Live Review: Paul McCartney, San Francisco, CA, July 10, 2010

Paul McCartney returned to the Giants ballpark tonight, but not to the same place he played the last time he brought a foursome to San Francisco, proper, when the Beatles performed what turned out to be their last live show ever in August 1966. That was Candlestick Park, notorious for howling winds and frigid temperatures after dark, a place that was once labeled “a pigsty” by former ’49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. Nestled on the bay, not far from the towering spires and twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge, with an “intimate” seating capacity of about 40,000, AT&T Park is a real gem. But 44 years later, we’ve put men on the moon and built a sparkling new stadium—and the PA really doesn’t sound much better than the old one did at the ‘Stick.

An inspired visual tribute to the Merseybeat days of the Beatles and an all-but-forgotten array of fellow Liverpool acts like Cilla Black, Gerry & the Pacemakers and the Big Three, spools down a pair of elongated Jumbotron screens on either side of the stage like two giant rolls of toilet paper. The pre-show canned music features an eclectic mix that ranges from jazz songbird Sarah Vaughn and Vegas lounge act Louis Prima to the exotic pop of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and Otis Redding making “A Hard Days Night” all his own. Good as it was, after 35 minutes most people have tuned out.

Finally, McCartney and his terrific four-piece backing band leap onstage, more than an hour after the scheduled 7:30 starting time, to the anti-climactic strains of “Rock Show,” certainly not one of Macca’s more enduring numbers. Fortunately, “Jet,” one of Wings’ better tunes was followed by a letter-perfect version (down to George Harrison’s pithy original lead-guitar break) of “All My Loving.” But those who thought this was to finally be the nonstop Beatles beggars’ banquet we all hungered for were at the wrong dining table tonight, at least during the first 70 minutes of this 160-minute set. For the opening half of the show, Fab Four classics were sprinkled sparingly, like peanuts at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack.

“I smell something sweet in the air tonight. I think I’ll take a moment to take it all in,” said McCartney, nodding toward those patrons who will definitely be voting “yes” on November’s California initiative to legalize marijuana. Revolver‘s “Got To Get You Into My Life” with the horn parts nicely replicated by keyboard stops was a real rouser.

Apparently unaware of Mark Twain’s noted assessment of San Francisco’s climate (“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”), McCartney asked the crowd what happened to the warm weather, then reminisced about the Beatles’ S.F. appearances in ’64, ’65 and ’66 (the first two at the Cow Palace, just outside the city limits). “The girls were screaming so loud we couldn’t hear anything we were singing. Great memories,” he mused.

Perhaps inspired by Ray Davies’ Storyteller tour a few years back, or head Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s narrative-laced That Lucky Old Sun show from 2008, McCartney was quite chatty tonight. “I was lucky enough to hang out with Jimi Hendrix, a great guitar player and a beautiful guy, very humble, during the summer we recorded Sgt. Pepper,” noted McCartney. “We released the album on a Friday, and on Sunday I went to see Jimi. And he’d learned it by then and played it that night.”

“I wrote the next song for Linda,” says McCartney. “It’s dedicated to all the lovers in the audience.” Heartfelt Wings ballad “My Love” and Beatles chestnut “The Long And Winding Road” seemed all the more poignant in the wake of McCartney’s keen postscripts and dedications to long-gone friends and lovers.

A short memo to self, not to lose his focus—”Don’t get distracted by reading the signs in the crowd,” he said—was immediately ignored by McCartney, as he blurted out the message on a hand-painted banner: “I Saw You At The Cow Palace in 1964! Do You Remember Me?” “Of course I do! How are you, luv?” he laughed. “I’m Looking Through You” from landmark Beatles LP Rubber Soul, heavily influenced by the 1965 folk-rock milestones of the Byrds, was an absolute knockout.

“Blackbird,” with McCartney solo on acoustic guitar was written, he says, about the civil-rights struggles and the suffering going on in the American South back in the ’60s. “I wrote that, in some small way, to maybe give people hope.”

As if the dedication to late wife Linda hadn’t cut deeply enough, McCartney really opened up with “Here Today,” penned for former pal/sometimes adversary John Lennon. “I’ve found you don’t always say the right things,” said McCartney. “Sometimes you have the feeling, ‘I wished I’d said that,’ when it’s too late. I wrote this after my dear friend John passed away.” (“If I said I really knew you well, what would you say?/You’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart … But I am holding back the tears no more/I love you.”)

