Andy Hughes reports back from all the acoustic happenings at 2015’s Montreal Jazz festival
The Montreal Jazz Festival prides itself on its eclectic taste and while the majority of the bill is, as you would expect, devoted to jazz music in its many and varied forms, there are plenty of offerings from other genres to attract music lovers of all tastes, and acoustic guitars are prominent in their inclusion. This year, jazz giant Al Di Meola attended along with blues legend James Cotton – both presented with Awards from the festival in recognition of their contribution to music.
Local sons Colin James, singer-songwriters Bobby Bazini and Jordan Officer and flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook, all demonstrated that Montreal is as alive as ever to the increasing popularity of acoustic music. The deal was sealed by the huge free outdoor show by Canadian folk band the Barr Brothers, which was enjoyed by a massive audience of festival goers.
The festival is justly proud of its own acoustic heritage, and this was proudly carried on by the next generation of Cohen musicians – Adam following his legendary father Leonard into the Festival appearance log for 2015.
Internationally renowned acoustic artists also made the festival this year, with typically stirring sets from Rodrigo y Gabriela and Madeleine Peyroux but it was the Americans who stole the show for acoustic lovers this year.
Step forward Pokey LaFarge, whose band almost lifted the roof off the funky downtown cosy nightclub venue Club Soda with their 30s-influenced good-time swing jazz. There are definite and doubtless intentional echoes of the legendary Django Reinhardt in the wonderfully dextrous acoustic solos picked out by band guitarist Adam Hoskins. Pokey himself resembles a fit, healthy and happy Hank Williams and the sheer joy and happiness of the band and the music spread throughout the crammed audience. The stories and scenarios conjured up by the lyrical landscapes are reminiscent of master lyricist Chuck Berry. Pokey should return next year, and move to a bigger venue to fit everyone in.
Speaking of good time music, they don’t come much happier or joyous than the mighty Mavericks, who took second slot in a three-band show, which opened with Justin Townes Earle. Justin may not be an ‘outlaw’ in the musical genre sense, but he writes, talks and behaves like one, and his unpredictable nature added a wonderful frisson of danger to his opening set. Having flown in from Sweden that day, jet-lag did not improve his demeanour any, but his dark and dangerous country music was perfect for an evening of acoustic contrasts. Anyone who thinks country music is still all about girls in gingham dresses and dancing around hay bales should delve into the Earle catalogue and explore the music of a man who has lived several (hard) lifetimes.
Following Justin was the party Tex-Mex jamboree that is the Mavericks. Raul Malo, with his honeyed vocals, and easy acoustic guitar rhythms led the band and the audience through the finer points of their recent output, and the genuine optimism of ‘Dance The Night Away’ never fails to hit the spot. Piano player Jerry Dale McFadden provides a perfect foil for Malo being equal parts mean mover, natty dresser, stage dancer and superlative keyboard maestro. Montreal audiences need no excuse to dance, so this performance left few people doing anything but swinging their hips and smiling broadly by the end.
Lucinda Williams was the headline performer of the evening, and she still manages to embody the grit and determination that embodies the strong women performers of country music. Her slow bluesy country songs and considered vocals kept the audience enraptured for the remainder of the evening.
As the festival’s reputation grows around the world, such dynamic programming is now being viewed as the norm for this summer event – previous performers have included Tangerine Dream and Ziggy Marley, this year’s bill hosts progressive hotshots Snarky Puppy and eighties pop titans Huey Lewis And The News. Anyone who comes to the Montreal Jazz Festival and doesn’t find something to really enjoy, either in the diverse venues like the converted cinema the Metropolis, or Jesu, the small converted church, is either determined to be disappointed, or just really not trying. The vast majority of the indoor and outdoor shows are within a 15-minute stroll of each other, so you don’t have to walk far to find something new to look at and listen to.
Montreal could not be more welcoming to the influx of two million visitors who crowd into its centre for this wonderful event. Apart from the organised events, masses of street musicians and entertainers ply their trade among the throngs of tourists, with a small musical combo to be found on most street corners. One featured the out-there assimilation of a didgeridoo, small percussion set and some computerised beats. The interface of one of the world’s older musical instruments with the electronic newest provides a neat metaphor for the ethos of this Festival – music is welcome, the style is not important.
Because of the sheer size and variety of musical scope involved in the Montreal Jazz Festival, some advance planning is always advisable. Most of the major gig venues are around the central area of Saint Catherine Street, which is partially pedestrianised for the duration of the event. Like any festival, this should be seen as an opportunity, not only to check out the increasing amounts of acoustic music to be enjoyed, but to stretch musical horizons and dip a toe in the world of jazz in its many forms.
Additional mainstream appeal was added to the bill this year by a re-emerging Mika who has a new band and a new album to show off, and did so to rapturous applause in one of the city’s famous theatre venues. The aforementioned Metropolis hosted pop-soul star Joss Stone proving that variety remains the life-blood of any modern music festival.