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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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The brief set was not without its flaws. Cooder is not a particularly strong lyricist, and so the blues that he introduced as being played by his father to him, on banjo, when he was very young, was the best of the set from that perspective. His voice, too, was only average. Still, the music Cooder and Gendel created between their instruments and effects transcended any such weaknesses. An album of Cooder playing his large mbira would be most welcome.

After a brief break, father Cooder came onstage with Gendel for an unusual but effective opener from Prodigal Son, Blind Willie Johnson's plaintive blues, "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Looped electronics, ambient saxophone chordal backdrops and Cooder's inimitable acoustic slide playing and heartfelt vocals drew the capacity crowd (much like bluegrass singer Alison Krauss' whisper-quiet opener at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival a few days prior) away from their world and straight into Cooder's universe for nearly a hundred minutes.

Beyond the innate (and deceptive) challenge of some of Cooder's music, it's a simple truth that anyone looking for a sleek, polished performance would have had to look elsewhere. Instead, Cooder's set was loose, sloppy, sometimes not quite in tune...but heavy on an emotional resonance that rendered all other considerations immaterial. It was all about feel, about getting deep inside the music, about taking risks and about looking for—and, at times, finding—those wonderfully elusive moments of pure magic.

There were many to be found during Cooder's show. The set was also high on spirituality, whether it was a particularly moving version of the gentle, Cooder-penned opener to Prodigal Son, "Straight Street," going to church with Blind Willie Johnson's "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right," or straight to heaven with Cooder's own "Jesus and Woody," which finds Jesus opining with Woody Guthrie, the social justice singer/songwriter whose music Cooder has covered in the past.

Played in duet with Hamiltones pianist Glenn Patscha, "Jesus and Woody" took on special significance after Cooder's solo acoustic version of Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," originally the album closer on Into the Purple Valley, where the guitarist added his own topical verse, which included:

"Well Trévon Martin was only seventeen years old when he took a trip to the grocery store. He might have grown up to be president, but that's something we'll never know because he ran into a vigilante man."

These words made the sentiment of "Jesus and Woody" all the more poignant and relevant to today's circumstances:

"So sing me a song 'bout 'This Land is Your Land' And fascists bound to lose You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie And I was a dreamer too.

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate It requires effort and strain Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice Which leads to destruction and pain.

Some say I was a friend to sinners But by now you know it's true Guess I like sinners better than fascists And I guess that makes me a dreamer too."


The beauty of Cooder's set, including his engaging song introductions, was that, if it preached anything (and it absolutely did not proselytize), it was for love, compassion, tolerance and, even, hope.

Cooder's set wasn't all about such serious and currently topical matters, however. Songs like Bop Till You Drop's soulful Arthur Alexander ballad, "Go Home, Girl" and Sidney Bailey's dark-hued but ultimately more propulsive "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)" were all about relationships, while Johnny Cash's title track to Cooder's Get Rhythm was about finding joy, even when life seems an insurmountable challenge:

"A little shoeshine boy he never gets lowdown But he's got the dirtiest job in town Bendin' low at the people's feet On a windy corner of a dirty street Well I asked him while he shined my shoes How'd he keep from gettin' the blues He grinned as he raised his little head He popped his shoeshine rag and then he said

Get rhythm when you get the blues C'mon get rhythm when you get the blues Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine It'll shake all your troubles from your worried mind Get rhythm when you get the blues."

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