Live Review: The Weakerthans, San Francisco, CA, July 23, 2009

weakerthansIt doesn’t take long for Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson to size up what kind of a crowd he’s been dealt in San Francisco tonight. When his tongue-in-cheek announcement of a local curling tournament (that bizarre sport most U.S. citizens notice only during the Winter Olympics that involves sliding a heavy polished stone, shuffleboard-like, down an icy pitch) gets a pretty good response, he’s home free, preaching to the choir for the rest of the evening. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Manitoba quintet, with a topnotch set list of folk/rock songs with plenty of power-pop flourishes, is playing to a sold-out house that seems at least half full of transplanted Canadians, ready to sing along in between trips to the washroom to offload the Molson. With guitarist/pedal-steel whiz Stephen Carroll, bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jason Tait (along with an unnamed utility man who aptly handles keyboards and trumpet and a female French horn player in for a couple of tunes), the Weakerthans are easily the best Canadian band seen in these parts since Vancouver’s Pointed Sticks played their fabulous Stiff Records debut single “Out Of Luck” to a pogoing crowd at the Mabuhay Gardens three decades ago.

Samson, in his mid-30s, is blessed with a perpetually innocent, Holden Caulfield kind of voice, one perfectly suited to the final line of “Relative Surplus Value,” a song about the alienation of a young man at a faraway business convention: “Could you come get me?” This stuff couldn’t be sung more convincingly by the peach-fuzzed trio from Superbad. On the other hand, the stylish lyrics, well worth a read on 2007’s Reunion Tour, at times are worthy of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. High praise indeed.

Halfway through the set, as the rest of the boys go take a pee, Samson delights the crowd with a stripped-down version of the frostily titled “One Great City!” It’s an homage/wrecking ball swung with love in the direction of the Weakerthans’ hometown. (And former base of operations for a chart-topping rock band and an NHL franchise.) “The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway,” warbles Samson as he urges the throng to join in on the song’s tagline: “I hate Winnipeg!” They readily oblige with a roar that might have been heard all the way back to Manitoba. “Civil Twilight” and “Confessions Of A Futon Revolutionist” are roaring anthems that still leave plenty of space to peek through sheer curtains, like some night-stalking Peeping Tom, at the occasional neurotic episode inside. Carroll found time to unholster what looks like either a styrofoam bullwhip or an oversized cat’s toy; swung overhead at different speeds, it makes a couple of notes that resemble the quirky electronic throb of a theremin.

The populist leanings of the Weakerthans are put to the test when they pull some kid in a black ballcap out of the crowd to play the guitar solo on “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” a ripsnorting number that also poaches a bit of New Order’s 1982 single “Temptation.” “It’s in the key of E,” says Samson as he hands over his guitar. The kid does just fine, to the crowd’s delight. The fans are so into it tonight, someone even calls out for “Elegy For Gump Worsley,” the heartfelt, spoken-word tribute to the Hall Of Fame goalie who won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-’60s. When another devotee shouts out, “Weaker than what?” Samson, to his credit, turns a deaf ear, refusing the stock, Marlon Brando-like  reply: “Whaddaya got?”

—Jud Cost

“Sun In An Empty Room” (download):

Live Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, IL, July 18 And 19, 2009

flaminglips

The weather was mostly pitch perfect for the weekend at Chicago’s Union Park, insignificant showers on Saturday, 70 degrees on Sunday. The audience, as usual, was informed, committed and up for anything, but the aptly named Fucked Up gave some of its fans more than they bargained for when they leapt from the Aluminum Stage with their guitars. Rapper Daniel Dumile (a.k.a. MF Doom) was one of few carrying the hip-hop flame this year with his stage mask, wild camouflage attire and massive dreadlocked sidekick—not to mention his relentless, articulate flow. Beirut’s Zach Condon blended Balkan brass music with French chanson, doubling on trumpet and ukulele in front of a fresh-faced seven-piece band that featured accordionist Perrin Cloutier. Although the National headlined Saturday, it was on the Balance Stage at the south end of the park where most of the action was happening. Something of a Scandinavian enclave, this stage hosted Norwegian mixmaster Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Danish rockers Mew, but it was the manic pop duo of Matt And Kim followed by the insurgent Black Lips that set that side of the park alight. The Atlanta-based Lips hit like extras from Pirates Of The Caribbean, storming onstage with abandon. Almost immediately, Ian Saint Pé made matchwood of his guitar, and later the band urged the crowd to surge and worry security. Despite their reputation as hell-raisers, the rest of the set was strictly business, an outlaw stew of garage punk, busted well beyond the garage.

