Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 2

It’s the 32nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Hypothetically, there’s something for everyone at the Montreal Jazz Festival. I personally wasn’t interested in mainstream gigs like Diana Krall (in her first ever solo performance) or Chick Corea’s latest edition of Return To Forever, so I began my evening watching saxophonist Kenny Garrett sit in with the Time Capsule band. Their gig was a tribute to Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr, a longtime Montreal musician (and Garrett’s father-in-law) who’s been debilitated by a series of strokes. The band features two of Khabyyr’s very talented sons, and they benefited greatly from Garrett’s added presence, playing some grooving Headhunters-styled jazz fusion before showing a brief documentary on the ailing Khabyyr.

Then, after a quick trip to Chinatown for refueling, I caught yet another homage, this time by Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos. As the name indicates, this is guitarist Ribot’s Latin project, and it features the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, a Cuban innovator who helped modernize crucial musical styles like the conjunto and developed the son montuno. Although the band was clearly under-rehearsed, the edgy rhythms of Rodriguez translated well under Ribot’s direction. I won’t say the band sounded like early Santana, but the guitar work was still hot, hot, hot. Sadly, Ribot isn’t much of a singer, but the Rodriguez compositions were very cool, the sound quite moving and Ribot’s fretwork consistently impressive.

Just as Ribot’s set was concluding, I walked right next door for an amazing duet performance by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Performing mostly original compositions (as well as a blues written by Charlie Parker), the two men showed themselves capable of great intimacy and grand innovation, even in the large and formidable Théâtre Maisonneuve. Performing like a pair of grand elders, the two masters practically became telepathic as the concert unfolded, and their intense musical dialogue was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally riveting. Redman and Mehldau are festival regulars, clearly enjoy playing here in Montreal, and I can imagine this musical love affair actually continuing for decades to come.

Finally, I returned to the Gesù to see the Anat Cohen Quartet. Cohen is an Israeli-born clarinetist who resides in NYC. Performing some of the music of another nice Jewish clarinetist (Benny Goodman), Cohen and her band were totally in sync. The effervescent Cohen had already done one gig earlier in the evening with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, and fellow All-Star Howard Alden came out to play some bracing guitar with her for a few tunes, including a simple-yet-beautiful duet on Django Reinhardt’s famous composition “Nuages.” Pianist Bruce Barth was noteworthy, but the whole band was swinging, and Cohen’s star is clearly on the rise in the world of jazz. Stay tuned.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 1

It’s the 32nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Let’s jump right in. I’m back in Canada attending the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. While the Undead Jazz Festival in New York this week offers plenty of quality improvisation and jazzy eclecticism for omnivorous music fans, our northern neighbors throw a party on a far larger and much wider scale. Speaking of NYC, I began my sojourn with a couple of Manhattan-based acts. The first was at my favorite venue, the small and intimate Gesù, with the David Binney Quartet. This particular quartet has played together for years and displays Binney’s strength as a composer as well as his prowess on the saxophone. Binney is a thoroughly modern alto player and produced a steady stream of intricate, creative lines of sound, but drummer Dan Weiss stole the show repeatedly with an impressive barrage of rhythmic counterpoint as the band laid down its carefully structured foundations. You can usually catch this quartet playing at the 55 Bar in NYC and should definitely do so.

Then it was off to the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe to see ace guitarist Marc Ribot’s trio, Ceramic Dog. Ribot has performed at the Montreal fest many times, and this year he’s hosting several nights with different musicians as part of the Invitation Series. Although the venue on Saturday was only half-full (or half-empty), the band put on a very powerful show. Ribot’s guitar was burning with intensity as Ches Smith pounded the drums (and added a series of electronic textures to the mix) with bassist Shahzad Ismaily prodding the group from underneath. They played a convincing version of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” but I preferred Brubeck’s “Take Five” where Ribot juxtaposed traditional jazz sounds with the bracing style of guitar heroes like Mike Bloomfield, Carlos Santana and B.B. King. This was a left-end-of-the-dial encounter and only points to Ribot’s diversity as a player and a bandleader. More on him as the week progresses.