Totally unknown by most of this crowd, “San Francisco Bay Blues” was once a local radio hit by San Francisco one-man band/street musician Jesse Fuller. “We had to do it,” said McCartney. The goodtime piece served as the perfect low-calorie antidote that shook the cobwebs and dust from the evening and lit the fuse for a volcanic finale. “Eleanor Rigby,” with its baroque string quartet arrangement nicely rendered on keyboard, sounded so accurate it might have been the track from Revolver played over the sound system. (Of course, it wasn’t.) One purple-shaded window focused on the stage backdrop immediately expanded into rows and rows and rows of purple-shaded, lonely windows.

“Here’s something I don’t know if you knew about George Harrison: He was a great ukulele player,” said McCartney of his other fallen former bandmate. “I used to go over to his house, and I learned this song on ukulele.” McCartney strummed and sang a marvelous version of “Something” on the Hawaiian fretted instrument that soon turned into a full-blown reading of the standout track from Abbey Road. “Oh, yeah, Georgie!” shouted McCartney as the crowd erupted.

“Band On The Run,” from Wings’ most successful 1974 album of the same name, was accompanied by outtake film footage from the convicts-in-prison-spotlight cover photo shoot that featured band core the McCartneys and former Moody Blues singer Denny Laine along with celebrity drop-ins like actors James Coburn and Christopher Lee, as well as Liverpool light-heavyweight boxing champ John Conteh, among others.

McCartney has finally worked up enough of a sweat to doff his jacket and cut loose with the best of his tracks from the White Album: the ska/Blue Beat-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the Beach Boys-fueled “Back In The U.S.S.R.” It’s a solid one-two roundhouse that gets the old-timers up and out of their seats, gyrating like they did before they turned 64. “U.S.S.R.” is blanketed on the rear of the stage by stunning black-and-white images of wildly spinning Cossack dancers. It’s just as powerful as any drug you can buy on the premises. “Wings did a show in Red Square, and we got to meet the Russian defense minister,” chuckles McCartney. “I dunno, he looked just like a kid to me.”

The endgame happens so quickly you hardly have time to catch your breath between songs. A raucous runthrough of “Paperback Writer” is surrounded by a lurid backdrop of pulp-fiction cover art. And before you can recover, you’re mesmerized by the hauntingly familiar opening strains of “A Day In The Life,” the Wagnerian, death-spiral closer of Sgt. Pepper. Just as they’re about to finish the song with those too-close-to-the-sun chords, everything shifts gears into Lennon anti-war manifesto “Give Peace A Chance.”

The philosophical “Let It Be,” from the final Beatles album, originally produced by Phil Spector, might fool you into thinking the end is near. But no. “Live And Let Die,” Wings’ most exciting track and the theme song from the 1973 James Bond flick with Roger Moore inheriting the franchise from Sean Connery, goes off like an IED in Iraq. A row of flamethrowing onstage smoke pots send fire heavenwards, and the instrumental teaser passages are highlighted twice by a barrage of full-bore fireworks exploding behind the stage to land safely in McCovey Cove, just beyond the right-field wall. it’s an unexpectedly welcome sight in the Bay Area, since most local towns eliminated Fourth of July pyrotechnics displays this year due to extreme budget constraints.

They wrap things up with McCartney seated at the grand piano for the gripping opening passages of “Hey Jude,” the song that even made a Beatles believer out of Mick Jagger in 1968.

But, just as the massive final sound of everyone joining in on a sing-along has ceased to echo from the surrounding hillside, McCartney and the boys are back onstage, toting two flags, the Union Jack and the California bear flag, for an encore that rattles the foundations of AT&T, much like the Loma Prieta earthquake shook old Candlestick back in 1989. It’s the runaway-firetruck headiness of “Day Tripper,” followed by McCartney abandoning the wonky, dayglo keyboard up front at the last second for the trusty old grand piano in the back. “Lady Madonna,” a Beatles tune, supposedly written in 1968 for one of their boyhood heroes, Fats Domino, is followed by “Get Back,” a smoldering number that gives the left-wing Lucky crowd one more chance to light up. And that’s it.

Not so fast. Back again for a second encore. The contemplative “Yesterday,” McCartney’s first solo/Beatles vehicle, is followed by an earsplitting “Helter Skelter,” the White Album screecher rumored to have inspired the Manson Family murders in 1969. The reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” gives way to Abbey Road finale “The End.” As you can see clearly by now, the love you take really is equal to the love you make.

The funny thing is, I’m thinking on the way back to the train jammed with revelers, he could have played 35 completely different Lennon/McCartney songs, and it might have been an even better show. Let’s hope the cathartic rendering of “Here Today” will open the barn doors for a full-scale mounting of more John-songs and more George-songs. Amazingly, McCartney’s voice, hailed as the finest rock vehicle of all time, remains as strong as ever. He hits every high note with ridiculous ease. It’s pretty obvious, Paul McCartney is sitting on the best back catalog of songs in the history of pop music. It’s high time we heard all of them. Live.

