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2009 Montreux Jazz Festival : Chickenfoot, Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan


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"Dave Matthews is too f**king good to play before us."
—Sammy Hagar
Chickenfoot, Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan
Montreux Jazz Festival/Auditorium Stravinski
Montreux, Switzerland
July 4, 2009

The United States were impeccably represented as the land of the free form during a Fourth of July special that showcased three distinct improvisational imports.

A packed, international crowd of well over 4,000 was ready for fireworks as Steely Dan proved up to the task of opening in the emotionally electrified environment. The veteran songwriting duo of guitarist Walter Becker and frontman vocalist and keyboard player Donald Fagen presented modified versions of their quirky catalogue during the first half of their program, then returned to familiar form for the set's finishing FM hit parade.

After an opening instrumental tune, which allowed the distinguished backing band of Freddie Washington (bass), Jon Herington (guitar), Keith Carlock (drums), and Jim Beard (keyboards) to loosen up, Becker casually strummed his way onstage to sincere howls of anticipation. He led the way for backup vocalists Tawatha Agee, Janice Pendarvis, and Catherine Russell.

Before he even sang a note the assembly seemed satisfied just to see Fagen stroll into position like a funky marionette. "The Dan" have maintained a particular cult following, and hundreds of those distinct characters were there.

The opening tune "Reelin' in the Years," from the groundbreaking debut Can't Buy a Thrill (MCA, 1972), was structurally unrecognizable except for the lyrics. The ambiguous arrangement set a surprising tone for altered stylistic states that followed. For the most part, newly metered angles were successful.

"This is the Steely Dan orchestra or something like that," Fagen told the masses. "We'll do some songs you know, we're glad you're here, and you can leave the rest to us." Besides offering heartfelt thanks many times, that was all Fagen said, as he left witty banter to Becker. Fagen definitely had a strong stage presence, however, as he pecked passionately inspired piano patterns.

Low key Becker handled vocals on "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More," which vividly illustrated why Fagen is the singer. Fagen's vocals were uneven at times, but that's never been the point. It is his offbeat lyrics and delivery that have always made the group special, and there were frequently impressive twists and turns during the approximately 90-minute set.

Any imperfections were covered by the dynamic horn section of Jim Pugh (trombone), Marvin Stamm (trumpet), Walt Weiskopf (sax), and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax).

Highlights included "Show Biz Kids," "Peg," "Josie" and "Two Against Nature." Fagen was a subtle tour de force on "Babylon Sisters," and a fine, almost note for note rendition of "Aja" allowed Carlock some thumping glory. "Kid Charlemagne" gave Herington a chance to step out of the shadows and hit some great lead licks, but he held his place as a supporting, hired gun most other times.

Becker is not the best guitarist to ever take this stage, but his unique rhythmic approach often defines the Steely Dan sound, and that sound rang true. Quality can't always be measured by standard technique. Becker and Fagen don't need to be perfect, anyway. Hell, they're Steely Dan.

On the other highly polished hand, The Dave Matthews Band came out and kicked up the bar at least a couple notches during their 90 minutes.

Matthews, another oddball genius type, was the perfect fit to follow the Dan, and definitely the star attraction of this enchanted evening. Matthews is considered a superstar in many primarily English speaking regions, but surprisingly many Europeans polled in the auditorium area were unfamiliar with him.

Matthews' impeccable band and crazy fox personality quickly made new devotees of them all. Hundreds more fans, predominantly female, squeezed into the soon steamy auditorium for Matthews' set which consisted primarily of songs from the band's latest album Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (RCA, 2009).

From the opening chords of "Shake Me like a Monkey" to the finishing song (dedicated to deceased founding member Leroi Moore) "Why I Am," the crew showed that their sound remains fresh and powerful after more than a decade as one of the US's ultimate concert acts.

The latest recording features more lead guitar than previous offerings, by longtime guest collaborator Tim Reynolds, and he got plenty of peak playing minutes during the concert.

Other full time band members, Boyd Tinsley (violin), Carter Beauford (drums), and Stefan Lessard (bass) each demonstrated they are worthy, equal components of the unit and probably one of the premier musical groups on the planet. Frequent sidekicks Jeff Coffin (sax) and Rashawn Ross (trumpet, backing vocals) proved to be other invaluable assets.

The reportedly often-shy Matthews is no stage hog, and he doesn't need to be.

Still, Matthews has undeniable star power of a special sort beyond his considerable singer-songwriter capabilities. Judging from the unavoidable estrogen flares, he could easily be a mischievous pied piper to women. When he repeated a murmured lyric about oral sex, the sweltering, sweaty scene was not the worst place you could get squeezed into.

On a strictly technical front, "Ants Marching," from the breakthrough Under the Table and Dreaming (RCA, 1994), built to a volcanic, crowd-shaking crescendo that may be unmatched for the rest of the festival.