I only saw about a half-hour of Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento but can testify that he still has one of the most amazing romantic voices in the world. While I don’t speak Portuguese, there’s never a problem absorbing the intense and beautiful emotions he conveys, and when Nascimento let go with his wordless crooning falsetto, I was completely transfixed. The only reason I abandoned Nascimento was to run back to the Gesù for a solo show by pianist Brad Mehldau. Mehldau is a festival favorite—and with good reason. He’s one of the best piano players on the planet. As usual, Mehldau played with focused concentration and often-amazing complexity. Besides performing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he interpreted some Radiohead and Massive Attack before tackling an intricately melodic version of “My Favorite Things” and a beautiful take on Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” The only thing that could tear me away from such a performance was the clarion call of Prince’s midnight show down the street at the Metropolis nightclub.

Prince’s second night of two special shows was off the hook. While he’d just played for nearly four hours the evening before, Prince’s show was fun-filled and relentless. Featuring his typically rocking band and special saxophone soul man Maceo Parker, the Purple One served up a mix of totally hard funk, frenetic black rock, a surplus of Hendrixian guitar stylings and plenty of sexy soul numbers. Drawing from his deep repertoire, he sang favorites like “Controversy,” “Pop Life,” “D.M.S.R.” and “Take Me With U.” He also went into a driving version of Chic’s “Le Freak” and Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy” as well as the Time’s “Jungle Love” and Shelia E.’s “A Love Bizarre.” The show just went on and on and on (and on). At three in the morning, Prince came back for a third (or fourth) encore and did a triumphant version of “Purple Rain,” then came back again to supposedly end with “Kiss.” I walked out of the Metropolis at 3:30 wondering if I might have missed yet another encore, but in any case, score one for the opening night of the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Live Review: Yeasayer, Smith Westerns, Hush Hush, Philadelphia, PA, June 17, 2011

Aside from consistently showcasing a musically snug live act and a light show that calls for a mandatory acid drop, Yeasayer also loves to mess with its fans when choosing an opening act, at least at the band’s last couple stops in Philadelphia.

On the second and final leg of Yeasayer’s tour in support of 2010’s Odd Blood, the opening bands got weirder, and the set times got much later. A little after 9 p.m., the opening act—a fairly unknown artist by the name of Hush Hush—took the stage.

Let’s recap for a second before we move on. It was last year’s Yeasayer show at the Trocadero where Sleigh Bells brought their interesting to some and to others slightly annoying big-bass-dropping indie anthems to Philly for the first time. Those in attendance scratched their heads as they processed the newish sound and decided if they liked it. Months later, Sleigh Bells eventually caught on and received some above-average reviews from across the board. People seemed slightly dumbfounded by the boisterous guitar-and-vocal duo backed with the loudest drum machine in the history of the world.

This year, the Brooklyn dance/psych outfit raised the bar yet again. Christopher Kline’s solo project, Hush Hush, was exactly what Philly needed in anticipation to Yeasayer’s long awaited set.

Standing alone onstage, the lanky, bearded man began stretching just before he broke out his dance moves. Looking like an oversexed postman with short shorts and kind of a shirt and tie that was removed anyway, Kline slithered and gyrated all over the stage during his entire 25-minute set. His lone-man dance assault and grossly provocative sex lyrics had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. With such potential hits as “Bloody Sex” and “Pussy Cop,” Kline meant it when he demanded, ”I wanna make you cry/I wanna 69!” It was almost too deranged to be true and wildly entertaining. Without touching anyone, he essentially had sex with the entire crowd, and they loved it.

Hush Hush’s set made me want a beer, or a cigarette, I wasn’t sure. Some friends an I made our way to the balcony, the only place that liquor is attainable. Of course there’s an issue. A friend’s younger sister is not yet 21. Fake-ID anxiety ran wild. It’s a known fact that as long as you have a real ID in your possession, you will get in to your destination. I really can’t wait until I don’t know anyone below the age of 21 because I repeatedly find myself in these situations. No problem, though. One distracting question will compromise a door man’s attention to detail on an ID. Fact.

Smith Westerns were the second act. They took their positions and began to embark on what felt like the longest set that I have ever sat through. Musically, these guys were good. There’s just something about a band that isn’t terrible by any means but also isn’t great that just ruins me. Their set was tight but an odd set up band for the main act. Weirdly enough, the one-man dancing band seemed more fitting to set up Yeasayer’s set. Was it because they had to follow the wonder that is Hush Hush that made them sound so mediocre and monotone? I’m not sure, but the set dragged on and I am thankful for fake IDs and the numbness that my numerous overpriced Yuenglings brought on. I started with Coors Light but someone made fun of me.