—Jud Cost

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 10

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Part of the charm of being at the fest is that there’s always a few events that, if you can catch them, make you feel especially lucky to be around. Such was the case for me at the Allen Toussaint solo show at the dear, sweet little Gesù Theater. Did I say intimate? The Gesù is nothing if not intimate, and Toussaint was the perfect host, guiding us through his amazing songbook and regaling the crowd with selected reminiscences from an amazing career. If you don’t know, producer/songwriter/arranger/session musician Toussaint has been making records since the ’50s. He’s one of the most influential musicians to come out of New Orleans in the last half-century, and you remember a lot more of his songs than you think. Having relocated to New York City since Katrina while his home in New Orleans was being rebuilt, Toussaint enjoyed an ongoing residency at Joe’s Pub (another intimate venue), where he’s revisited much of the classic material that he performed at the Gesù.

Sitting alone at the piano, Toussaint cut an elegant figure. His singing voice has never been anything to write home about, but he commands such love and respect that it feels like a small detail in a much bigger picture. Playing recurring riffs of his memorable songs, Toussaint gave a fantastic history lesson in American music as he described writing and arranging and producing hits for New Orleans characters like Ernie K-Doe (“Mother In-Law”) and Lee Dorsey (“Working In A Coal Mine”). His song “Fortune Teller” was covered by the Rolling Stones, trumpeter Al Hirt had a big hit with “Java,” and Herb Alpert scored with a Toussaint melody that ended up as the theme of the 60s TV show The Dating Game. It should be noted that Toussaint was more than dexterous on keys, playing jazzy, classically, R&B funky and just plain pretty.

As Toussaint played these songs and strung together these amazing stories, a far bigger picture of the man began to emerge. Talk about mailbox money? Can you imagine the songwriting royalties Toussaint must receive? His songs have been covered by artists like the Yardbirds and Warren Zevon (“A Certain Girl”), Boz Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt (“What Do You Want The Girl To Do?”) and, of course, the Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can Can”). Don’t forget, Toussaint arranged the horns for The Band’s performance at The Last Waltz. And for every great tune I mention, there are dozens more; this would include his acclaimed CD with Elvis Costello, The River In Reverse. Toussaint even performed his ever-enduring motto “Everything I Do Is Gonna Be Funky (From Now On).”

The high point of the evening was Toussaint’s 20-minute discourse over the theme from “Southern Nights,” which was a huge hit for Glen Campbell in the ’70s. As his hands ruminated over the lovely melody, Toussaint recalled his early childhood and family car trips out to the countryside to see his Creole relatives who refused to come into the city. His words painted a picture of love and serenity and childlike wonder and evoked the quiet, beautiful evenings that obviously inspired this tune.

In 2009 Toussaint taped a two-hour edition of Austin City Limits, but somebody has to get this solo show down on film before it’s too late. The Gesù gig was an education, as well as an emotionally laden experience that served as a perfect tribute to this essential American artist. Tonight, Toussaint will perform again, this time heading a brilliant band and performing the classic jazz material found on his critically acclaimed CD from last year, The Bright Mississippi. As Toussaint explains it, New Orleans, La., is the jewel of the Mississippi River, hence the name The Bright Mississippi. Got it? For his encore, Toussaint played a couple of tunes from the LP and a short version of “On Your Way Down,” which was covered by Little Feat back in the day. This was a request from the Gesù audience shouted out by yours truly. Thanks again, Allen.

By the way, after dazzling the crowd for two hours, Toussaint went back to his hotel, cleaned up a bit and went out again to play onstage with Cyndi Lauper. Who Dat!

Live Review: Pinback, San Jose, CA, July 2, 2010

Everyone I encounter who knows Pinback has vehemently agreed the group of San Diego alt-rock alchemists is the best band you’ve never heard of. Flying under the radar for a decade, founders Zach Smith and Rob Crowe have churned out albums and EPs glutted with arresting beats, melodic guitar and bass and two-part harmonies that will make you want to dig out your discarded high-school journal and contemplate existence.

The city of San Jose has a negligible music scene consisting of Taylor Swift and Elton John pocket piracy at the HP Pavilion (when the San Jose Sharks aren’t tossing pucks around) and orchestra recitals frequented by the old and the rich. The presence of Pinback at the Blank Club was a welcome departure from the downtown area’s usual Friday-night routine of dive-bar surfing.

