Wednesday, July 14, 2010


This article originally appeared in the 7/15/10 issue of Metroland

While sitting around Tuesday afternoon thinking I had nothing to write about, I was alerted to a court decision just handed down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declaring the FCC’s punishing of television networks for broadcasting “fleeting expletives” unconstitutional. I’m like “huh? Haven’t we been here before?”

Well, yes we have, sort of. This is a case that’s been bouncing around the upper levels of our court system for a couple years, and we’ve talked about it here a couple of times. And I’ve got a feeling this won’t be the last time, I don’t know. Oh, no.

The case involves George W. Bush’s attempt to turn the FCC into a Christianista strike force, to placate the religious extremists like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, by trying to cleanse the airwaves of anything remotely un-Christian. As part of this crusade, the FCC dramatically raised penalties and started going after networks and individual stations that aired any “dirty words” on broadcast TV in ways the FCC had never done before. In 2003 the FCC issued around $400,000 in fines; in 2004, the FCC issued over $8 million in fines.

The FCC’s wrath in this case was leveled at a Cher “fuck ‘em”, a Bono “fucking brilliant”, a Nicole Ritchie “cowshit,” a NYPD Blue “bullshit” and an Early Show “bullshitter.” These things all happened in 2002 and 2003.

Oh, we’ve seen this case before. The Second Circuit already determined in 2007, in a thorough and delightfully snarky decision, that the FCC had acted arbitrarily in suddenly changing its standards for indecency, and therefore was in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that governs how agencies like the FCC operate. The Second Circuit didn’t look at the Constitutional dimensions of the FCC’s behavior because it didn’t have to. There’s a axiom in the courts that a Constitutional question should always be avoided if a case can be decided on some other basis, and that’s what the court did. So the 2007 Second Circuit ruling goes to the Supreme Court, which “ruled”, if you call a 5-4 decision with SEVEN separate opinions something resembling “ruling”, that the FCC wasn’t arbitrary at all. Or something. The plurality decision, authored by Justice Anton Scalia, essentially abdicated a big part of the Supreme Court’s responsibility to be a check and balance on the executive branch, at least as far as the regulation of individual speech goes.

In any event, whether or not what the FCC acted constitutionally was still up in the air, and that question came back to the Court of Appeals, which ruled this week that the “standards” now applied by the FCC for indecency on broadcast TV are unconstitutionally vague.

The 32-page decision is a good read. It’s authored by Judge Rosemary Pooler, who also wrote the wonderful first decision back in 2007. A good part of it is explaining to Justice Scalia exactly how he got it so pathetically wrong in the 2009 decision and lays down the gauntlet for why the Bush FCC’s actions were so bumbling, so deplorable, and why the freedom of speech is so sancrosanct.

Here’s some highlights:
Why the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in the George Carlin “seven words you can’t say on television” case is probably no longer relevant:
[W]e face a media landscape that would have been almost unrecognizable in 1978. Cable television was still in its infancy. The Internet was a project run out of the Department of Defense with several hundred users. Not only did Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter not exist, but their founders were either still in diapers or not yet conceived.

Examples of how the FCC’s current standards are impossibly vague:
For instance, while the FCC concluded that “bullshit” in a “NYPD Blue” episode was patently offensive, it concluded that “dick” and “dickhead” were not.... Other expletives such as “pissed off,” “up yours,” “kiss my ass,” and “wiping his ass” were also not found to be patently offensive... This hardly gives broadcasters notice of how the Commission will apply the factors [regarding indecency] in the future.

On the basic futility of trying to regulate speech:
The observation that people will always find a way to subvert censorship laws may expose a certain futility in the FCC’s crusade against indecent speech, but it does not provide a justification for implementing a vague, indiscernible standard. If the FCC cannot anticipate what will be considered indecent under its policy, then it can hardly expect broadcasters to do so.

Pooler’s use of the word “crusade” was revealing, because what the FCC attempted in the Bush years was just that. The fundamental point is that when a speech regulation is vague, speakers will self-censor to an extreme degree to avoid being penalized, to society’s detriment, and the Court provided a bunch of examples of how this is already happening.

One wonders if Obama’s FCC will take this back up to the Supreme Court, and if they do, why? The Supreme Court, as presently constituted, has proven itself incompetent to deal with issues regarding our fundamental freedoms. Unless, of course, you’re a corporation or consider carrying a gun around a fundamental freedom.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

7.8.10 Mon Dieu!!!

This article originally appeared in the 7.8.10 issue of Metroland.
Some more extensive coverage of the Montreal Jazz Festival can be found below in this blog.

The Montreal Jazz Festival is commonly hyped as the largest and best jazz festival in the world. That well maybe so-- after the four days I spent at the Festival last week I can say it is mind-blowing, it is immense, it is intoxicating, and it’s in Montreal. What more do you need?

Now in its 31st year, the Festival is spread out over almost two weeks from late June to early July. The Festival locus is the Place Des Artes, a roughly eight-city-block expanse smack in the middle of Montreal; there’s a couple big modern buildings there, housing a number of big theaters and auditoriums, and a ton of open space, where a half-dozen very large outdoor stages are spread out. Admission to the Festival is free, and there are hundreds of free shows on the six large outdoor stages and a number of smaller stages; there’s even a small wooden dance stage built into the sidewalk that was busy every time I walked past it. And then there are hundreds more ticketed shows in theatres, auditoriums, clubs, and cafes either inside or a stone’s throw from the Place Des Arts.