Nearly 11 p.m. rolled by when Yeasayer’s stage crew began setting. Their setup music undoubtedly kept the drunk and growing impatience among fans to a halt as they bumped Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” from the Ghostbusters II soundtrack followed by Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses.” It’s always great to hear the “other” Ghostbusters song.

The sold-out crowd gave a gracious welcome as Yeasayer scampered out to the stage and immediately began its seizure-inducing light show. The Middle Eastern-inspired chorus of “Madder Red” echoed throughout with each band member contributing the pinched, nasal melody that drives the song.

It wasn’t very deep into the set when Yeasayer revealed some new material, a highlight of this tour. “Henrietta,” a very different approach to the band’s song craft, was a nice change in the set. Chris Keating, one of the two lead singers, fronted this one, which sounded like a Police cover in the rhythm section. Not many tricks here, just a straight forward pop song. It was refreshing to hear Yeasayer create something so formal that isn’t layered in the synths. It showed that the band members can write a solid pop song with guitar, bass and drums, something not usually present on their records.

The other new songs, “Demon Road” and “Devil And The Deed,” were definitely more Yeasayer, with their tribal dance beats that feature a sort of tortured and dark pop sound not getting too far away from material on Odd Blood.

Whenever you go to these trendy indie shows, there’s always kind of a “look” that’s normally pretty consistent throughout the crowd. It was enjoyable to see a nice mix of people in age, race and fashion sense. When I say fashion sense, I mean people who aren’t deeply concerned with cutting a new pair of jorts for the show. Yeasayer definitely attracts a nice mix of people from bro to mom and dad. The couple who stood next to me were well into their 50s and knew almost every lyric, and they never stopped moving. Another man next to me looked on with binoculars, and he was roughly 50 feet away from the stage. It was an interesting crowd.

Yeasayer mentioned nothing in regards to plans of recording or when the band will be back on tour, but two years in a row, the group packed the Trocadero, brought some interesting opening acts and left fans wanting more yet again after ending its set at nearly 12:45 a.m.

—text and photo by John Stish

Live Review: Architecture In Helsinki, Hooray For Earth, San Francisco, CA, June 3, 2011

For a long time, I felt that the notion of “music brings people together” was reserved for Raffi concerts and hippie festivals. After getting elbowed in the face and experiencing a beer bath on more than one occasion, I figured that dealing with oafs was just necessary collateral for seeing good live bands. If music brought people together, it was just to annoy me.

As a tandem, Hooray For Earth and Architecture In Helsinki have restored my faith in concert-going humanity.

Right before the Hooray For Earth set, as Slim’s played Miike Snow in the background to prime the crowd, I met a guy who went to high school with two of the four band members back in Massachusetts and came out to support his old buddies. I also chatted up a few other folks who were more than happy to share their expansive knowledge of live music and good venues in the area. After wandering around awkwardly in the sparsely populated bar area with a notebook in my hand instead of a drink, these friendly souls set my mind at ease.

The Hooray For Earth boys were endearingly scruffy, much like their live sound (their drummer looks like James Franco in Pineapple Express). The indie electro-rock foursome has been compared to MGMT and made a name for itself on the list of Spin’s five best new artists for March. The band made liberal use of intergalactic scratches and guitar squeals, which complemented singer Noel Heroux’s ethereal, Wizard Of Oz vocals.

Feedback was integrated into tracks like “True Loves” in a unique, melodious fashion, but the greatest joy came when the guitarist busted into G N’ R-style riffs amid booming percussion. Although the numerous electronic instruments it used made the stage look like the set of Jumanji (with all of the cords snaking around the platform that limited the band members movement), Hooray For Earth still managed to rope in the crowd that was streaming in. And not just their friends from high school.

When Australian dream-pop six-piece Architecture In Helsinki bounded onto the stage, no linebackers tried to push their way in front of me while balancing three overfilled cups of house beer. In fact, a tall blond girl grabbed my hand and said, “Girl, you are short! You need to get in front of me!” That act of kindness gave me the prime viewing pleasure of watching Architecture go Beyonce on us in a pretty extensively choreographed number during “That Beep.”