The venue was situated on an unoccupied side street, lined by about three cars. Stamping hands was a woman who was white-knuckling her Bic pen and looked like she’d dealt with her quota of drunks for the night. At first I wondered if I was in the wrong place, but then I spotted a few girls sporting asymmetrical haircuts and holding cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. While waiting for the opener, I occupied myself by oogling the trippy lights spinning across the floor, as if I’d just smoked a whole month’s prescription from one of the “collectives” down the block.

After the initial ear-grating snoozefest forced upon us by Little White Teeth (or some combination of those particular words), The Rob and Zach Show, a pared-down version of Pinback, began their set with two somber ballads, strumming their instruments and reclining in their chairs.

“We’re touring just the two of us, as The Rob and Zach Show,” Crowe announced to the somnambulant crowd. “We came here to play songs we don’t normally get to play, and relax and have fun.” I groaned. “But we are too nervous to be having that much fun.” For the next 45 minutes, the duo made good use of the drum machine on songs like “Fortress” and “Non-Photo Blue” to liven up the club and get everyone grooving.

Any person at the Blank was only a few feet away from Crowe and Smith. The low-rise stage was a resting spot for many a discarded drink, and after the show Crowe exchanged emails with several fans. When I spoke with him after the show, he told me a new album was in the works. “We have about five really good ideas so far,” he said. As much as I appreciate their music, I almost hope their upcoming record isn’t a hit. Then the next time I see them, I’ll be sipping an $8 Diet Coke and peering through binoculars on the opposite end of the Shark Tank. Half their charm is the fact that they’re all mine.

—Maureen Coulter

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 9

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Canada loves guitars, that much is true. In some ways, the general population up here behaves as if it’s still the 20th century and the guitar remains the instrument of choice. A couple of years ago at a Pat Metheny concert, I even saw someone playing air guitar with serious abandon. Recently, in addition to the annual Jazz Festival, the producers have added the Montreal Guitar Show, showcasing a series of concerts (including world-class players like Charlie Hunter and Sylvain Luc) and a convention hall housing more than 130 amazing guitar luthiers—acoustic and electric—and their wares. I attended a press conference honoring none other than George Benson, who was presented with a lovely tribute award, symbolically made of two different types of wood, one from North America and one from Africa.

In any case, watching guitarist John Scofield and his Piety Street Band perform at the Jazz Fest, I was amused/amazed at the heartfelt devotion to guitars displayed by Montreal fans. In keeping with the festival’s never-ending emphasis on the music of New Orleans, Scofield seemed happy playing soulful old gospel tunes and trotting out copious amounts of electrified blues licks for a full house at the Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Scofield’s Piety project is more than a year old now, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. The band was nice and tight, with singer/keyboardist John Cleary, drummer Terrence Higgins and famed Meters bassist George Porter Jr.. Sounding like a junior-league Jeff Beck disciple, Scofield played a series of blues, ballads, gospel tunes and old rock ‘n’ roll for his audience. They loved it—me, not so much.

I left before the end of Scofield’s show to run around the corner to the massive Salle Wilfred Pelletier hall for a performance by the Keith Jarrett Trio. Last year, the prickly pianist caused quite a stir as he castigated the Montreal crowd for taking pictures with their cellular phones. This was not an isolated incident, as Jarrett also insulted both the crowd and city at the Umbria Jazz Festival, where he is now not welcome to return. The Montreal programmers were more forgiving than those in Umbria, and as a result, we paid the price. The show was really quite remarkable, with Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette playing with telepathic accuracy and spellbinding creativity. The Keith Jarrett Trio is strictly a standards band, and they played beautifully on classic compositions like “Autumn Leaves,” Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave” and “Why Does Everything Happen To Me.” Piano aficionados were oohing and aahing and laughing and cheering as Jarrett dazzled the crowd with his emphatic embellishments and virtuosic displays of pianistic dexterity. Jarrett was clearly feeling it, as he crouched half-standing, head bent low and hands flying across (or gently caressing) the keyboard. One hour flew by like nothing, and after an extended intermission, the band came back and did it again. Then, after the second set and a standing ovation, the band returned to take a bow, and some folks in the audience just had to disregard the emphatic house requests to refrain from taking photos. Jarrett saw camera flashes, got all huffy, reprimanded the crowd once again, took his faithful bandmates and walked off the stage, refusing to return. It’s too bad that this strange recurring confrontation between Jarrett and his audience continues to distract from some truly great performances. But, as they say, that’s showbiz.