The festival is extremely well laid out; even with tens of thousands of folks milling around, one can quickly scope out the entire Festival grounds—even with a lot of construction going on; next year, when the work is done, the layout will be even better.

Food and drink are everywhere—Heineken is a major sponsor, so there’s “jazz bars” every ten feet or so, there’s food vendors selling these serious hotdogs everywhere, and outdoor cafes overlooking the outdoor stages throughout the Festival. I stood in very few lines for anything, and, remarkably, nobody was charging “festival prices.” Livin’ is easy at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Of course, the frosting on all of this is that the Festival’s in the heart of Montreal, one of the great cities in the universe. There are hundreds of hotels near the Festival (mine was two blocks away), and there are insanely good restaurants of all types everywhere. And as the Festival doesn’t really crank up in earnest until the evening, afternoons are a time to explore Montreal. And to make that easy, there is a municipal bicycle system, hundreds of computerized bike racks holding thousands of bikes. For $5 a day, you get unlimited bike usage for 24 hours. I biked to all these restaurants recommended by my Facebook friends and ate like a freakin’ prince. Heaven.

OK. The music? Well, as is the case with most “jazz” festivals of any magnitude, this is really a generic music festival, with major headline acts that tend towards the banal, like Steve Miller and Lionel Ritchie. Below that is a wild variety of world music, hip hop, folk, some rock, and a whole lot of other things that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with jazz. In the course of 12 hours, I saw three (count ‘em) strolling “gypsy” bands. But, then, there is a TON of jazz going on if you look for it, and what makes this Festival so special is that you don’t have to drill down very far to find real substance, whatever the genre. This is a very thoughtfully and tastefully curated festival, and even the most jaded muso can zero in to the source playing something somewhere here.

My highlights included the first half of the John Zorn Masala Marathon, an explosion of Zorn’s experimental “Jewish music”, featuring downtown heavies like guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Uri Caine, cellist Eric Friedlander and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Lyrical, challenging, varied, centered, and fun. I missed Zorn’s other big show, with pals Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, an amalgam of Zorn’s old No Wave noise projects and Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Apparently, the show wasn’t marketed particularly accurately (a rare misstep for Festival organizers) and a goodly number of the 3000 strong audience thought they were gonna hear medleys of old Velvets tunes, or something. The “lou’s” turned fairly quickly to “boo’s”, reportedly causing Zorn to scream “if you don’t like this music you can fucking leave!” Now that would have been something to see.

Anyway, another brilliant show was the impromptu trio of drummer Manu Katche, bassist Richard Bona and guitarist Sylvian Luc. The Festival has this delightful habit of mashing up talent like this--each of these supremely gifted folks was headlining with his own group elsewhere--and this show, in a small grotto concert hall in the basement of an ancient church, was an hour of improvised groove nirvana, good humor, and dazzling virtuosity.

On the outdoor free stages I saw LC-33, a Columbian salsa group who were spectacular; Brooklyn’s Slavic Soul Party, who were annoying; L’Orchestra Internationale du Vetex, a young, scraggly Quebequois hippie-gypsy band, who were brilliant and everything Slavic Soul Party wasn’t; Wop Pow Wow, some sort of misguided Canadian conceptual world music group that I never want to think about again; Beast, a Montreal trip-hop group, who tried hard but didn’t do it for me; Caravan Paradise, a Parisian techno group who did do it for me (and 100,000 other screaming people) in a big way; Grace Kelly, the teen-aged Bostonian saxophonist and singer, who quietly ruled; and Chicago Goes West, a young trio from Calgary who Friday afternoon took over the biggest outdoor stage at the Place Des Arts and with all the calm in the world reminded the massive crowd what jazz is.

But for me the most fun was seeing the Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson with her backing band, our own Lustre Kings. Wanda played to a packed house in this cool nightclub right in the center of the Festival—the kind of club that you see in gangster movies, never in real life—and she utterly killed. And what fun to see Mark and Chops and the boys doing what they do so well, what they do for us all the time, in front of hundreds of ravenous fans. It was nuts. Wanda’s on the comeback trail with an upcoming Jack White produced album, and she’s dragging the Kings along with her, and if this show was any indication, this comeback will have legs.

Sometimes we have to be reminded that this wonderful city is little more than a three hour drive away. And with events like this, so utterly well conceived and run, so fun and life affirming, so affordable, it should be a crime to stay home. See you there next year.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Montreal Jazz Fest Post Two

Jazz Festival Post Two

Thursday July 1 Montreal Quebec Canada:

Up. At ‘em. 7 AM. That awful in-room coffee then a run behind the hotel through the beautiful McGill campus. I was about 3 blocks from the hotel and I realized I was in front of the building where the Future of Music Coalition Conference was held almost 4 years ago.

Everybody’s been telling me I had to go to Schwartz’s for a smoked meat sandwich, it was back up in the same general neighborhood as the joint I’d eaten at Wednesday, and the web site said “hot meat 10 AM.” So I grabbed a bicycle and got up there around 10:30. Place was empty (people had warned me about lines there at lunchtime) and surprisingly tiny and dingy. The sandwich just two small pieces of rye, a bunch of corned beef, and yellow mustard, was sublime. $5.90.

