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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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As he did when he was playing with backup singers including the great Bobby King and Terry Evans, Cooder gave plenty of space to the Hamiltones' three singers, Antonio Bowers, James Tillman, Jr. and Corey Williams II, taking a mid-set break to let the Hamiltones go solo on two songs, including "74" and "Gotta Be Lovin' Me," where Cooder returned, but in support the group, rather than the other way around. He also let Bowers, Tillman Jr. and Williams II have the final words of the night with a soul-drenched version of Lester Johnson, Clifton Knight and Dave Richardson's "I Can't Win," again from Bop Till You Drop. But throughout the set, bassist Robert Commagere and son Joachim anchored the group, while pianist Patscha and saxophonist Gendel not only provided empathic support but were also afforded plenty of their own space, with Gendel contributing a particularly fine bass saxophone solo on "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich" and Patscha's piano solo providing the perfect buildup to Cooder's mind-blowing slide solo (and rhythm work) on "Get Rhythm."

It's unlikely that even the hardest of hardcore Cooder fan expected to hear Bop Till You Drop's opener, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Little Sister," the second of three encores. Nor would they have expected to hear Cooder's significantly reworked "Jesus on the Mainline," from Paradise and Lunch, which Cooder said came about at a sound check just a few days prior. After that song, which features lyrics including "Jesus is on that mainline / Tell Him what you want / Call Him up and tell Him what you want," Cooder related a story about watching a woman (in his hometown of Santa Monica) texting as she was crossing the street against a red light, tripping and almost falling...but, nevertheless, continue texting. "Was she texting Jesus?," Cooder quipped, "We'll never know."

It was that kind of loose, comfortable humor about life, its many challenges and the troubled times times in which we live that made Cooder's message, during much of the show, so beautifully articulated without being, in the least way, overbearing. Relaxed but always clear, Cooder certainly has his opinions about the world in which we live. Still, the same way that he delivered his music with a kind of sloppy but masterful expertise, relying more on feel than perfection, Cooder may, indeed, have a particular viewpoint on the world as it is today, but delivered it in ways that would engender compassion and hope rather than divisiveness and irredeemable desperation.

Whether espousing Alfred Reed's words of wisdom and truth on Prodigal Son's "You Must Unload" or Carter Stanley's words of hope on "Harbor of Love," Cooder's FIJM set was filled with messages, but delivered in ways that, rather than dividing people, could only bring his audience of 1,500 together.

Cooder's message may have been impossible to deny, but it was also a memorable set for other reasons, specifically how, in addition to his exceptional group of instrumentalists and singers, it was absolutely a guitar geek's dream.

Cooder seemed to switch instruments with almost every song, using a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as an electric mandolin on a couple of tunes. Some of the guitars, contrary to what might be expected, were not particularly expensive but, as Cooder explained while he adjusted one of his many altered tunings, "I got this one for about $300...but if you touch it just right it makes a good sound."

Whether playing guitar or singing, Cooder never stuck to a script, instead taking constant risks. And, as with all risk takers, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. But that was the beauty of his performance: there may have been a few near-train wrecks, but when everything worked, it was the kind of magic that only happens when you take those risks.

At 100 minutes, it was a satisfying but, at the same time, all too short performance from one of the great guitarists and musical archivists of the last 50 years. Who knows if Cooder will ever return to these parts in his lifetime? It would be wonderful if he did, but if he doesn't, those who were at Théâtre Maisonneuve on this warm summer's evening experienced something all too rare: a show that, as imperfect as the human condition, reached a rare kind of musical height achieved only by risk-takers, and with a message that, hopefully, everyone in the audience will bring home with them.

Mike Stern with Randy Brecker, Monument National

Imagine this, as a guitarist's worst nightmare: an accidental trip on some construction debris, resulting in multiple fractures of not one, but both arms, the damage so severe that a total of eleven screws are required to put things right.

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