International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 1-5

John Kelman By

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For those who have heard of FIMAV, the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, but have never been, its location may come something of a surprise. Located about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City in Canada, Victoriaville is a small town that would appear on first glance to be the most unlikely of places for what has, over the course of 22 years, become one of the premiere festivals to feature improvisational music on the more avant and extreme side.

And yet festival director Michel Levasseur has managed to overcome all kinds of obstacles, not the least being transportation. With over 180 musicians performing at this year's festival, and the closest airport being Montreal (approximately 90 minutes drive away), he has to provide a regular shuttle back and forth so that all the performers and their equipment make it to the festival on time. And he's done an incredible job. What began as a grass roots festival that was more a personal vision than anything else has grown into an event that sees people coming from as far away as Phoenix, Ann Arbor, New York, and Boston to shuffle between the three venues for as many as six concerts a day over the course of five days, from May 19 through May 23, 2005.

The lineup for this year's festival is truly impressive, and FIMAV got things off to a profound start with two artists who represent different sides of the same cutting edge. Drummer Jerry Granelli's Sandhills Reunion performed its first show the night before in Toronto, with FIMAV being its second (and, sadly, only other) performance. Intrepid Left Coast guitarist Nels Cline brought his Singers group to town for the first time. It's rare enough for the Singers to perform period—given Cline's busy schedule with Wilco and drummer Scott Amendola's full schedule with singer Madeleine Peyroux—and so their appearance so far from home is a real event, and one that was highly anticipated.

Neither group disappointed. Granelli brought together the entire group of musicians who recorded the album and, while they may not be road-tested, they demonstrated a remarkable collective empathy. For Sandhills Reunion Granelli and a sextet including son J.A. Granelli on bass and lap steel, guitarist Christian Kogel, clarinetist Francois Houle, bass clarinetist Jeff Reiley, baritone saxophonist David Mott and cellist Christoph Both provided a rich cinematic soundtrack to reflections, imaginings and internal dialogues by actor/playwright/vocalist Rinde Eckert. The recording was always meant to be absorbed as a whole, with a clear narrative arc; but in performance the group made the 60-minute performance all the more engaging.

From spacious abstraction to barrelhouse blues, the ensemble integrated tightly with Eckert's text. While everyone got the opportunity to shine, the performance was more about collective ambience. The manner in which the music seemed to flow from apparent free play to structured form, all the while being perfectly on cue with Eckert, was compelling. So was the rich texture from the combination of Kogel's Frisell-informed tones and the horns—an unusual combination to be sure, and one which gave the group a blend of weight and air.

Eckert's delivery ranged from deadpan to a curiously detached passion. Adding falsetto wordless singing to the instrumental mix at times, Eckert's sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant text proved even more vivid and entertaining in live performance than on album.

The music was uncompromising, yet eminently approachable; ranging from a chamber-like vibe to more animated groove. And while there was a clear roadmap to follow, there was equally ample opportunity for spirited interplay. It's unfortunate that Sandhills Reunion is only playing two dates, as it's the kind of show that proves that edgy music can have smooth surfaces.
Guitarist Nels Cline knows something we don't. Sadly less well-known than he deserves to be—although his affiliation with Wilco has resulted in more attention in recent times, including an article in Downbeat and a cover story in Guitar Player—listening to him on record is a lesson in what guitar can be if one only dispenses with one's preconceptions of what guitar should sound like. Watching him perform only makes the lesson more profound. Cline is a combination of influences that range from jazz's harmonic sensibility and improvisational elan to the aggressive abandon of punk and much, much more. As apt to use a whisk to draw sharp textures out of his instrument as he is a multitude of electronic devices to make the instrument truly larger than life, he's also—at least in the context of the Singers—more about sound and colour than prowess in the expected tradition of jazz soloing, although he does possess frightening technique.

Cline dedicated the show to Fred Frith, another groundbreaking guitarist who is at FIMAV this year, and an artist who Nels attributes to changing his own view of the guitar's potential. But like all the roots that inform Cline's playing, Frith's influence has been completely subsumed into Cline's unmistakable approach.

The Singers—contrabassist Devin Hoff and drummer/live electronics processor Scott Amendola—are truly in tune with Cline's musical vision, ranging from quiet abstraction to aggressive and angular noisescapes. At times raw, like an exposed nerve, the trio built a sound that seemed almost impossible to imagine from only three musicians. And as extreme as things sometimes could get, Amendola's unfailing sense of groove and ability to find time in the most chaotic of circumstances managed to create pulses that sometimes whispered, other times roared. Hoff, as at home with a bow as he is violently strumming and slapping his bass, provided both a harmonic counterpoint to Cline's often angular lines, and a strong rhythmic partner to Amendola's thundering beats.

Cline's compositional approach is also unique. There may be specific motifs that define a piece like "Something About David H.," which began as a dark yet gentle tone poem but ultimately built into something more powerful, but it was equally about evoking image through sound. Cline may not exactly solo, and he's an equal opportunity leader to be sure, but he's also clearly the dominant voice.

At the end of the performance he thanked the audience for their ears, and a voice in the crowd called out "what's left of them!"; following the performance a fan asked Nels what he called his music, to which Nels replied, "Jazz Rock—at least that's what they called it in the ‚¬Ëœ70s." Nels Cline Singers may play jazz rock, but it's unquestionably a unique kind that may not always be an easy listen, but it's always a provocative one.
Visit Jerry Granelli, Nels Cline and the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville on the web. For a full schedule of this year's events, click here.

Continue: Day 2

Photo Credit
Martin Morisette

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