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.


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