Decided to give the Festival every possible chance to redeem itself to me after the very uneven showing the day before. I started hitting the free stages shortly after noon, and the first thing I ran into was L’Orchestre Internationale du Vetex, a strolling gyspy-like band. Very young, they all looked like they’d slept in their clownish clothes. And they rocked the smallish early crowd hard. Let me put it this way—they did everything I thought Slavic Soul Party was supposed to do, and didn't. They all moved constantly, they fawned when one of them took a solo, the girl on the bass drum had one of the better grooves of the Festival, and most of all, they were having the time of their lives playing together, and that shit’s infectious.

My bud J. Eric Smith just wrote a thing for his Times-Union blog about how collectivism doesn’t work for rock and roll, it’s hysterical and dead-on and you can read it here: Now, it may not work for rock and roll in a fairly strict sense, it can work, in spades, for a scraggly, neo-hippie, street gypsy band like L’Orchestre Internationale du Vetex.

The Vetex’s were followed quickly by a smaller, slicker, but similar group called Gruv’n Bass, who were merely OK. Despite name, the groove was not nearly as strong as for L’Orchestre.

There wasn’t a whole lot more going on, and the streets were starting to get crowded. It was starting to get to this critical mass where all of the free stages were turning into mob scenes, regardless of who was playing. The crowds were like waves, getting bigger by the hour.

I hung in at the press room, drinking expresso and writing, and watching the other writers milling in and out of the staging room for press conferences. I almost went in for the Richard Bona press conference (he was doing a big solo show Friday night) just ‘cause I wanted to find out more about the guy.

I had a 6 o’clock date with John Zorn’s Masada Marathon, the 1st of a 2-part concert where Zorn was going to bring together all of the strains, and many of the musicians, from his more than a decade-old project to create “new Jewish music.” This was held in one of the major theater venues in the Plaza Des Artes, the Theatre Maisonneuve, a 60’s era 1500 seater. My issue was that I had also picked up tickets for a 7 o’clock show down the road by Canadian avant-folk group Courtney Wing---I figured I’d catch 45 minutes or so of Zorn then split. Unfortunately, there were no aisles in this damn place and I was in middle of a row, maybe 30 seats from the side entrance. Leaving in the middle of the performance, while doable, would be a serious effort and a disruption all around.

Turns out the show was so cool I didn’t want to leave. The show was split into 4 or 5 sections, each with its own ensemble / artist, each lasting roughly 20 minutes. They were bookended by larger groups, led by Zorn, either as a seated conductor or a saxophonist. These were utterly fantastic. When the first group started—featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen, cellist Eric Friedlander, percussionist Cyril Battiste (and I’m forgetting a few more) –what struck me was how perfect the sound was, and how mesmerizing, from note one, this music was. The later ensemble included Uri Caine on piano and Dave Douglas on trumpet. In all of the songs there was some structure, melody, and themes, but Zorn sculpted the pieces as they went along, using a series of hand gestures to call solos, duets, techniques and sequences. It was as much to watch as it was to listen to. Most pieces had a middle-eastern modality to the melodies, but all kinds of stuff flew in and out from every direction.

In between were smaller ensembles and some stunning solo cello from Friedlander, the only mis-step and it was fairly minor, was the women's acapella ensemble. Four women, dressed in what appeared to be mismatched (and uncomfortable) bridesmaids gowns, smiling nervously and singing fairly quiet little avant-garde ditties in what sounded like Hebrew. Neither they nor the music were ready for this stage or this show.

This was the biggest ticketed event I attended at the Festival, and all in all it was an absolutely brilliant two-plus hours. I was wishing that I had grabbed tickets for part two, which was going up at 9:30... And I’ll just have to catch Courtney Wing some other time.

Back out on the street, I realized that I was hungry, not having eaten much since Schwartz’s. I hiked up Ontario to La Paryce, who several folks had told me to go to for Montreal’s finest burger. There was a line, but I snared a stool at the tiny bar. Yes, it was one righteous burger, not too big, but with a great mess of stuff on it, tomato, onion, pickles, cheese, etc. And reasonable, like $7 or so? I was in and out fast.

There was some white-boy blues at the blues tent, very mediocre stuff; and LC-33 had just finished their second night; damn, I was ready for another dose of those guys.

Up the hill, I did get a look at Bostonian saxophonist-singer Grace Kelly, the 17 year-old Chinese girl who played Pittsfield back when she was like 14. There’s a picture from the Pittsfield gig of her wearing Phil Woods’ hat while a hatless Woods watches her play, and it is one of the best jazz photos I’ve ever seen. Anyway, she was on one of the smaller outdoor stages, and had a packed, and I mean jam-packed, courtyard in the palm of her hand, playing and singing bluesy bop jazz like a seasoned pro. With a crack band.

After all of the ethnic, multi-techno, world music I’d been seeing over the last couple of days, it was refreshing to see something, finally, that could only be categorized by the word “jazz.” This was, after all, a jazz festival.

Anyway, I’m a big Grace Kelly fan. Next time she should be on a bigger stage.

Instead of, say, Jose James and the Blackmagic Band, some kind of jazz hip-hop fusion thing that played right after Grace on the Scene TD stage, and thereby automatically attracting tens of thousands of curious onlookers, and who left me, well, completely cold.

