Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011
July 4: Black Dub, with Leif Vollebekk
FIJM 2011 has shrunk from 11 days (sometimes 12) to 10; a sign, no doubt, of the same belt-tightening that festivals around the world are experiencing. But while reducing the festival by a day no doubt saves the festival on overhead, they're not pulling back on programming. Normally the final day of the festival is reserved, almost exclusively, for one of three large-scale outdoor shows that, in the past, have drawn as many as a quarter million people to the streets of downtown Montréal. This year, the final day sported a full day of indoor programming to go along with a massive outdoor show featuring '80s superstar group The B-52s, with jazz shows including Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz, France-based pianist Yaron Herman and his trio, Montréal vibraphonist Jean Vanasse and singer Kellylee Evans, alongside performances by singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, singer Marianne Faithfull, and Black Dub, the brainchild of Canadian expat singer/songwriter/producer Daniel Lanois.
But before Black Dub hit the stage, Canadian singer/songwriter Leif Vollebekk warmed up the near-capacity crowd, backed by a three-piece that featured upright bass, drums and, for most of the short set, pedal steel guitar. Culled largely from his debut, Inland (Nevado, 2010), Vollebekk turned up the energy a tad, a little less chilled than his alt-folk album, but still by no means anything even resembling a simmer, let alone a boil.
Playing acoustic guitar with a harmonica strapped around his neck, it was impossible not to draw comparisons to a clear touchstone, Bob Dylan. Vollebekk possesses a better voicemore melodic, with a soft vibrato that often came in as his lines tricked awaybut it's not as distinctive, and whether or not that's a disadvantage has yet to be seen. The Montréal-based singer/songwriter also doesn't have Dylan's attitude, and it was clear he was thrilled to be opening up for Black Dub.
His set was capably supported by his band, who was competent if not particularly inspired, but it was when Vollebekk let the group go for the last song of the set that things got a little more interesting. Picking up an electric guitar, he bobbed and weaved as he created a soft guitar loop, and then put the instrument down, grabbing a violin and creating additional layers, before returning to the electric guitar and getting to the heart of the song. Not quite as outrageously impressive as Norway's Bernhoft, who creates far more complex music based on real-time looping in performance, it was still a shift from the relatively predictable groove-driven folk music of the rest of Vollebekk's set and, using more expansive soundscapes, a direction that might work better to establish some differentiation in Vollebekk's music.
From left: Brian Blade, Daniel Lanois
After a short break, the lights went down, and Lanois came onstage with longtime drummer of choice, Brian Blade. He's one of the busiest and broadest drummers of his generation, whose cred in the jazz worldplaying with artists like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and Charlie Hadenis as strong as his reputation in the larger rock/pop world for his work with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Faithfull to Emmylou Harris and Dylanand for good reason. The Shreveport, Louisiana-born drummer can clearly do just about anything, and regardless of the context, plays with a fluid expressionism that keeps things spontaneous, unpredictableand, sometimes, on the edge of falling apart, but never actually doing so.
Given Black Dub has but a single album of material with which to work, Lanoisthe group's de facto spokesperson and leaderfleshed the 80-minute set out with a couple of instrumentals that started as duos with Blade, but ultimately became trios with the addition of bassist Jim Wilson (substituting for the album's bassist, Darryl Johnson). Coming onstage in a jean jacket, a scruffy beard and a beige toque, Lanois' playing was gritty and, not unlike Neil Young, completely unfettered and spontaneous; the volume just on the edge of the cliff and so hot that it responded to the slightest touch, so when Lanois went after it more aggressively, it was absolutely huge. Given the heavy production, editing and overdubs on the group's eponymous 2010 Red Ink debutand that in concert, it was largely a power trio of guitar, bass and drumsthe group had to take a different tack to its material, one where Lanois' guitar was as much a frontline voice as singer Trixie Whitley, who came onstage after Blade, Wilson and Lanois had finished working its way through a dark and gritty instrumental opener.