The band members frolicked around onstage, swapping instruments with each other and exhibiting their musical dexterity while infusing energy into the crowd as bubbles floated above our heads, instead of the usual waft of marijuana. While most concerts I’ve attended include a fair amount of avoiding the sweaty backs of people who are bumping into me and deflecting glares after my arm grazes a breast when I clap, the random mix of people around me were all grooving together harmoniously. It was like the last few minutes of a teen romantic comedy from the ’90s where all the characters set aside their high school hierarchical differences and dance with each other. Jocks boogie with dorks, popular girls grind with freaks, Jennifer Love Hewitt locks step with DJ Qualls, and all is right in the world. The glittery synth melodies, tinkling vocals and thudding beats all culminated in the encore, “Contact High”, after which the gay couple I had just been dancing with gave me a high-five and the girl to my right handed me a glass of water. Indeed, music brings people together.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Lykke Li, San Francisco, CA, May 30, 2011

Nordic crooner Lykke Li’s show at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco sold out more than six months ago. While she is certainly a rising star, at the moment she is more PJ Harvey than Lady Gaga (i.e., my grandma hasn’t asked me if I’ve heard of her yet). I wondered what kind of folks would assemble at the venue: the generic flannel-and-ironic-mustache-sporting San Francisco hipster crowd? Cologne-doused males from across the Bay who heard Kanye rap with Li on “Gifted,” with their girlfriends who wear stripper heels and purple hair extensions? The StubHub speculators who couldn’t scam enough people to get rid of all the tickets they bought in bulk half a year ago?

The show was a stop on her U.S. tour to promote her moody, cerebral sophomore album, Wounded Rhymes (LL). Her beautiful, ice-sculpture vocals mingle with indie electronic pop similar to fellow Scandanavian artists Röyksopp and Peter Bjorn And John. (In fact, Bjorn produced both of her albums.) While her first full-length, Youth Novels, betrayed a blithe, upbeat youth (she recorded it when she was 19), Li’s latest effort is more brooding. Her debut released endorphins and balanced out your serotonin in a quick, superficial high, like eating a Xanax. Wounded Rhymes digs into the deep recesses of your brain and probes through your latent emotions, like spending an afternoon on a plush suede couch in your therapist’s office.

Li has the suitable artistic chromosomal makeup to become a star (her mother was a photographer, her father a musician) and has displayed Gaga-esque world-dominating ambition during her brief career, with two hit albums, numerous EPs and her own record label by age 25. And she doesn’t need to wear hot pants to command the stage.

The demographics of the crowd actually in attendance was about 80 percent female, of the faux-hawked, leather-jacketed, and tattoo-sleeved variety. I’m also pretty sure every Swede within a 100-mile radius came out to support their home girl. There were a lot of flaxen haired, leggy women roaming around, and the lady I chatted with in the 30-minute line for the bathroom said her best friend she was with was Swedish.

Opening in a theatrical style, with spotlights blinking and drums rolling, Li floated to the stage on a billow of smoke that seemed to have been swept from arctic tundra. She had the powerful, fluid movements of a Pilates instructor, the kind that make you unconsciously imitate her. Floor to ceiling, fluttering black curtains whipped around the cloaked singer, in a resurrection of Madonna’s “Frozen” video from the ’90s. Li performed a fair balance of tracks off of each album, including the quivering “Little Bit” from Youth Novels and the bouncy “I Know Places” from Wounded Rhymes.

If there was a disproportionate amount of estrogen in the room, I couldn’t feel it (not counting the Disneyland-long wait for the womens’ bathroom). Most songs leaned heavily on rumbling guitars and rollicking caveman-arm drum beats. At the finale of “Get Some,” the band dropped an atomic bomb of thunderous percussion and an impenetrable firewall of synth that literally knocked me over (seriously, I tripped) and deep-fried my internal organs. I’ve been to plenty of concerts, and no riff or jam has ever been so explosive.

Lykke Li is a pop star with depth. While many young singers have to romp around half-clothed to make sure they fill the month’s quota of People pages, Li is more of a “wink from across the room and turn back to her friends” kind of girl. The beauty of her music is that it’s both digital and unprocessed—she bares her soul, and then sticks it in Fun Dip. Her fans hung on her every tinkling “ooh” and “ahh,” and besides the grizzled homeless dudes who ask for tickets outside of every show ever played, there were no scalpers in sight, StubHub or otherwise. So far, she seems to have found a recipe for success.

—Maureen Coulter