Back for a third time to Gesu to see my truly wild card show, something called Punk Bop!, featuring a drummer named Ari Hoenig. I was started to dread this, because the name of the group was so lame, and was thrilled that the group, while having nothing whatsoever to do with anything remotely “punk”, was a seriously fire-breathing bop group. The young Armenian pianist Tigran Himasyan really stood out, but they all played with a great shared sense of dynamics, of fun, and of purpose. Drummer Hoenig was a character, looking at times like a wind-up monkey, and making more facial expressions in the course of one tune than most drummers make in a lifetime. He’s not quite as showy as that guy in the glitter jacket who’s all over YouTube, but he’s almost as disconcerting to watch. But in any event, Punk Bop! was a super-fine show despite to off-putting band name.

That’s Thursday.

Friday: took a jog down to old town to look at a little highly recommended café. It was a long run back uphill through Chinatown, but I got home. Worked again through the morning, around 1 decided it was time for that last big Montreal meal. Almost walked, as it was just beautiful out, but decided to grab another bike. It’s just too much fun on the bike. Got to old town, which, unlike at 7:30 in the morning, was crawling with tourists. The little café was loud, crowded, I was given a table in the middle of the place and a laminated menu. Uh, no. I split, got another bike, and headed back up to the plateau. I couldn’t find the highly recommended La Cocayne on Rue St. Denis, but wound up at Le Cherrier. I was sweaty from the uphill ride, and the hostess stuck me in a booth inside and turned the ceiling fans all the way up, which was sweet. I had the house red, a meat plate appetizer, and duck breast with some kind for fruit sauce—might have been boysenberry. It was French, it was good, it wasn’t expensive, I was happy.

I had one real musical event today—Wanda Jackson and The Lustre Kings. Mark Gamsjager of the LKs has been a friend for, what, 25 years? Hell, I’m their lawyer, come to think of it! The LKs cover Blotto’s 1-2-3 Hang Up, fer cryin’ out loud. And here they are with the Queen of Rockabilly, a former GF of Elvis, a lady who just recorded an album with Jack White. Yeah baby...

Met up with Mark and his bassist, my pal Chops, at the L’Astral venue, right under the press room, a place that looks like an old movie theater from the outside, with it’s marquee, big glass doors, and lobby, but is in fact a really cool club, with a big stage, tables all around, a wrap-around balcony with a couple tiers of seats, and a couple of bars. Like I posted, the kind of nightclub you only see in Gangster movies.

Mark and Chops had plenty of prepping to do, so I decided to take one more walk around the grounds. I tried to get some kind of official Jazz Fest shirt for my 16 year old, but found the designs and colors available simply and profoundly ugly! Somebody was going for some kind of 60’s-70’s-retro look, and utterly failed to bring a contemporary sensibility in with it. Instead of retro, then, we got a bunch of designs and colors that long ago fell out of style, and for good reason. And yes, there’s a difference.

Anyway, I took a walk and was startled to have all the characters from the daily New Orleans-style parade all come walking around the corner, heading back to their staging area. They were still on stilts, or in full costume, but they were all just heading home after the gig, chatting with each other; one showgirl had her daughter and husband walking along. I wish I’d been more ready, I snapped a couple shots but not want I wanted. This was nothing less than Picasso’s harlequin paintings sprung to life—totally unguarded, and very beautiful.

Head spinning from this I got up to the Scene TD stage, and I heard something strange there. I heard jazz. Coming around from behind the stage I was stunned to see a young jazz trio from Calgary called Chicago Goes West, just playing relaxed bop jazz like they were in a basement club in some college town. And thousands of people were listening, and every place down the massive mall that people could sit, people were sitting. And grooving. It was a trumpet trio, and there was a LOT of Miles in what the young cat was playing. But it stunned me that here, on a Friday evening, on this gigantic stage and mall that had really been the bane of my existence since I got here, they had booked the most basic of jazz ensembles. To play jazz. I got a beer and one of these extraordinary hot dogs and found a chair to savor this. Good show.

Time for Wanda. There was a line down the block to get in. A smattering of rockabilly cats and kittens, but not as many as I’d expect in Montreal. Got a high-top just off stage right. A young couple walked by looking for seats and I invited them to join me. Lovely folks, visiting from Minnesota, just drove into town and bought tix for whatever was available. The place was packed when the Lustre Kings walked out. They played a couple, then Mark gave Wanda the big show’ biz intro. She’s a little thing, and walks with a slight stoop, but has a beaming smile, and her raspy voice is still very much intact. And she’s razor sharp, cracking jokes, and improving with people in the crowd yelling stuff to her.

At one point the folks between me and the stage just got up, picked up their tables and moved them to the side, creating a little dance floor that quickly filled up with young girls, who were boppin’ the blues to a 70-something year- old lady.

She was fabulous, spraying water on the front rows, talking about her new album, talking Elvis, talking Jesus; she had an obvious affection for the Lustre Kings, she mentioned each member by name, and when they laid into “There’s a Riot Goin’ On’”, well, there was a riot goin’ on. A big happy riot. The crowd was just swooning for Wanda the whole night. My new friends from Minnesota were just blown away. Me, too.