Still, it was the Flaming Lips and their wacko costumed characters that won out with an impossibly arty finale. Topping off a Sunday night that included Grizzly Bear, Vivian Girls and the Walkmen, the Lips’ Wayne Coyne made perhaps the safest crowd surf of the festival in his trademark plastic bubble, subsequently bestriding a giant gorilla head. Coyne’s between-song patter was surprisingly inane, but as night descended, the spectacle became as trippy as a close encounter, with streamers and giant balloons festooning Union Park. Coyne largely obliged Pitchfork’s “Write The Night” demand, including confused-machismo anthem “Fight Test,” “Enthusiasm For Life Defeats Existential Fear” (from the band’s Fearless Freaks film) and the wishful “Bad Days,” closing out with 1993’s “She Don’t Use Jelly.” The Lips’ psychedelic orange-clad tech crew had worked since 7.30 a.m. setting up for this big send-off, much to the amazement of Pitchfork staff, who are probably still clearing the park after the awesome rain of confetti at this otherwise recycle-conscious event, now firmly entrenched as one of the hippest in the Chicago calendar.

—photos and text by Michael Jackson

Live Review: Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey, San Francisco, CA, July 18, 2009

hospsaplestanley225501“I guess we won’t try to surf the crowd tonight,” chuckled Peter Holsapple, patting my arm as he circumnavigated the 40 or so paying customers seated in San Francisco’s Cafe du Nord on a foggy Saturday night. The house would eventually swell to more than 60, all there to hear the heroic blend of Holsapple and Chris Stamey, the onetime (and future) creative core of revered North Carolina jangle-rockers the dB’s, play numbers from their current release, Here And Now (Bar None), as well as select gems from their abundant back catalog.  

The always simpatico vocal duo enhanced their rich blend by frequently singing into the same mic at center stage, a la the Everly Brothers. Then, at times, they’d scratch a Simon & Garfunkel itch (more like Simon & Simon, actually) on a couple of faintly Latin-flavored tunes, with drummer Gary Greene beating his snare like a conga while Jeff Crawford added solid bass lines.  The best early moments came on “Santa Monica,” a haunting new tune that sounds as though it could have been an outtake from Who’s Next. Supported all night by Holsapple’s lithe acoustic (and something that looked like a fretted cigar box but sounded like a mandolin), the still boyish-looking Stamey dug into his powder-blue electric and made it squirm like Tom Verlaine. 

“At one time, we were the only kids in Winston-Salem who didn’t believe the Allman Brothers were the second coming of Jesus,” smirked Holsapple.now sporting a clean-shaven head, horn-rimmed glasses and a Pancho Villa mustache. “We were  young art-rockers who loved the Move, Can and Amon Düül.” To prove his point, they played “My Friend The Sun,” a lovely obscurity from Leicester, England, prog-rockers Family. Wisely, neither singer attempted to replicate the notorious goat-like vibrato of Roger Chapman, Family’s frontman. A collective gasp went up from the crowd when they recognized the ethereal “I Am The Cosmos” by Chris Bell of Big Star, killed in a 1978 car crash at age 27. The song, originally released by Stamey’s Car label earlier that year, reaffirms an important link in the DNA of the dB’s. 

Terrific covers aside, it’s the Tarheel twosome’s indelible originals these folks came to hear, and Holsapple and Stamey did not disappoint, with impeccable workouts on “She Was The One” and “Angels” from the duo’s 1991 album, Mavericks. “We were in a pretty famous band at one time, and I know you’re all thinking of Rittenhouse Square,” joked Stamey as the group rolled classic early jangle-punk dB’s single “Black And White” out of the garage. It may have sounded less frantic 30 years later, but it was every bit as much of an arrow right through the heart.  

