show,” Merat says, “where I’m going to be singing songs, but also telling stories in the flow of each song, helping people understand what’s going on [in] French with some English.” By the end of the performance, he wants audiences to have not only learned what Brel accomplished in his short life, but also who he was as a complicated human being.
While Brel’s iconic 1950s/60s Parisian sound will be recreated in the performance, Merat has chosen not to limit himself to note-for-note reproductions. In addition to mixing French and English, as Bel himself did with Flemish and French, Merat will rearrange select songs to breath new life into them and keep the set entertaining. “Some we’re staying really close to what he did, and some we’re taking and making them our own,” he explains. “I think that some of the songs that he did…really can go very nicely with a more of a Cuban/Havana style.”
Merat will be accompanied by a full band, including a piano, upright bass, saxophone, violin and accordion, and in addition to singing the part of Brel, he will play his acoustic guitar for select songs. He will also be joined by surprise guests who have made quite a name for themselves on the East End music scene. “They’re really terrific musicians,” he says. “We’re very fortunate; we have a lot of talent in this area—tons of talent.”
Let Alfredo Merat transport you to Jacques Brel’s world on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater. Tickets can be purchased at baystreet.org or by calling 631-725-9500.