Afterwards Wanda and her husband Vernon (who looked exactly the way the husband of a 75 year old Queen of Rock and Roll should look) greeted fans out in the lobby. The line, again, wound around the room and up the stairs. People were snapping up the 45 of the new Jack White single and getting is signed. It was over an hour before the place got cleared up. I got caught up with Mark, his wife Kathy (another old, great friend) and Mark’s mom who'd made the trip up. Then it was time to call it a Festival. I wandered out into the warm night. It was after 11 and the place was a mob scene. I decided to take one last look at the Scene TD, which had a “Surprise Concert” scheduled for 11. I came around the corner and was blasted with light and sound and energy from 200 yards away. There was a techno group on stage (who I later learned was Parisian band Caravan Palace), but unlike the others I’d seen previously up there, these guys were where they belonged. The girl singer, dressed up in leather, owned the stage, singing her ass off in French. There was an acoustic guitar virtuouso playing over the din, a violinist, too. The lights were incredible. And there must have been 100,000 people on the Plaza, screaming and dancing.

This was what it was all about. This was brilliant. I’ll remember this last scene the rest of my life. Good night, Montreal.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Montreal Jazz Fest Post One

I attended the 2010 Montreal Jazz Festival as a journalist from June 29 to July 2.
What follows are my quick impressions.
I will be publishing a 1000+ word feature in Metroland drawn largely from this. Minus all the food stuff. This post recounts the 29th and 30th. More to come.

I kind of fell into this one. This deep one. For a couple years I’d been listening to my pal Seth Rogovoy raving about his trips to the Montreal Jazz Festival for Berkshire Living magazine: the free hotel, the press credentials, the great vibe, the great scene, the great music, the great food. A few months ago I said to him “Dammit, how come I don’t get to do this?”

He responded “Well, have you asked?”

“Well, no.”

“Hold on,” he said. About 20 minutes later I got an email from Ann, the US publicist for the Festival, inviting me to submit a short application. She was apparently familiar with some stuff I’d written for Metroland. Next thing I know, I’m in. Like Flint. Damn!

What follows, then, is part travelogue, party diary, part draft for whatever I’m gonna submit to Metroland. I’m committed to a 1000 word article—I’ll put everything down here and then take snippets (and leave off most of the food stuff) for what ultimately gets published.


So Seth, his son Willie, and I set off mid-morning from Great Barrington on the 29th for Montreal, arriving at the Delta Hotel in mid-town about mid-afternoon. The Delta’s a big, corporate hotel, 4-stars according to it, and I had a very nice corner room with no right angles and a balcony. The Delta’s also two blocks from the Festival. Oh yeah.

I followed Seth to the Festival press room, which had banks of computers, tables full of literature, and a whole bunch of press liaison people. And a bar with free wine, beer and expresso. I was handed a folder full of info stuff and an envelope with some tickets for shows I’d indicated I wanted to see. And a big press credential thingee to wear around my neck.

Here's the deal with the Festival. There are 6 major outdoor stages where the music is free. Music starts around noon every day, with mostly school groups and up and comers going sporadically 'till six, when things start cranking in earnest, usually at least three things happening at once.

There are also a dozen or two venues in or near the Festival site for which you need to buy tickets. These range in size from auditoriums, where you get to see the likes of the Steve Miller Band and George Benson, to mid-sized theaters, to small clubs and cafes. I put in for press passes for a number of smaller ticketed events, and got tickets for most of them. I asked strictly for shows I thought I would most enjoy--I avoided the big auditorium shows; I didn't come to see pop stars and mega-shows, I came to see jazz.

I decided food would be a major part of the equation this week. At home I don’t eat out much, and when I do it’s usually burgers with friends. I figured this: I’m in one of the great gastronomical cities in the Northern Hemisphere; I’m alone; I’m gonna be spending money on food anyway; I’ve got oodles of time each day on my own—the main Festival musical events don’t start ‘til around 6 PM.

I’d sent out a Facebook request for restaurant suggestions and got a mess of them, almost all within a mile of my hotel.

And the closest was Beaver Hill, and old school, sedate, French restaurant. This was stop #1.

I walked in around 5 on Tuesday, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so it was pretty much empty. The place looks like it’s been here forever, banquettes up and down the sides and tables in the middle. I got some wine and started trying to figure out the Festival schedule, where the stages were, what I had tickets for, where and when. What else I wanted to see, where and when. Daunting.

But back to the food. They had a special seafood platter, half a lobster, some mussels, scallops...I went for it. I was sipping wine and having some kind of olive spread on bread when a waiter came out with a big hunk a pate, a “gift from the chef.” Wow! The chef digs me! It was great! The dish came out and looked just un-friggin-believable. Tasted fantastic. As I finished up I was struck by just how little food there actually was. Half a little lobster tail, two dinky scallops, some kind of tasty paste-y thing, some crab meat on the little ball of cheesy rice or something. Tasty as all hell, though.

The big free show Tuesday was something called Beast— trip-hop duo, a girl singer and a “multi-instrumentalist”...playing the huge Scene Festival TD stage. Beast had some industry muscle behind them—a full page ad in the Festival program, massive posters all over.

The show was listed for 9, I got to the Scene TD around 8:45, and thousands were already there on the massive concrete all stretching out before the huge, high stage. I got as close as I could with out having to push my way through the crowd, maybe 150 feet from the stage. 9 became 9:15. Apparently the show had been moved to 9:30. A sad reality started coming clear to me. A combo of old teenager football hits and weekend warrior exploits as an adult have left my back a fragile wreck—and I can’t stand in one place for more than 15 minutes or so without starting to hurt and hurt bad. I wasn’t long for this party.