“Here’s a little number to send you home happy,” said a sweat-drenched Holsapple as the boys ended their brief encore with an excruciatingly beautiful version of the Everlys’ “Let It Be Me,” the perfect dessert cognac to a magical evening. 

—Jud Cost

“Here And Now” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/HereAndNow.mp3

Live Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, IL, July 17, 2009

davidyow1Chicago’s favorite indie-music festival, held in Union Park in the city’s South Loop, made a limp start yesterday afternoon when local heroes Tortoise took the stage at a drizzly 5 p.m. In fairness to the band, the late afternoon was a cruel slot with the weather overcast and the crowd still tepid. The band was also conforming to the “Write The Night: Set Lists By Request” demands, which required them to faithfully revisit selections from such vintage albums as Millions Now Living Will Never Die.

In contrast to the slow-moving Tortoise, the Jesus Lizard followed, and singer David Yow (pictured) came out blazing: chugging Bud, spitting constantly and berating the audience. Yow said that everyone could get a refund for their ticket and come see the band in November at the Cabaret Metro before launching into the crowd for one of his legendary surfing sessions, which inspired countless imitations and gave security a nightmare. Yow’s behavior throughout the set was delightfully appalling, making Shane MacGowan of the Pogues look like a patsy, while the rest of the Lizard kept things tight and punchy and never dropped a beat.

Capping the evening, which also included some great guitar antics from Yo La Tengo on the Aluminum Stage, was Built To Spill, whose triple-guitar assault behind frontman Doug Martsch’s thin-yet-effecting voice sent a strong message through the cool night air. All in all, a solid, rousing beginning to the three-day affair.

—photo and text by Michael Jackson

Live Review: Blonde Redhead, San Francisco, CA, July 15, 2009

blonderedhead350iThe longer you watch Blonde Redhead onstage, the more you are irretrievably sucked into its universe. It’s impossible to take your eyes off singer/keyboardist Kazu Makino (originally from Japan) and Italy-born/Montreal-raised twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace on guitar/vocals and drums, respectively.

For a three-piece, with some pre-recorded bass and keyboard material, Blonde Redhead gets a noisy, room-filling sound that bears an occasional resemblance to Sonic Youth. Steve Shelley, SY’s drummer, produced the trio’s early work and released it on his Smells Like label. Over subsequent albums on Touch And Go and now 4AD, the band has achieved a dreamier sound. Both elements were in play tonight.

Even if you didn’t know that Blonde Redhead’s name came from a tune by no-wave combo DNA, its transplanted New York roots are undeniable. Although it’s been almost 30 years since the heyday of the second great wave of NYC art-rock bands that followed in the wake of Television, Talking Heads and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blonde Redhead somehow seems to be time-traveling contemporaries of the Bongos, the Feelies and the Bush Tetras.

It’s the spooky, impossibly high-pitched vocals of Makino that indelibly stamp Blonde Redhead as a bona fide original. She sings in a quavery, stratosphere-scraping range unheard since the glory days of Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield. Makino seems fully recovered now from the horseback-riding accident that broke her jaw sometime after the release of their 2000 album, Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, a harrowing spill that found her trampled by the horse. Whether she (or Amedeo, who sings about a third of Blonde Redhead’s material) performed any songs in Italian, French or Japanese tonight was difficult to tell. As with all great rock bands, it would make no difference if they were singing in a language that only a Star Trek fan would recognize. They are that good.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band, Morgantown, WV, July 9, 2009

connoroberst550123 Pleasant Street is one of those dank college-rock clubs crouched just off the interstate in every university town. Its performance area is as deep and narrow as a fish tank, and the poor ventilation is not at all helped by standing, industrial-size fans. Two bars, one clean and well-lit, one dim and redolent of Parliament smoke, offer dollar Black Label specials, and the sight of the men’s room floor makes you despair of your pant cuffs. It was a venue perfectly suited to Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band’s current live show, an earnest attempt to channel both the Rolling Stones’ early-’70s grime and the Black Crowes’ sweaty gospel. In cold type that looks dismissive, but it’s not meant to be—and believe me, it’s a fair summation of how Oberst and the band are approaching their summer performances.