"Funny the Way It Is," a new song getting the most current airplay, showcased the group's amazing ability to mix pop and jam band traits into lengthy, multi-levelled hooks. The fact that Matthews projects thoughtful humanity near the level of Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young is a rare artistic asset, but he is also a humorous, engaging guy to watch—a fine ambassador indeed.

Matthews described his repertoire as "country music" with tounge in cheek, while Tinsley consistently backed up that somewhat misleading assessment with fantastic fiddle work on songs like "Spaceman," no matter the range.

There was an interesting balance of performing style polarities. Tinsley took a few steps out for solo grooves in front of Beauford's thunderously elevated kit as a dramatic silhouette before the gigantic, glistening percussion pieces. Generally, the band remained as close to initial positions as palace guards while Matthews jerked spastically across the stage from man to man. It was hard to tell if he was hyper-channeling an old school Joe Cocker or just screwing around.

Whatever the case, the music was magical and often touching on more than one level. Matthews wrote "Alligator Pie," a Hurricane Katrina-inspired ballad that resulted from one of his daughters asking when he would write a song about her. Maybe the key here is that despite this band's obvious skill and brilliance, they don't take their processes too seriously. The encore "Pantala Naga Pamps/Rapunzel" was another extended exercise in time shifting excellence as leads were passed around. By now, the group had already reached the top of the Alps, and there seemed to be no limit in the humid, full moon sky above Lake Geneva.

Is Chickenfoot jazz? No way, but if it was no problem for iconic organizer Claude Nobs, who showed up in a Jimi Hendrix Experience shirt, it shouldn't be a problem for anyone else. The thousand or so folks that retreated into the night prior to Chickenfoot's blaze of glory missed one of the festival's most pleasant surprises.

Many of those who awaited the past midnight starting time were happy just to find out what all the buzz was about, especially after a previously scheduled show in Spain was cancelled due to a biceps injury to drummer Chad Smith, also a member of Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Expectations were very high for the relatively new band that also includes singer/guitarist Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony from Van Halen and guitar guru Joe Satriani.

Believe the hype. Chickenfoot were the life of the party as they raucously romped through almost every song from their self-titled debut. This crew will always be faced with comparisons to Van Halen, one of the most successful bands ever, especially since Hagar and Anthony did not depart on the best of terms.

Perhaps rocking well is the best revenge. Chickenfoot don't really create anything new, but that doesn't mean they don't kick some bombastic butt. Satriani and Smith actually match up against the Van Halens (guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex) very well, while Hagar and Anthony look like they're on a fun filled mission to prove something.

Satriani laid down a beautiful blur of power riffs that enhanced every song, while the rest of the band went nuts. Anthony's backing harmonies were Van Halen's secret weapon, and he was in good form behind the mike and laying down a thick bottom line. The wacky Smith bears an uncanny resemblance to comedian Will Farrell and frequently clowns around behind a Pearl Masterworks rig, but he also smacks serious skins, perhaps too seriously for his own good. After another show, the boys had to cancel appearances in Hamburg and Copenhagen to deal with his reaggravated injury.

"Oh Yeah" and "Future in the Past" stood out in a nearly 2 hour show of highlight after hard rock highlight. Those fanatics in the swarm who draped themselves across the front of the stage were treated to ongoing audience interaction with a band that was clearly having a great time. The mass of around 3,000 newly inspired maniacs loved them. The frenzy peaked perfectly during "Bad Motor Scooter," a song from Hagar's much younger days with yet another guitar hero, Ronnie Montrose.

Just prior to that Satriani employed a new custom Ibanez JS1200 axe, covered with fresh inscriptions.

"What you got there, Joe?" asked Hagar.

"It's signed by everybody that played here tonight," said Satriani as he showed it to the crowd. "But Dave Matthews got a little rubbed out."

"Shit," responded an almost out of breath Hagar, "Matthews tried to rub us out. Dave Matthews is too fucking good to play before us. I asked Claude if he was trying to ruin us already! We can't follow Dave Matthews."

He sure as blazes did that night, as Chickenfoot flat out rocked one of the heaviest shows seen since the holy heydays of Led Zeppelin or Jefferson Airplane.

Beyond the realm of cookie cutter clones, triplet shows often end up a better or worse mixed blessing. Overall, the concert went something like this:

Steely Dan gave an engaging performance of their excellent material. Even an off night is special in their realm.

The Dave Matthews Band presented truly exceptional material. Pound for pound, they're probably as good a group as you're likely to see these days.

Chickenfoot exceeded the sum of their own well accomplished parts. They may never fully escape the shadow of Van Halen, but tonight they capped a sensationally spirited triple bill for the ages.


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