As per usual, I went straight to the Gesù Theater for some late-night spiritual healing and some blissed-out shut-eye, this time with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and his bright young Finnish/Danish band. Stańko is a jazz veteran who began his career playing back in the ’60s. In the course of the following decades, he’s played with a number of jazz greats, lost his teeth and had to completely rework his embouchure. Playing songs off his latest ECM disc, Dark Eyes, Stańko sounded sure and dramatic. It took some time, but he was in total control, thriving on lush ballads as the show progressed. The skilled group showed focus and determination under Stańko’s direction, and the Gesù crowd seemed quite pleased with the results. Later, after the show and back at the hotel, I watched and listened as Stańko entertained his band with stories of his groups in the ’70s, before most of his current band members were even born.

That’s how jazz is, with its elders passing knowledge down to the eager young lions and crusty old journalists telling young readers some of the many things that they should know.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Live Review: She & Him, Philadelphia, PA, July 2, 2010

Zooey Deschanel, the often dippy but always charming indie-film darling, proved once again that she can do no wrong. There is no need for slashes in her title; she is truly all at once two separate entities: a movie star as well as a musician. With singer/songwriter M.Ward, she fronts She & Him, and the duo’s live sound—backed by the Chapin Sisters’ bright harmonies, plus your standard bass, guitar and drums—is full, cheery and buzzing with energy.

The second album from She & Him, Volume 2 (Merge), brings Deschanel’s sunny, retro vocals and chord progressions together with Ward’s raspy voice and driving guitar solos. The set list included tracks from their sophomore album, like “Home” (about Deschanel’s native California) and a sassy cover of Skeeter Davis’ version of “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” To start, there was also the soaring “Sentimental Heart” and their specialty “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” both showcasing Deschanel’s crisp, vocal resonance.

What links all of She & Him’s songs is no matter how somber or heartbreaking the lyrics or melodies, they somehow retain a certain sunniness, a light energy. Even the down-in-the-dumps “Brand New Shoes” can still have you smiling and singing along with Deschanel’s deep-rooted whispers, “We are all made of air/There’s stars in my eyes and sun in my hair/But I’m runnin’ away/It makes me feel better/It’s just like you told me it’d be/It’s nothin’, nothin’.”

On the sad-yet-cheerful “In The Sun,” Deschanel whipped out the ukulele, which only added to her charm, as she hopped around the stage, strumming and smiling. Both Ward and Deschanel swapped instruments from guitar to keys and back again. On “Sweet Darlin’” off Volume 1, Ward began on keys then Deschanel joined him on the bench at the bridge as they plunked on the keys at the same time- Deschanel adding theatrical glissandos.

Both Deschanel and Ward have a bit of a theatrical flair to their performance—not over-the-top, but professional. The mood of the show is more like a well-oiled stage play than the reality of an intimate concert. Even the way duo took the time to bow for each other and then recognized their band behind them before exiting was more community theater than Hollywood, only adding to their charm.

As Deschanel crooned “Why don’t you come and play here?/I’m just sitting on the shelf” on “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” there seemed to be a communal heaving sigh from the audience. In no other setting is it socially acceptable for a six-foot-tall man, pushing 200 pounds, to screech, “I love you!” other than being just a few feet away from the lovely Deschanel. Ward managed to steal the spotlight from his ethereal bandmate as he picked out an incredible ‘70s guitar riff that sliced into the otherwise poppy tune.

After returning for a short encore, She & Him played two unique, crowd-pleasing covers while still tapping into their retro themed set. First was “Fools Rush In” (covered by Sinatra and Elvis, to name a few), which the band recorded as a part of Levi’s web series where artists remake songs that inspired their current sound. Last, Ward broke into the familiar, nostalgia-inducing riffs of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll with “Roll Over Beethoven” as Deschanel let loose on the keyboard. And just as mysteriously as they broke into the music scene two years ago, Ward sauntered offstage trailed by Deschanel, who hopped and skipped behind him.

—Cristina Perachio

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 8

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

How shall I put this? I know: The Montreal Jazz Festival is in full swing! Swing, get it? Jazz swings and the festival is totally swinging. People are getting loose, musicians are hanging out all over the place, and everybody is having a great time. Well, almost everybody. I’m not sure that Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson were so happy last night. Collaborating with Masada madman John Zorn for a performance as an improvising trio, Reed and Anderson rediscovered the folly of fame and public perception. In their press conference earlier that day, the charming old couple from New York City explained to a room full of journalists how their show would be a night of instrumental improvisation, not the traditional Reed or Anderson type show. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the fans who had already bought tickets to the well-publicized event.

Anderson, Reed and Zorn had performed in this free-styled context recently in NYC, and the avant-garde music they made might have fit better as a small segment of Zorn’s Masada Marathon the night previously. Instead, they performed as a headline (high-priced) act at the large Salle Wilfred Pelletier Hall, selling their recognizable names to an unsuspecting fan base that probably expected a little “Sweet Jane” or as least something off of Anderson’s new CD. Unfortunately, many of those Canadian fans were turned off by what they heard, many people walked out of the show after the first number, and there was some booing. One disgruntled non-jazz fan yelled “Play some real music!” To which Zorn angrily replied, “If you don’t think this is real music, then get the fuck out!” Ouch. The threesome’s show clocked in at just under an hour, leaving the paying crowd feeling a little short-changed in more ways than one.