Opening acts Deep Sea Diver and AA Bondy, both of whom deserve wider audiences, kicked off the evening spot at 9 p.m. sharp. (We in the union-friendly Mountain State go all squishy for bands that respect the clock-in time.) DSD’s barn-burning set went for the solar plexus—no group with only four people should sound this heavy—and won the crowd over right out of the gate. Bondy, a guitar player and songwriter of raw and arresting talent, was much more reserved. But as the set rolled on, his high-verbal murder balladry had commanded most sets of ears in the place, except for the dink six inches in front of me who was texting her boyfriend every five minutes and wouldn’t have noticed if Bondy had been singing right to her. (Memo to dinks: Go do your incessant texting by the front door or in the bathroom, so the rest of us don’t have to broadcast your poor concert etiquette to the reading public. Also, we can all read what you’re writing, and be advised that a social inept like you doesn’t deserve an athletic lover like that.) And then came the headlining act.

As much as any American indie musician can, Conor Oberst grew up in public. He’s endured roughly a decade and a half of whiplashing opinion regarding his music, much of it from us tongue-waggers in the alternative-music press: It’s coy, it’s amateurish, it’s accomplished, it doesn’t rock, it rocks too much, it’s unfinished, it’s immaculate; he’s a boy genius, he’s an idiot savant, he’s down to earth, and who does this kid think he is anyway? On this tour, Oberst is precisely and exactly who he’s made himself through half a lifetime of watching high-energy rock shows: He’s a Young Lion. The guy screams, struts and dances, preens and cock-walks through damn near a two-hour set that brings to mind not only the Stones and the Black Crowes, but also Springsteen’s energy and Iggy Pop’s stark, staring stage presence. Before anyone cries hyperbole, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the quality of the music, which is fine enough. I’m talking about the band’s onstage persona, which looks to be copped directly from sweeping arena-rock gestures and up-close punk styling. Outer South, the album the band is touring behind, is itself an anthology of styles, from garage rock to Gram Parsons country pop. It’s as if Oberst and Co. were so taken with the songs on that record (as well they might be; it’s a great disc and a great summer record to boot) that they feel they’ve got this one chance to pull off a live show that matches the jumble of genres therein.

This makes for an intense live show, and one that replicates the performances on the album faithfully; so faithfully, in fact, that for all the onstage flash and filigree, very little of it feels spontaneous. My companion, who’d caught Oberst twice previously, talked around it until she could articulate it: It’s odd that such a high-intensity performance in such an intimate space should feel so programmed. The live show is heavy on new material, which is itself heavy on stomping rockers; “Big Black Nothing” and “Nikorette,” among the new songs, provided the most engaging moments of the night. Oberst reaches back into the songbook for older material, but all of it sounds bigger, faster, harder than it ever did before. Even “Ten Women,” the most intimate-sounding track on Outer South, was treated to a beefier rendition.

Much of this high-volume delivery is understandable once you get a look at the band’s tour itinerary, a combination of headline performances in hallowed-ground indie clubs like Athens, Ga.’s 40 Watt, some bigger shows in Detroit and L.A., and a handful of slots opening for Wilco. By any measure, that’s a schizophrenic booking schedule, and you can see exactly why Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band are swinging for the bleachers. More often than not, it works, and at night’s end, it paid off big: The encore-closing performance of “I Don’t Wanna Die (In The Hospital)” hit like a goddamned air raid, and the whole crowd, politely if loudly effusive until that point, went up for grabs.

So it’s an excellent show, technically proficient and carefully executed. If it feels less risky than much of Oberst’s output up to now, I’m not sure that’s a reason to gripe. The band is having a great time, the show rocks loud and hard, and we all went home sweaty, smoky and satisfied, which constitutes some of the many things a great live show can accomplish. Even for the dink, whose post-show plans I’m too much a gentleman to discuss.