Previous to Black Dub, most of Whitley's work was with her dad, the late singer/songwriter Chris Whitley, but based on her FIJM performance, she's more than ready to take the front position, though in this case she shared it with Lanois and Wilson, though once the group kicked into the album opener, "Love Lives," she was, more often than not, the lead voice, showing great range, a gutsy, soulful delivery, and a stage presence that was charismatic but completely natural. A multi-instrumentalist who, when she wasn't front and center, sat beside Blade, behind a smaller drum kit, to create even thicker grooves. She also played some keyboard on an extended, red-hot version of the set-closer, "Ring the Alarm," and some edgy electric guitar on a mid-set feature, her own "I'd Rather Go Blind," from her 2009 EP debut, The Engine (Self Produced). In a time of American Idol melisma, it was refreshing to see a rock singer who could be emotive without going over the top, even on the gospel-tinged funk of "Last Time," which Lanois introduced by referring to the impressive hall as "a church without a steeple."
It was a set of unassuming power and, at times, unbridled energy that grabbed the audience from Lanois' first jagged notes and kept it engaged right through to an encore, starting with Lanois alone, singing the Acadia-tinged "Jolie Louise" before the group returned to give him the chance to use some powerful three-part harmonies on a moving version of "The Maker," an early hit from the same album, his debut as a leader, Acadie (Opal, 1989). As commanding as the entire group was, Lanois was the clear focal point. With a kind of unassuming presencenot unlike diminutive bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who can stand at the back of a stage in the dark and still demand attentionit was hard not to watch Lanois, whether he was singing center stage with Wilson and Whitley; facing Blade on stage right, as the two connected on a deeper level; or stage left playing pedal steel guitar with the same loose, unorthodox approach that he used on his gold top Les Paul, during a second instrumental that became one of the set's many high points.
From left: Daniel Lanois, Trixie Whitley, Jim Wilson
Hopefully Black Dub won't be a one-off project, as this is a group that clearly has plenty of still-untapped potential. And as big a name as Lanois has becomeproducing or co-producing everyone from Dylan and Emmylou Harris to The Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel and U2onstage he's a relaxed and humble performer who made a point, more than once in the set, to thank FIJM's André Menard for the vision he's brought to the city and for his commitment to supporting Lanois' career.
With Black Dub's set over, there was a little time left to hit the streets, where well over 100,000 people were crowding Rue Ste-Catherine and La Place des Festivals for the B-52s. By that time, it was impossible to get anywhere close to the action, but as ever it was clear just how well FIJM manages large crowds. And with the slowly transforming Quartier des Spectacles, it's even better designed to handle both the large crowds that come for these events, while making it easy for those looking to get in or out of the grounds. As always, FIJM's outdoor spectacles are big parties for the city of Montréal, but in the most positive way possible. It's hard to believe that, with 100,000-plus people in such close quartersdrinking and, in some cases, enjoying a little herbaceous enlightenmentthere's never any trouble, and FIJM is always staffed with enough security to handle it. But it never seems to happen, as the crowds are there for a good time, and to enjoy being part of a large crowd of people there for good music and good times.
Le Maison de Festival
Leaving the Quartier des Spectacles, one of the last sights was the Maison de Festival, lit up at night with images of jazz stars past and present. FIJM may have a broad program of mixed acts, but at its core it's still a jazz festival, as the past six days have made clear. If the litmus test of a jazz festival is its ability to provide a tremendous variety of jazz acts, each and every day, even if there is some extracurricular activity, then Festival International de Jazz de Montréal remains unequivocally a jazz festival. With the completion of downtown renovations set for 2012, and the dates for next year's festival already set, the 33rd edition will, no doubt, be something elsea place where, for ten days, it'll be possible to forget about everything in the world and just bask in a planet of music.
Visit >, Anouar Brahem, Eivind Aarset , In the Country , Christian McBride, Béla Fleck and The Flecktones, Black Dub, TD Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on the web.
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All Other Photos: John Kelman
Days 1-3 | Days 4-6