Happily, there was no such dissension at the Gesù Theater when up-and-coming pianist Robert Glasper was joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard for a night of quality improvisation. Glasper is a talented musician who’s made a name working with hip hop and nu-soul artists as well as playing jazz. With the high-profile Blanchard as his special guest, Glasper kept things on the jazz tip, and he showed himself to be a savvy improviser brimming with creative ideas and sly humor. Blanchard, who’d performed an impressive concert with his own group the previous night, was in good spirits, played extremely well and teased Glasper playfully throughout the show. The duo started out with a swinging version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” and touched on some other old standards before bringing out drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Vicente Archer to flesh out their sound. Both Glasper and Blanchard are bold, confident players, and their show was filled with unexpected musical moments. Glasper proved to be the most mischievous, riffing on a Bette Midler tune in mock-earnestness before pulling the rug out beneath Blanchard. Blanchard and Glasper casually jived with the audience and entertained each other with clever quips and great musicianship. Prediction: Glasper is destined to play music for a Spike Lee film—just wait and see.

From the Gesù I ran across the street to the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe to watch drummer Jack DeJohnette with an all-star band that included alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Jerome Harris and scary-good guitar hero Dave Fusinski (known by some as Fuse). Dejohnette is a longtime Montreal favorite, and he is also town playing with the Keith Jarrett Trio. Still, this particular grouping had an ad hoc feel to it, and while the musicians were of the highest caliber and Dejohnette’s compositions were all first rate, there was some implicit lack of direction onstage. Some folks found the problem to be with DeJohnette himself, who seemed slightly distracted and was perhaps saving himself for the much-touted Jarrett show the following night.

Percussionist Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures band played a late night set at the Gesù, and after all the high-flying improvisation and exhibitionistic playing, it was a pleasure to just sit back and let Rudolph’s gentle tribal-world sounds wash over me. It was funny to notice that the band included bassist Jerome Harris, who must have run from playing the DeJohnette show straight over to the Gesù—just like me!

But things weren’t over yet, as I headed over to Club Soda for a late-late night gig with the Anti-Pop Consortium. The APC have been around since 1997 (off and on) and are still one of the most unique hip-hop/rap groups around. Their sound, replete with rock and punk/DIY influences, is still unorthodox for a rap group and hard to pin down. The show itself was totally off the hook, going strong until about two in the morning as the rappers flowed and the music skronked in a non-funk fashion. The young Canadian crowd grooved in a relaxed and celebratory way, and I had to admit it was the perfect way to end a long, swinging evening. Too bad Reed and Anderson couldn’t make it that far.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 7

JohnZorn

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

OK, it happened. Critical mass was reached and I’m maxed out after a night of watching John Zorn’s aptly titled Masada Marathon at the Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Two shows, one at 6 p.m. and another at 9:30, totaled almost five hours of music, showcasing a number of magnificent artists in a variety of unique settings, all under the direction of musical iconoclast Zorn. It was a gesture of bold programming for the Montreal Jazz Festival, but one fitting in its drama and lofty ambitions. Zorn served as formal conductor for the festivities and only played alto saxophone for a portion of his time onstage, instead introducing and directing the musicians with a series of emphatic hand signals and gestures. In a revue-styled evening, Zorn and his troops manned the stage in various combinations, showcasing the particular skills of a number of notable players, most of who have been featured on CDs available on Zorn’s illustrious Tzadik label.

The core group of Masada regulars included drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen, percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitarist Mark Ribot, but also featured longtime Zorn associate Dave Douglas on trumpet, keyboardists Jamie Saft, Sylvie Courvoiser and Uri Caine, cellist Eric Frielander, violinist Mark Feldman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, drummer/vibraphonist Kenny Wolleson and bassist Trevor Dunn, to name a few(!). Zorn has been formally performing under the Masada banner since 1993, but many of these relationships go back further than that. Practically a reunion and historical overview of the New York City downtown music scene, the Marathon was chock full of highbrow musical moments. Much of the compositions and programming in the first show contained a strong Spanish tinge, as well as some klezmer, free jazz, classical innuendoes and hardcore thrash. The stage band was constantly changing, with elegant solo bits, dramatic duets, trios and full-on band assaults. Friedlander did a great solo portion, as did Caine, and a quartet featuring Goldberg was remarkable. Four lovely female vocalists (Basya Schechter, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Malika Zarra and Sofia Rei) did a segment a cappella during the first show that required some patience, but when the Electric Masada band took over and pounded things out, all was forgiven.