—Eric Waggoner

“Nikorette” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/Nikorette.mp3

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 11

bill-charlap-houston400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Pianist Bill Charlap is an archetypal traditionalist, a 40-ish balding dude who wears a suit and is most at home playing music from the middle of the previous century. In many ways, the straight-laced Charlap is an exact polar opposite of loose-goose piano all-star Brad Mehldau. Once a child prodigy who studied classical music, Charlap has been working the trad-jazz route for decades and even made an album with his mother. Charlap paid his dues backing singers like Betty Carter and Tony Bennett before forming his own remarkable trio and has been recording as a leader since the mid-’90s. He’s certainly one of the more celebrated pianists working today—the point here being that he could’ve showcased anyone that he wanted to bring to the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Charlap imported veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person for an evening of intimate duets.

Born in 1934, Person is a generation ahead of Charlap in terms of years, but he’s right on the pianist’s wavelength in terms of music. A old-fashioned “boss tenor” player in the tradition of Gene Ammons or Zoot Simms, Person is remembered for his soul/jazz albums on Prestige in the 1960s and best known for his duo with late singer Etta Jones, who he worked with for 30 years until her death in 2001. Charlap has played on Person’s more recent recordings, and if you’re interested, there’s a fairly comprehensive three-CD set of that stuff called The Art & Soul Of Houston Person. Thankfully, the Charlap/Person show in Montreal was a late-night affair at the cozy Gesù theater, where the twosome showed the sensitivity, skill and nuanced playing that’s a hallmark of both their careers.

“We’re just going to play some good old music,” Charlap told the audience. Then he turned to Person and said, “What do you want to play?” They proceeded to stroll through a number of lovely old standards including “I’ll Remember April,” “Memories Of You,” “Once In A While,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Now And Then.” Charlap took an amazing solo turn, then Person did the same, playing an old blues written by the great Percy Mayfield. Both Charlap and Person have devoted their lives to listening and resonating with other musicians in a supportive fashion. As a result, this was a sweet, rarified evening of classic jazz by two incredibly sympathetic players. I don’t have anything else to say except that the festival is winding down slowly, and so am I.

—photos by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 10

ornette-coleman-9719It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Sobered by the bad news of Montreal jazz historian Len Dobbin’s sudden passing, I attended a press conference where the festival’s founder, Alain Simard, presented Ornette Coleman with its annual Miles Davis Award. Being the 50th anniversary of Coleman’s album The Shape Of Jazz To Come as well as his group’s famous breakthrough gigs at the Five Spot in New York City, the award was certainly appropriate. At 79, Coleman still gets around pretty well, but he was quite tired from lack of sleep and almost cancelled the press conference.

Still, Coleman arrived looking sharp in his tailor-made suit and graciously accepted the award with a philosophical commentary about the quality of existence, life, death and the need to improve ourselves. The Montreal press corps tried to ask him a few questions, but Coleman merely listened politely and resumed his existential discourse. He did include his familiar anecdote about wanting a saxophone when he was small and his mother encouraging him to work for it and surprising him a year later with a saxophone under his bed. He thought it was a toy, but he learned about sound, and here we are. When asked if he ever wanted to do any more work playing on movie soundtracks like he’d done for David Lynch’s Naked Lunch, Coleman said, “What I would like, is for everyone on Earth to be happy—and to never die.” Boom.

Coleman’s quartet concert on Thursday night was amazing. Flanked tightly by stand-up bassist Tony Falanga, electric bassist Al McDowell and son Denardo on drums, Coleman came out slamming with a discordant flurry of sound. Playing alto, trumpet and violin, he led the band through a series of dramatic passages, drawing vintage compositions and stray melodies from all points of his idiosyncratic career. Besides the man himself, Coleman’s two bassists were especially impressive, and the crazy counterpoint included Falanga bowing his upright and McDowell playing his five-string electric bass like a guitar. Coleman played with an emotional power and directness that is still unique and exceptional, and his expressiveness on ballads such as “Lonely Woman” was beyond compare.  At one point, the band definitely played a segment of “Dancing In Your Head,” but beyond that I’d be guessing at song titles. Let it just be said that Coleman’s concert was another classic exhibition of sonic intensity and musicianship. And of human feeling.

