You don't have to be fluent in French to appreciate a performance of chanson, a catch-all term for lyric-driven songs. Even if you don't know all the words to these ballads, you'll get caught up in the cabaret-style performances of the catchy pop melodies. (For a sample, listen to this "chanson radio" stream at Last.fm.)
Chanson's heyday was in the 1950s and was famously performed by George Brassens, Jacques Brel, and Édith Piaf. But chanson is alive and still being played in Paris. Modern chanson is extremely literate and witty, and its performers really know how to work a room. You won't find its singers mumbling face-down into the mic—today's chansonniers are engaging, endearing, and hilarious.
The most vibrant center of Parisian chanson is Au Limonaire (18 Cité Bergère, 9th arrondissement). On a small street tucked behind the buzzing Grands Boulevards, the spot offers nightly shows with two or three different sets. It's usually standing-room only at this intimate club, unless you reserve a table for dinner before the show (011-33/1-45-23-33-33). The food is only passable, but the wine is decent and affordable—like a very drinkable bottle from Roussillon for only €15 ($19). Best of all, there's no cover charge for entry at Au Limonaire. A hat is passed at the end of the night for you to give something to the performers. Throw a ten-spot in and you've still enjoyed a very cheap and fun night out.
My first experience at Au Limonaire made quite an impression. I arrived with friends to catch the last song in a set by the duo who would later become Arlt. That one song was so good that we returned to hear them again the next night—an affordable luxury when entry is free. Following Arlt. (yes, the band's name has a period at the end) has exposed me to other great music in the same genre. The Festival Minimum (March 5-7) brings together local folk, lo-fi and modern chansonniers every year in a concert series at la Maroquinerie. If you're not in town at that time, you can still listen to the bands on the festival website.
For those who like the style but can't come close to understanding the lyrics, there's a young American who regularly performs her clever and comic songs in English. Playing her accordion and engaging her audience in the style of the great old chansonniers, Dana Boulé performs several times each month and usually for free. Check her website to find out about upcoming concerts and to hear recordings of some of her songs.