Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 1-4
The festival's third night was devoted to the blues, or at least the blues as a core which also allowed doses of gospel, funk, rock and electronica. It was a shivery omen, just before the start of the evening's first set, when DJ Mark Lefever dropped Gil Scott-Heron's "Me And The Devil," from the doomed poet's final album. A chilling portent. Already, Lefever had been playing a sharp selection of bluesy cuts, topped by Little Axe. Deep into the night, he continued with a set of classic R&B platters, getting the retro dancers twisting.
Everyone quizzed regarding the veteran Belgian bluesman Roland noted that he was one of the country's most renowned old-school artists, both for his musical abilities and his generally eccentric nature. This was a multigenerational threesome, with Steven De Bruyn sucking in much of the spotlight juice. Principally a singer and harmonica-blower, he also made the odd diversion towards guitar and kazoo. Tony Gyselinck provided the foundation, although even his drumming was decorated by frequent electric tweaks and microscopic fiddling with small percussive trimmings.
The remarkable thing was that they were employing blues fundamentals, but derailing them with more than the expected degree of experimentation, particularly within a form that rarely takes the back road, even if exiting from the back door. For a start, Roland turned on his sitar effect for the first number, and the tablatronics chattered from the drum seat behind. The guitarist frequently loaded up a keyboard-type sound, keeping just the right side of the bad-taste barrier. When Roland actually scorched out a more orthodox blues frazzle, this conveyed a surge of excitement, even if this was due to suddenly-granted audience gratification on a leather 'n' denim level.
The trio managed to respect the blues lineage whilst offering up a wildly diverse set of external influences. De Bruyn revved up an omnichord, as an alternative to his harp panoply. Speaking of this latter spread, he boasted a very large bass-beast version, wheezing around the subsonic depths. He was also an adept foot worker, and it's worth noting that the director of the festival's camera crew (there were large screens dotted around the festival site) displayed an uncanny interest in pedal activity, often shining a camera on what was happening down at an artist's floor-level This was an almost pornographic concern with the close-up, augmented by similar zoom-ins on the digits of guitarists and keyboard players. All very useful, particularly during the more crowded performances. Anyway, this trio certainly knew how to work the stage, constantly moving around to throw fresh shapes.
In the last few years, I've had the pleasure of catching Mavis Staples on a regular basis. She's always fired up to some degree, but with this absolutely crammed crowd she had a bulging church-full to rouse her to the greatest possible glories. Staples did not hesitate to engage with the audience, reacting by giving them her very soul. She was somewhat frothed-up, with thousands of potential converts crowding out the tent. The amount of focused energy that she can control is almost frightening. It's shown in the faces of her band that she can surprise even them when she's particularly roused, and it was possible to see the instant that it happened.
Staples has a completely raw, ragged emission from her vocal cords, but it's perfectly shaped to be in tune with the music, guttural yet refined. When she shouts, you'll jump out of your heathen skin. It's not necessary to believe in The Lord, but Staples is making sure that she's audible up in the heavens. She stomps around the stage like a much younger woman. All this and guitarist Rick Holmstrom too, her not-so-secret weapon, as if the band needs any more electricity. He's one of the rare instrumentalists who can match her pronouncements with a comparable degree of emotive eruption. Staples still left space for backing vocal featurettes, from her sister Yvonne and from Donny Gerard, who were each given some solo room to maneuver. On drums, Stephen Hodges was intricately booming, adding embellishments with lengths of chain, a tambourine, and maracas used as sticks.
There was only one problem, a structural imbalance that seems to be a regular feature of the Staples set. After around an hour of unexpurgated abandonment, a run of sheer excellence in song, she left the stage to allow an instrumental band showcase. There was nothing amiss there, as they upheld a different kind of ecstasy, but then when Staples returned, it was so close to the set's end that her reappearance was frustratingly brief, like a postscript. I've witnessed the same ritual on a couple of occasions, so it doesn't appear to be the result of suddenly realizing that time's up on the tight festival schedule. Also, it's a shame that she's recently dropped "Down In Mississippi," previously an absolute pinnacle of the set.
B.B. King is playing much less guitar nowadays. Even when compared to his appearance at this same festival in 2009. On the other hand, he's generally looking much stronger, and his spirits were high on this memorable night. The band warmed up for a few numbers, and then King was onstage for not much more than an hour, even though he still gave a brief goodbye walkabout (and plectrum-fling) at the front of the stage. Well, he's 85 now, and despite a shortened, guitar-light set, King's voice remains in fine shape, his humor twinkling in a relaxed manner. The show wasn't the same as it was a few years back, but the audience could still bask in the Kingly glow.
About halfway through, Mavis and Yvonne Staples came up onstage and there was a slight aura of tension as this possible old love triangle emanated peculiar vibrations.