The only other show I caught on Thursday night was Vieux Farka Touré, the Malian guitarist/singer whose late father was famous African bluesman Ali Farka Touré. All I can tell you is that Vieux is a chip off the old block, and he burned up the Club Soda stage with his red-hot rhythms and blazing guitar. Playing pentatonic blues scales with a percussive, ringing style as his band churned out its bouncing African boogie, Touré is something of a rocker, but he’s tied to infectious tribal beats and deep blues roots. This was a joyous affair, and almost everyone in the club was up and dancing. Touré has simply got to break into the jam-band circuit here in the U.S. Somebody tell Derek Trucks about this guy right away.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 9

charlie-haden400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Bassist Charlie Haden (pictured) is known all over the world, and it was 50 years ago that he played along with Ornette Coleman’s group at the Five Spot in New York City and changed the shape of jazz to come. Since that time, Haden has led many different groups and played in an amazing variety of settings. Naturally, he is a perennial favorite in Montreal, returning to the jazz festival year after year. So, it was no surprise to see “Charlie Haden Family & Friends” up here, pushing his latest album. The thing is, Haden’s new disc is Rambling Boy, a country album exploring his earliest musical roots. Haden got his start singing at the age of two with the Haden Family, who were popular performers back in the ’30s and ’40s. The Hadens were contemporaries of the Carter Family, and Haden’s latest disc revives the sense of familial unity once found in that music. On the record, Haden is fortunate to play with fantastic musicians and has an array of guest vocalists including Vince Gil, Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello, as well as his daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya (the Haden Triplets), his son Josh and his son-in-law Jack Black.

For the Montreal concert, Haden imported some of Nashville’s hottest pickers, many of which also play on the album. This formidable front line included mandolinist Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton and Mark Fain on guitar, Rob Ickes on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Dan Tyminski on banjo and vocals (he’s the guy who sang “Man Of Constant Sorrow” for the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). Keeping the singing-family thing going and lacking the star power-guest singers, Haden leaned hard on the Haden Triplets, individually and collectively, to sing a variety of old country classics including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “Wildwood Flower” and “A Voice On High.” While the musicianship was flawless and the lovely and talented Haden girls did their best, the show felt lackluster, as Haden dutifully pushed the band through the tunes without tapping into the depth of the players that he had on the stage. Josh sang two songs, and he really showed some stage presence. It was there, during a dramatic reading of his composition “Spiritual” with father Charlie playing passionately behind him, that the musicians truly responded to the emotion of the moment and the show finally approached its full potential.

While the Montreal fans always love Haden, many seemed surprised that he wasn’t playing jazz, and a number of people walked out. The revue basically lacked a charismatic frontman, and the well-played country music often lacked intensity. I imagine they could put together great shows with special-guest vocalists in cities like Nashville, L.A. or New York, but trotting out Tyminski to sing “Man Of Constant Sorrow” one more time felt a little contrived. When you have great pickers like Sam Bush, you could take a risk and stretch these traditional arrangements into something new, as Haden did with Pat Metheny on Beyond The Missouri Sky in 1996. Back in 1979, fiddler Richard Greene did an amazing bluegrass version of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’.” Nothing like that happened in Montreal, but Haden talked about the original recording of “Ramblin’” and how his bass solo includes a musical reference to country tune “Old Joe Clark” and how Ian Dury used Haden’s countryfied riff as the basis of his hit tune “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.”

Then, as a matter of course, the Haden band played a jumping but perfunctory version of “Old Joe Clark.” If I sound like I’m complaining, I’m sorry; I know these are Haden’s roots and he deserves the chance to gather his family and friends around him and celebrate, but the show was still something of an indulgence and could have been much better than it was. (But could somebody still please tell Tanya to call me? Wow!)