One grouping of Zorn’s army culled from his Electric Masada collective is called Dreamers (check out their excellent CD), and their portion of the evening might have been the best of them all. The musicians in this dreamy combination were all impressive in their own right, but Ribot, Cyro Baptista, Jamie Saft and Joey Baron deserve special praise. Zorn’s own playing was sharp, and his presence onstage was a mix of deadly serious, loving, attentive, gracious and playful.

The Masada Marathon just went on and on and on, but nobody in the audience seemed to mind. Including me. The sight of all the musicians standing together at the end of both shows was endearing and inspirational, and a true testament to Zorn’s relentless artistic vision. Check them all out, individually and collectively.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 6

RichardBona

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Happy Canada Day! After my brief break in the action yesterday, the jazz fest is moving forward and picking up speed. While I personally frequent indoor gigs and mostly smaller venues, this 12-day event is mammoth in both size and scope, and the free, outdoor concerts could keep most any music lover busy for days. And after all my talk about venerating our jazz elders, I made a particularly foolish move and bet against 80-year-old Sonny Rollins a couple of nights ago, gambling that his performance would be only “good, not great.” I skipped the show, and of course, all of the reports back from my peers claim that it was one of his best concerts in ages and that his saxophone playing was totally inspired and he even sang a blues at the end of the show. Sonny, how could I have doubted you? Forgive this ageist fool.

Sticking with the Invitation Series hosted by French über-drummer Manu Katché, I caught another early evening gig at the Gesù Theater, this one featuring Katché in a trio context with French guitar star Sylvain Luc and magnificent Cameroonian bassist/singer Richard Bona. The buzz portrayed this threesome as a supergroup, and I have to admit they were completely amazing. The question mark was Luc and how the guitarist was going to do alongside such a killer rhythm section. A straightforward jazz player with loads of skills, Luc stepped up his game and held his own, avoiding clichés and improvising fearlessly. Switching back and forth from acoustic to electric, Luc pushed his bandmates into uncertain territory repeatedly. His playing was consistently inspired, allowing Bona and Katché plenty of opportunities to turn up the heat. No doubt, Bona was the real attraction here, and his bass served as both a lead and rhythm instrument, balancing the trio and providing counterpoint from several different angles. Bona’s touch is technically amazing and incredibly fluid, and his bass playing conveyed joy and humor as much as it did provide a funky, burbling bottom when needed. Bona also sang in a beautiful falsetto, very similar in timbre to the great Milton Nacimento. Katché, of course, grooved all night long, smiling at his peers’ inventiveness and soloing with great vigor. From soft ballads to loud, funky jams, these guys played their tails off and had a great time doing it. Encore!

British pianist Neil Cowley and his band dazzled a full house at L’Astral, and I have to say I was impressed. Check out Displaced for a good example of his playing. A solid jazzer with exhibitionistic displays, this guy really knows how to entertain. Maybe it’s from his time playing with funk/soul acts like the Brand New Heavies, but Cowley is certainly not shy behind the keyboard. When speaking to him before the show, Cowley told me that he was classically trained until the age of 14, when he heard a Blues Brothers album; that was it—he never turned back. With any luck, Cowley will catch on in the U.S., as his witty, powerful piano style grabs you quick and hangs on tight.

Wrapping things up at the Gesù with Dave Douglas & Keystone was somewhat challenging but ultimately worthwhile. Douglas is a talented, versatile trumpeter/composer, and his band serves as a vehicle to perform movie music. In the past, Douglas has set music to the silent films of Fatty Arbuckle. More recently, Douglas created a sonic backdrop for Bill Morrison’s new film, Spark Of Being, which is apparently inspired by Frankenstein. Without the benefits of seeing the accompanying film, some of the music from Spark Of Being felt vague and directionless, but the ensemble playing of Douglas and Keystone eventually won out. Saxophonist Marcus Strickland was especially notable, as was drummer Gene Lake. I couldn’t really hear keyboardist Adam Benjamin that well, bassist Brad Jones had trouble with his sound all night long, and the electronic samples created by DJ Olive and manipulated for the show offstage by Countryman did not really add that much. Ending strong with some Fatty Arbuckle music, Keystone is an exciting group that’s perhaps bigger than its original mission. We’ll see where Douglas takes them next.

Coming up, it’s John Zorn’s Masada Marathon. Yikes!

