The sun has just set over a busy, dimly lit street in Paris when musicians suddenly start spilling out of a corner bar, tuning their instruments. Colin Solal Cardo follows close behind, holding a video camera.
“We were inside the bar,” Solal Cardo says, “and we got kicked out. So now we’re in front of the bar in the streets, and we’re going to perform right in the streets. The night is falling in Paris, and cars everywhere, and it’s total chaos, but I think it’s going to be great.” He addresses the gathered musicians: “Okay, guys, let’s be sure we have no one in the frame that is not a band member. Thank you.”
The group is with La Blogothéque, a French website often credited with helping to reinvent the music video with what it calls “Take Away Shows.” They’re original, informal videos of musicians from across the U.S. and Europe, playing live in unlikely places.
The band in this Take Away Show is the American group San Fermin, currently on tour with its debut album. Solal Cardo says this is a typical Blogothéque shoot: filmed in one take, with no overall plan, no lighting crew or fancy set-ups. The philosophy of the website is to put bands in unusual environments — often without their usual instruments — and see what happens. For example, San Fermin’s frontman, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, has been handed a small toy piano in lieu of his full-size keyboard.
“I mean, what’s exciting about it is, like, you write these songs, you practice as a band, then you just do the same thing over and over and over again,” Ludwig-Leone says. “And then for something like this, you’re actually going to be called on as a musician to make adjustments in time. It’s refreshing in a way. I haven’t had to think this actively and creatively about our live set-up since we started touring.”
Christophe Abric, a one-time music journalist who started La Blogothéque a decade ago, began filming bands in 2006.
“The purpose is to get them out their comfort zone,” Abric says, “to tell them, ‘Okay, you’ve done a record. You’ve got a way of playing your music live. But why don’t we try to find a way to be the most sincere we can be?'”
All of the videos are archived online; the catalog includes big-name groups such as R.E.M. and Wilco. Abric says one enduring draw of the Take Away Shows is not just watching musicians play live, but watching them play live in Paris.
“There is something amazing in the strength of Paris,” Abric says. “We want the city to be there in the sound. If you have kids shouting, if you have birds all around, it’s part of the whole environment, and you have to have that.”
At the San Fermin shoot, someone passing by starts to sing and a car horn blares. A question arises: How do you actually record music in the middle of all this noise?
To capture every note and voice, La Blogothéque’s sound engineer, Francois Clos, fits small, wireless mics onto every band member — each recorded on a separate track and mixed afterwards. Clos says that, even though video is a visual medium, sound quality is the most important element here.
“The challenge is always to know how many mics you need, where you put the mic to preserve a sound — which sound quite real but which is post-produced and not real at all, you know. But outside, anything can happen,” Clos says. “So you shouldn’t record musicians if you don’t think about how to record them. They’re here to show that they can play music.”
Indeed, each musician in the finished San Fermin video can be heard loud and clear — even as singer Rae Cassidy walks through traffic and the camera twists and turns around the band.
Today, there are scores of websites offering impromptu performance videos (including NPR Music’s own Field Recordings and Tiny Desk Concerts series). And that, Abric says, has created a problem: Musicians now show up knowing exactly what to expect.
“The landscape totally, completely changed since we began the Take Away Shows,” Abric says. “When we started, everything we were doing was experimental and new, and now we’re in a completely different world where anybody can do a beautiful video. Suddenly, when we’re filming a band, we’re the sixth person of the day filming that band. And so you’re like, ‘Oh my god. We’re not something new.’
“With Blogothéque now,” he adds, “we’re one of the requirements in a promo tour of a band. That’s not what we wanted to be. We made the Take Away Shows to break the routine, and one day we became the routine.”
The challenge now, Abric says, is to best themselves at their own game. Earlier this year, his team made a video of the French rock band Phoenix outside the Palace of Versailles — filmed with a flying drone. And La Blogothéque is venturing outside Paris, filming performers everywhere from the North African desert to the muddy banks of the Ohio River. Look around and you just might see a band walking down your street, with a camera crew following close behind.