Guitarist Bill Frisell, on the other hand, put on a straightforward jazz concert that was filled with twists, turns, improvisation and musical surprises. Accompanied by Ron Miles on cornet, bassist Tony Sherr and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell opened with a brooding mid-tempo number, his guitar jutting and probing as the band tried to settle in and find some common ground. Let it be said that Sherr was an absolute standout, and Frisell responded to his powerful playing more than anything else as the show progressed. The band eventually segued into a gentle, stirring version of “Moon River” before launching into a variety of melodies that sounded familiar but that I couldn’t identify. The encores were the best, with Frisell adapting a bluesy African sound highly reminiscent of Ali Farka Toure, then embracing the Burt Bacharach song first recorded by Jackie DeShannon back in 1965, “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” For his last tune of the evening, Frisell revived an old standby that he’d retired after the election of President Obama. Clearly inspired, he and the band played a highly emotive version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to a rapturous audience. Now that’s jazz. And Charlie, I still love you.

A sad addendum: On Wednesday night, noted Montreal radioman and one of Canada’s greatest friends to jazz, Len Dobbin, passed away. Dobbin was attending a Ray Allen show at the Upstairs jazz club (his favorite haunt) and had a stroke. There is sure to be an outpouring of emotion in lieu of this stunning news. Let it be said that Dobbin was doing exactly what he loved at the time of his death. He held music in the highest regard and made it his life’s work. He had just spent quality time with singer Shelia Jordan during her visit to the jazz fest, and nothing made him happier. He was simply a great guy with a amazing knowledge of jazz history that will never be replaced. I’m humbled by the news of his passing. I am sure that the Montreal Jazz Festival will not let his life go unacknowledged.

—photo by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 8

jazz7bIt’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

So I took a day off from all that jazz and went to see new documentary Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae in anticipation of the evening’s free, outdoor concert extravaganza featuring a most solid crew of rocksteady all-stars. Filmmaker Stascha Bader may not have had the same kind of resources that Wim Wenders had when he filmed The Buena Vista Social Club, but he still manages to document this blessed reunion of elder Jamaican musicians and give us a good history lesson, too. Spanning the short few glory years between ska’s reign and the advent of reggae, the rocksteady vibe was a slow and easy groove with deep soulful vocals.

Much like the films Standing In The Shadows Of Motown and West Coast equivalent The Wrecking Crew, Rocksteady focuses on lesser-known backing musicians and old entertainers who still have an important story to tell. Building to a rousing reunion concert in Jamaica, we hear from veteran ’60s crooners like Leroy Sibbles (of Heptones fame), Ken Boothe and Derrick Morgan as well Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley (once known collectively as the I-Threes). Bader mixes vintage films and old photos between candid interviews, plaintive home visits and new recording sessions as we learn about the roots of reggae from the people who were there. Of course, the music is what seals the deal, and hearing singer Dawn Penn discuss and reprise her magical soul single from 1967, “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” is a highlight, as was watching Morgan rise one more time to sing “Tougher Than Tough” in rudeboy style. Accomplished and versatile musicians like the great Ernest Ranglin populate the veteran backing band, and these old-school Jamaicans can still play as sweet and soulful as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or as in-the-pocket lowdown as the Funk Brothers.

And that’s how it was on Tuesday night in Montreal, as the skies cleared after a rainy afternoon and more than 100,000 folks gathered in front of the General Motors stage to see the show. The event was much more of a reggae revue then a strict rocksteady affair, but when you’re entertaining a crowd this size, you have to give the people what they want—that is, a fair amount of tribute being paid to Bob Marley. The stage lighting was bright and festive, and it was a long parade of stars as Hopeton Lewis, Stranger Cole (pictured), Sibbles, Boothe, Mowatt,Griffiths and the Tamlins took their turns in front of a huge grooving band of rocksteady players. The Tamlins sang “Stop That Train” and Boothe did “Shanty Town.” Griffiths and Mowatt were beautiful, and they really gave the show their all. Griffiths sang “The Tide Is High” (originally recorded by John Holt and the Paragons back in 1967) and Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” while Mowatt delivered a loving version “No Woman, No Cry.” All in all, another sweet night of good music and good times at the Montreal Jazz Festival.