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 4

ManuKatche

It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As the Montreal Festival ebbs and flows, so do I. The early part of this jazz week radiated low energy for me, but the musicians I saw perform still did their level best to entertain and inspire. Consider master drummer Manu Katché, here to host a few shows of his own as part of the vaunted Invitation Series after appearing as a guest of trumpeter Paulo Fresu. Leading his modest quartet for an early show at the Gesù Theater, Katché stood out as the obvious focal point in spite of the democratic nature of his group. The French-African Katché is not an overly showy percussionist, but his tasty, understated grooves have made him an in-demand player for the likes of Sting, Jeff Beck and a long, long list of other top-line artists. Along the way, Katché has put out a few CDs as a bandleader on the ECM label, the most recent being Third Round. While the musicians in his touring group are not the same ones that play on the new disc, his quartet sounded well-rehearsed. Essentially, pianist Alfio Origlio, electric bassist Laurent Vernerey and saxophonist Tore Brunborg were little more than adequate, but I kept my eyes on Katché for the whole time and was not disappointed. Over the course of the show, I began to understand what all of these great musicians see in Katché. He’s simply a great timekeeper and an imaginative drummer with a great amount of musicality to his playing. I’ll be interested to see him take up with some of the other talented musicians slated to join him as the week progresses. Odds are the opportunity for more experimental sounds will present itself, and some amazing improvisations are sure to follow.

After a killer feast in Chinatown, I returned to the Gesù (my second home) for a late night gig with the Wallace Roney Sextet. Roney, a trumpeter, is an interesting case. A child prodigy diagnosed with perfect pitch and taught by the likes of Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie before being mentored by Miles Davis, Roney has had his ups and downs. Now, at age 50, Roney is quite well established but working without much traction as younger, hipper jazz artists are attracting the attention (and gigs) he once enjoyed. The Gesù was not exactly filled to capacity for this show either, which I took as a bad sign. The band, which includes Wallace’s brother Antoine on saxophone, was workmanlike but never amazed. As far as Roney himself, it’s wild how much he tends to sound like mid-period Davis. He can’t help it, and he certainly is an inventive, talented soloist. Sadly, as a bandleader, I don’t see him as particularly challenging or all that inspiring. Still, when the rhythm section was cooking and Roney’s fiery trumpet blended in unison lines along with his two saxophonists, a few sparks did fly. It’s almost as if Roney is trapped in modern-jazz jail and doesn’t know what to do to get out. As with many noted musicians of his stature and talent, the responsibilities of keeping a band together and working can be a burden as much as it can be a joy. Like, what else is he supposed to do?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that one.

Live Review: Passion Pit, Tokyo Police Club, Philadelphia, PA, June 27, 2010

PassionPit

On the evening of the Passion Pit/Tokyo Police Club show, the Mann Center for the Performing Art’s outdoor amphitheater was hotter than the backseat of a senior football letterman’s car at the drive-in movies, enough so that about 25 people were crammed into the air-conditioned ATM kiosk at any given time. Standing in the concession line was a feat of endurance. I was pretty certain I’d see a couple tattoo sleeves melting off.

Once the bands’ rhythmic synthesizers and throbbing drums pulsed onstage, however, the sticky Congo-jungle heat didn’t stop the crowd from ignoring their already-smeared eyeliner and start kicking up their heels. Barely legal Canadian post-punk quartet Tokyo Police Club banged out several songs off new album Champ, including “Breakneck Speed,” and maintained its playful energy by electrifying acoustic ballad “Tessellate.” I was impressed with vocalist Dave Monks’ dedication to hipsterdom when he sported a flannel shirt for the entire set in the Mann incinerator.

TPC’s act was a perfect segue into the emotive, chaotic symphony Passion Pit released onto the Urban Outfitted throng. Lead singer Michael Angelakos thanked the audience effusively, mentioning at least four times the fact that the band’s last Philly show took place in a church basement. This night, disco lights illuminated a packed stadium of several thousand fans tossing toys and dollar bills onstage, fans who mouthed the words of songs besides the band’s hit single “Sleepyhead.”

The arena would have swamped most indie acts like a kindergartner playing “house” in her mother’s pearls and pumps, but Passion Pit’s epic electro-synth melodies, robust percussion and spazzy, Björk-like vocals filled out the venue like a Playmate in a double-D brassiere. Similarly, it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Once the strobe lights began flashing and “Little Secrets” came on, even the over-40 gentleman in the tucked LaCoste polo and loafers next to me couldn’t help but flail his arms to the beat.

While the three-year-old group doesn’t have the concert performance experience of road veterans like Green Day or the Pixies, both of whom are touring this summer, those in attendance felt Passion Pit lived up to its name and came away sweaty and satisfied.

—Maureen Coulter