Finally around 9:30 stuff started happening on stage. Lights went on and off. Stage smoke started moving blowing about. A little string section appeared on a riser. Then music started, kind of a droney sound and then a plodding rock beat, played by a real drummer, who appeared to be “the multi-instrumentalist”. The girl singer came out in a trenchcoat to a roar from the now-massive crowd. The close-ups flashing on the big screens revealed that she was no “girl”, she was easily in her 40’s, maybe older. She was wailing along, then got into this aggro-rap kind of thing. It was all sort of Eurythmic-y, in both good and bad ways. There were a couple of young black female back-up singers going that cool back-up singer dance thing and cooing every now and then. Lights flashed. No one looked terribly comfortable up there, and I was in agony down here.

I'm sure I took pictures, but I can't find them. Not a big loss.

Beast was OK. I’d probably enjoy seeing them in a club. I didn’t so much enjoy seeing them with 30,000+ people and an aching back. It was a much bigger stage than they were prepared to handle. It all was a little surreal. Chalk it up to the “big in Canada” syndrome, I guess. Maybe I’ll expound on that a little later on.

Wikipedia informs me that the girl singer is Betty Bonafasi, a multi-faceted talent who’s big claim to fame is having been one of the voices in Les Tripplettes of Belleville and performing at the Oscar ceremonies in 2004. Wish I’d known that before. Although in some ways this just makes it weirder.

Up early Wednesday, and I decided to take my morning run up to the plateau, were so many of the friend-suggested restaurants were located. Boho town. All bistros, little shops, sidestreets of neat and funky rowhouses. Going through on foot gave me a sense of the place and I liked it. I mean one of those “how can I make a living here so I can live here” feelings. I wound up running a lot further than I normally do at home.

Back to the hotel, worked through the morning. Around 1 PM I figured enough, time for Big Lunch. First I swung through the Festival site and watched what must have been a junior high school jazz band, who were killing what sounded like television music, very simple, but these guys were so dead-on and cute that it brought a tear to me eye.

From there I retraced my steps up to Rue Denis and this little joint recommended my several friends called L’Express. Nothing fancy, long, skinny place, I opted for a table near the front windows ‘cause the place was almost empty, and I needed to spend more quality time with the Festival schedule that I spread out on the table. The waitress recommended the tar tar or the octopus and lentil balsamic salad. Don’t know why, I went for the salad...And it came out in a flash...The look of this thing took my breath away and it et as good as it looked. This brilliant little space-ship shaped bunch of food is what I came for.

At this point, I’m feeling pretty damned cosmopolitan about myself. So when the waitress asked me if I wanted dessert I said hella yeah. And I ordered this caramel thing and a glass of port. This may have been a mistake. The dessert was almost as big as my head, and hard caramel glaze was intense, and there was a LOT of it. I did not finish my dessert.

So here I am, a mile and a half, two miles from the hotel. I’d had a couple glasses of wine and a port. It occurred to me that the walk back was not something I wanted to do. Shit, I’d already run back and forth then walked here. That’s plenty. Then I spotted a rack of these renta-bikes.

All over Montreal there are all these bikes locked into these computerized racks. Every rack has a terminal for credit cards and bike passes. You ride to where you want to go and leave your bike in the nearest rack. It’s brilliant. People get annual subscriptions in lieu of owning cars. I wonder if/how it works in the winter.

Anyway, this was something I wanted to do, notwithstanding the fact that I hadn’t ridden a bike in probably 30 years. I heard Cheese Blotto’s voice, saying “might as well drive, I’m too drunk to walk.” Now I certainly wasn’t drunk drunk, but I will admit to having achieved a certain state of tumescence. And I was alone in a strange city in the middle of a weekday afternoon. And, not unlike the arc of my existence, it was mostly downhill. Let’s go for a freakin' ride already. I figured it would be just like riding a bike.

I got 24 hours of bikes for $5. It rocked. I rode like a bastard, weaving in and out of traffic, down hills, through red lights, dodging pedestrians, and found a rack about ½ a block from my hotel. Took like 10 minutes. And I didn’t hurt myself or any bystanders. I don’t think I even annoyed anyone.

OK, mid afternoon nap time. I’m officially in some kind of groove. Even though I’ve been here for an entire day and have seen exactly two musical acts. First up tonight was a trio composed of African-French drummer Manu Katche (best known perhaps for the killer drumming on Simple Mind’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and also his work with Peter Gabriel and Sting), African bassist Richard Bona and French guitarist Sylvian Luc.

This show was at Gesu, a small grotto theater in the basement of one of oldest churches in Montreal, located literally steps from the Festival. It’s a beautiful space—envision the main theater in The Egg but about 1/6 the size, with a couple massive stone pillars thrown in. Needless to say, not a bad seat in the house.

This was one of those shows featuring a mash-up of performers who each were appearing on their own elsewhere at the Festival, and as such no one had anything to sell, or for that matter, anything to prove. All three were beaming the entire set, each doing all they could to surprise and challenge each other, and to make the each other laugh. All three were listening so, so hard to each other. And, of course, what made it so ecstatic for the audience was that these are three monstrous, versed, knowing, and hip players who left their egos at the door. Mike Eck once compared Buck Dharma’s guitar playing to watching a professional race car driver going very, very fast. OK, this was that times three. Everybody overplayed like nobody’s business, and it was a big glorious, take-your-breath-away mess of a jam session.

