The Montreal Buzz’s great Jazz Fest reviewers, Jamie O’Meara and Robyn Fadden, have been taking in as much Jazz Fest as two sane people possibly can. Read on for their thoughts on shows by Rufus Wainwright, Gregory Porter, Colin Stetson, Tangerine Dream and Billy Bragg…
Rufus Wainwright at Place des Festivals, June 28: Rufus Wainwright had tens of thousands of expectant concertgoers at the official opening concert of the Jazz Festival on June 28 seeing red… Red sunglasses, red velvet curtains draping the stage, and an utterly unmissable sequined red sweater. “I hear Liza Minnelli is playing the festival,” Wainwright remarked, gesturing to the sweater. “That’s why I’m wearing this. It’s go time, Liza. Go time.”
The first big outdoor show, free to the general public, has evolved into a fairly prestigious affair, and it’s usually the best in the biz who get tapped for the occasion. Wainwright’s appearance was not only the first time the Grammy-nominated pop singer has played the Jazz Festival (while introducing the popular songwriter to the crowd, festival head André Menard implied that Wainwright’s been playing hard to get for years), it’s the first time a native Montrealer has been asked to open it. And he acquitted himself better than well.
No easy feat, creating living-room-like intimacy in the capacity Place de Festivals (which is said to hold 100,000 people), but Wainwright came as close to pulling it off as any human could. Chandeliers hanging from the top of the stage, he led off with a number of songs from new album Out of the Game (Barbara and Bitter Tears among them), also dedicating One Man Guy to father Loudon Wainwright III while hauling a couple truckloads of relatives – including sister Martha and aunt Anna McGarrigle – onstage to assist with other tunes spanning his seven-album catalogue.
“We’re doing everything for you tonight, Montreal. Because you did everything for me. [I’m] returning the favour.” And return it he did, holding the rapt masses in the palm of his hand, rolling them around a little bit when required, but mostly gently guiding them in the direction of a good time. And by the time Wainwright put the finishing touches on a transcendental version of the show closing Hallelujah, it appeared that pretty much everyone had arrived safely. -JO
Gregory Porter at L’Astral, June 28: Jazz singer Gregory Porter is the real deal – and perhaps the perfect way to open the first day of the Jazz Festival, even as much-loved Rufus Wainwright crooned to a massive crowd just outside the L’Astral’s doors. Porter’s crooning is of a different sort, with the creative flourish, depth and range of classic jazz, groove of ‘60s and ‘70s soul, and an aesthetic awareness of the music scene today. On stage, he’s cool, but not too cool, having fun and feeling every word he sings as his young band plays on, adding their own flourishes here and there. -RF
Colin Stetson at Gesù, June 29: The way Colin Stetson plays saxophone is unlike anything else at the Jazz Fest this year, but his incredible, captivating technique and creativity clearly pay homage to the avant-garde greats of jazz and blues. His show at the intimate Gesù theatre, where every seat offers a great view, let us see how his entire body is involved in making music, from circular breathing, throat vocalization and percussion on the instruments themselves – no looping pedals, no effects. Stetson’s songs – and here he played songs from his Polaris-Prize nominated album, New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges, as well as brand new ones too – have deep, dark trenches in them yet don’t get stuck there, taking listeners on abstract journeys of sound and emotion. That feeling resonates even as he talks between songs, when there’s no doubt that the music comes from a very real place, no posturing or imitation; these songs are artistry. -RF
Tangerine Dream at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, June 30: Back in the 70s, this German band was on the forefront of creating what came to be known as krautrock, then they moved into synthy, moody soundtrack music, and, soon enough, people were calling Tangerine Dream a new age band. These days, with only one of the original members still on board, the band has no claim to their old arguments against the new age moniker – because, as observed on Saturday night, when you set up a minimum of five synthesizers on stage complete with lcd screens facing the audience, put an enthusiastic percussionist with a penchant for chimes and rain sticks up on a platform, employ rock flute and mellow saxophone grooves, and your live screen show features computer-generated fish flying through space, everyone knows exactly what you are. Love ‘em or leave ‘em (and hundreds of people loved ‘em to bits at this show), Tangerine Dream truly are what they are. -RF
Billy Bragg at Metropolis, July 3: Billy Bragg is arguably at his best when he’s going it alone, solo style, just a man and his guitar taking on capitalist excesses, global injustice, political corruption and economic disparity one audience at a time. Just as he’s been doing it for the last 30 years. And the outspoken, 54-year-old folk punk was again all by his lonesome at his July 3 Metropolis appearance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Maybe too alone.
With his trademark mix of often hilarious political opining and righteously rough-around-the-edges playing (he talks nearly as much as he sings, an idiosyncratic characteristic of his concerts that bothers exactly no one), Bragg cheerfully traversed his now considerable catalogue. Trotting out classic crowd pleasers like Greetings to the New Brunette, Sexuality, and Power in a Union, Bragg also opened up a couple of bare-bones Woodie Guthrie numbers, many of which he recorded with Wilco during his Mermaid Avenue period. Now as then, most of these can be taken or left. Encouragingly, a number of brand spankin’ new tunes caught the imagination of those assembled, and signature songs Levi Stubbs’ Tears and the concert-closing A New England raised the hair on one’s arms, and the voice in one’s throat, as they never fail to do.
It was classic Bragg. But it was classic Bragg in the wrong room. The one man, six strings routine works wonders in a medium-sized club, but in the vast and half-populated Metropolis, it had a desolate and empty feel the moment one’s attention was directed away from the stage. Pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect to feel at a Billy Bragg show. -JO
Photos: Susan Moss