Nouvelle Vague, The Pigalle, London<br/> The Twilight Singers, The Garage, London

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The Independent Culture

'Bonsoir!" chimes the exquisitely named Melanie Pain, and we all reply in unison, like fourth formers being introduced to the new assistante.

The difference being that, at school, you were generally allowed to sit down. I didn't know that "supper clubs" existed outside of Seventies folklore (low lamps on tables, drinks that cost a million quid, jazz band in the corner), but The Pigalle on Piccadilly is either a faithful recreation of one, or it's been here all along and I didn't realise. While the rich diners in the seated area place their orders, I'm ushered into the standing area at the back, along with Will Young, who's also banished to la périphérique.

"It's very strange," Pain muses, as the intro to "Blue Monday" is drowned out by the ting! of champagne flutes, "watching people eat as we play. Is it good?"

The reason we're putting up with this humiliating segregation is Nouvelle Vague, the French collective, formed by Olivier Libaux and Marc Collin who have recorded two albums of cover versions of New Wave classics in a bossa nova style. ("Nouvelle vague", "bossa nova" and "New Wave" all mean the same thing in their respective languages - you see what they did there?).

From Echo and The Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" (the studied way in which Pain sings "sick and sin" for "thick and thin" makes you wonder whether she's actually about as French as Gorden Kaye) through The Cramps' "Human Fly", The Cure's "A Forest" and The Sisters of Mercy's "Marian", it's an odd juxtaposition. I associate these songs with being 17 and penniless in scuffed pixie boots and Shockwaves gel, not with adult sophistication, but - using double bass, brushed drums, piano, Parisian accordion, Spanish guitar, one of those cylinders with beads on the outside (your quality newspaper music critic there, knowing his stuff) and, somewhat less traditionally, an iBook - it's played for minimum comedy value and maximum pulchritude.

The even more exquisitely named Phoebe Killdeer lends an unexpected mystery and menace to The Clash's "Guns of Brixton", and when third singer Marina Celeste comes on for Visage's "Fade To Grey", there's something thrilling about hearing a genuine French person intoning the spoken part "un homme dans une gare isolée..."

It doesn't always work. There's a whiff of novelty when Pain and Killdeer go walkabout for The Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck". And when the male guitarist takes the mike for Blondie's "Heart of Glass", the spell is suddenly broken and we might as well be looking at one of those semi-circular Carling busking pitches on the London underground. By the time they reach a Vince Clarke double of Yazoo's "Don't Go" and "Just Can't Get Enough", however, a handful of diners are up and dancing. Their desserts must have settled.

When I say that Greg Dulli, the former leader of American alt-rock legends The Afghan Whigs, is a man of substance, it isn't purely a weight gag (the extra pounds on his Greek-American frame notwithstanding). There's a magnetism, a charisma and a gravitas to him you simply don't get with most rock singers.

Dulli's new band is The Twilight Singers and if they are half as good as the breathtaking gig I saw at the Islington Academy in 2004, I tell myself beforehand, this is still gonna be one of the gigs of the year. It's half as good.

"You're saying that the victim doesn't want it to end?" he sings on "When We Two Parted", "Good/I get to dress up and play the assassin again/It's my favourite..." This is Dulli in excelsis. It's one of two songs from The Afghan Whigs' classic Gentlemen album, the other being "Fountain and Fairfax". The forked-tongue opening line "Angel, I'm sober, I got off that stuff..." sends shivers: nobody sings the word "angel" with quite as much menace as Dulli.

Nobody smokes cigarettes quite like him, either. "Guess I chose the wrong week to quit smoking", a Dulliphile female friend says as a cloud curls around Greg, not for effect, but achieving effect all the same.

He may have risen with the Sub Pop generation, but grunge's only legacy to Dulli and his band is a certain edgy timbre to the guitar, as minor chords crash into one another. Structurally, there's a huge black music element, as proven by his taste in cover versions. Last time I saw the Twilights, it was "Hey Ya"; tonight, it's Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy". We also get a lacklustre snatch of "All You Need Is Love", and a wonderful (and all-too-brief) encore of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire".

But when Dulli hits the mark, he's deadly: "Guess I must be dumb," he sings, borrowing from the greatest of them all, "you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan, and some of them used...", and the Prince tattoo on my bicep gets goosebumps.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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