Luc played a couple of acoustics and one of those fat hollow-body jazz electrics, and was equally proficient with elegant finger-picking, lighting-fast single note leads, and when things got frisky, some very out and aggressive noise. Katche grooved like crazy. He is one elegant drummer. Bona was a revelation. A big guy, with massive dreads and shiny red sneakers, he showed a total mastery of styles, of colors, of the vernacular of music. And he referenced “Smoke on the Water” in the middle of a conversation with Luc, which always gets points in my book. (Luc answered with “Mission Impossible”). He also sang with an astonishingly beautiful falsetto.

OK, this was a 6 PM show so now we’re all blissed out and it’s around 7:30 and we’re dumped back out into the Festival, which at this point is cranking. And now we see how well this thing is laid out and run. Let me count the ways.

There are live stages all over, from tiny intimate stages you stumble upon to the massive Festival Scene TD stage facing a huge mall that can hold over 200,000 people. There’s even a hardwood break-dancing stage built into the sidewalk off on one end of the Festival that was busy every time I walked over there.. All of this is set into the Place Des Artes, a maybe eight-city-block area smack in the middle of Montreal. There’s a number of massive buildings housing theaters and shops, a metro station, and a whole lot of open space filled with stages, tents and various temporary structures. Right now there’s considerable construction going on in and around the Place Des Artes, but getting around in the midst of the massive crowds was still fairly easy. Imagine what it will be like next year, when the construction is done.

Food and drink? Everywhere. Heinekin is a major sponsor, so there’s a “Jazz Bar” every ten feet or so, plus guys walking around with racks of drafts. There’s also lots of hot dog carts, selling these big, serious, old-fashioned gourmet doagies. There’s sit-down cafes, many that look out over a stage. And there are private restaurants that ring the Festival grounds, some within the grounds. Now, I choose to do the majority of my eating off-site, but what I did eat inside was great. There were no lines for anything ever. And the prices were right. Not Yankee Stadium or SPAC Live Nation prices. Not by a long shot. OK? Great food, lots to drink, all easy to get at, and decent prices. You really can’t beat this.

I wander down the hill (it’s Montreal, it’s hilly) past the blues stage. Yes there’s a stage devoted to the blues. Canadians dig their blues. Most of what I saw there was pretty run-of-the-mill white-boy blues, you know what I’m taking about. I’m really sorry I missed Coco Montoya, though, who reportedly blew it up.

Behind the blues stage was another big stage and here is where I discovered LC-33, a young Columbian 12-piece salsa band, making their Canadian debut. And did they ever make it. This was pure punk in attitude, timeless in musical tradition-- super high energy salsa, lots of Total Band Movement, a lead singer wearing an AC DC t-shirt.

Everybody in the band was singing the background parts whether or not they had a microphone. They were mesmerizing and infectious; I only wish there were more folks dancing—the closer one got to the stage the more sardine-like it became. But these cats were ultra-cool, ultra fun.

I wandered back up the hill, to find this strange ensemble playing, calling themselves Wop Pow Wow. There was a guy playing an acoustic bass, a dimestore Indian waiving a tomahawk (no, I'm not kidding), a couple of girls who were trying to sing "meaningfully", and a couple other people playing things, and they were playing bad new-age jazz. I read something about this being some kind of Italian world music thing, from Quebec. Seriously? It sure didn't look like an art project to me. It just looked kind of stupid. Wop Pow Wow? That's not even funny.

It was on to the Scene Festival TD stage, where NYC hipster band Slavic Soul Party was getting going in front of another massive crowd. They sounded great, although a little of this stuff can go a long way for me. I found these guys generally annoying, mainly because of the leader of the band. He plays the bass drum, and runs around the stage with it, while the rest of the band doesn’t seem to move much. And he’s doing by far the least amount of work musically. I give him the 2010 James Pankow award for obnoxious stage behavior. He also does all the talking between songs, most of which could be dispensed with for reasons of general unctuousness. At one point he introduced his trombone players by saying “These guys are really overlooked” and I’m thinking, “well, whose goddamned fault is that?” On top of this, I’m not sure there was anyone remotely Slavic in the band, with the possible exception of the quite excellent accordionist.
Stuff like this generally doesn’t bother me, and no I’m not going to make an allegation of “cultural appropriation”, but when you call yourself “Slavic Soul Party”, well?

Then up to the smaller stage above that. Very briefly. For an Ontario jazz guy named Darren Sigesmund who was leading an uncomfortable-looking group through some music that was changing time signatures and grooves constantly and annoyingly, especially because it did not swing, even a little bit. It was just awful.

Back to Gesu (I wound up at Gesu alot, but it was a really nice room and they had Jameson at the bar, so I was OK with that), for the 10:30 show of trumpeter Dave Douglas and his group Keystone. Douglas is somebody I’ve been meaning to get acquainted with, and I will, even if this show was a little strange. You see, they played the soundtrack to the as-yet unreleased Bill Morrison film “Spark of Being” which is apparently about Frankenstein, or something. But, of course, we didn’t get to see the film. And much of the music, standing alone, well, it sounded like soundtrack music. A lot of ambient, not a lot of substance.

It was a quintet—bass drums sax keys and Dave on trumpet; although there was a ton of interesting electronic sound going on, that had been created by somebody named DJ Olive, who wasn’t there, but someone off stage was pushing Olive’s sounds out, which was pretty weird, too. Even if the dude just had a laptop, let him come out.

There were points were things got coherent, even bracing; drummer Adam Benjamin is an absolute monster player, one of those big guys who makes huge noise, laying down simultaneous counter-rhythms, without appearing to exert any energy, without breaking a sweat. Also, once Douglas described what was going on in the film before the band played—and that would have been really helpful throughout. The mental picture helped immensely, because all too often, the music just didn’t stand up terribly well on its own. Some of it was pretty, some was pretty messy, but the fact was the music was chasing something we weren’t privy to, and that was the drag.

I know you know this, but there’s only so much music you can listen to in one day—if you’re really listening. I had reached the limit. I was done. Toast. I assiduously avoided Slavic Soul Party's second show on the big stage on the way back to the hotel.

I was a little perplexed. So far the majority of the music I'd seen was just not very good to my ears and eyes. Especially on the bigger free stages. Am I some kind of grouchy old dick here? Would things get better or was this going to be a long, long week?

Thursday I was gonna rock the fest, and try to make it happen for me.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

7.1.10 GooTube Wins and Here Come the Feds

This article originally appeared in the 7.1.10 issue of Metroland

The big news this week, maybe this month, maybe this whole year, is that Viacom’s gazillion-dollar infringement suit against YouTube was thrown out by a New York federal judge. This surprised and delighted most everybody on my side of the fence, because the decision came so quickly (federal judges can take their sweet time with the most rudimentary of decisions, believe me), was so decisive (Viacom was thrown out on its ear) and so damn right! The rightness was particularly sweet—judges in copyright cases have for time immemorial been vulnerable to the arguments of the Big Media cartel to treat intellectual property just like real property (which it’s not), and, when confronted with those parts of the Copyright Act that counsel otherwise, simply ignore the law or, as the Supreme Court did a few years ago in the Grokster case, make the law up. Judge Stanton in New York last week did neither, and thank god for that. YouTube lives on.

As we’ve mentioned before, the suit basically tried to hold YouTube responsible for any infringing material someone might post on the site. It’s always been the copyright owner’s job to police his or her own copyrights, and Viacom was trying to shift that responsibility to YouTube. It’s a ridiculous argument—how is YouTube supposed to know what’s infringing and what’s not? Is YouTube supposed to make fair use determinations? As I pointed out in the past, somebody posted my old band’s videos on YouTube a few years ago, and I was thrilled---it saved me the trouble of doing it. And I’m 100% positive there’s thousands and thousands of other copyright owners out there who feel the same way about their stuff showing up on YouTube. We’re elated. At the “infringement.” Wish more people would do it. I know there’s live shoots of Blotto out there. Post the suckers. I’m begging you.

Fortunately, there’s a provision in the law that says if an internet service provider like YouTube promptly investigates and takes down infringing material from its site when it receives a complaint from a copyright owner, it can’t be held responsible for infringement. And YouTube does that, all day, every day, maybe even a little too zealously. How many times have you gone to look at something, only to be told that it had been removed at the request of the copyright owner? That’s what I’m talking about.

This apparently wasn’t good enough for Viacom, but it was more than good enough to satisfy the law, and so ruled the judge. Viacom, for its part, vowed to appeal.

In closely related news, Victoria Espinel, President Obama’s “Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator” released a big ol’ plan of action last week. On its face the document is fairly neutral, free of much of the rhetoric of the intellectual property wars, where the cartels like the MPAA and RIAA claim to champion “creators’ rights” when they are actually stealing money from creators and feeding it to their shareholders, and then label anyone who would disagree as being somehow “anti-creator”. (Um. I’m pretty sure I’m not anti-creator. Ask my clients. Anti-fascist, anti-bully, anti-bullshit, sure, anti-creator, nyet.) Most of the “action items” in the plan are laudible, if not a little banal, like making sure government contractors use authorized software, or calling for a clampdown on counterfeit medical devices. There is also a nice little shout-out about the importance of the fair use doctrine in copyright law to “innovation and artistry”, which shows, maybe, that the whole she-bang isn’t completely industry-driven and corrupted, as many had feared.

Probably the most significant aspect of the report is the promise of a white paper report, to be produced in 120 days, making recommendations for changes to the copyright laws. This is where the vagueness and platitudes of this initial report will start to take shape as actual policy recommendations. You know Big Media will be hammering hard to continue its decades-old trend of hijacking copyright law from its original purpose of protecting the public good to its new purpose of protecting Big Media. Despite the reserved tone of the report, we know Big Media already has a big pal in Joe Biden, who announced the report with a typically blathering statement equating “piracy” with “theft”: “It's smash and grab. It ain't no different than smashing a window at Tiffany's and grabbing [merchandise]."

Urgh. As Mike Masnick in Techdirt points out, infringement and theft aren’t the same, they’ve never been the same, and the courts have been recognizing this for centuries. So Joe, once again, shut up, please. Copyright law is a big complex deal, one that may well be beyond your jumbled but well-intentioned powers of thought. Leave it to the experts, and, please, beware of the glad-handers in the shiny suits.

Report in 120 days. Right around Halloween. It’ll be a graveyard smash.