Montreux Jazz Festival 2010: Grand Geneva Finales

Phillip Woolever By

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Montreux Jazz 2010
Montreux, Switzerland
July 15-16, 2010
Planet Jazz

For a city with census figures at under 25,000 citizens, Montreux throws one hell of a party. For summer music fans, its heaven.

The 44th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival wrapped up this season's two week engagement on some very high notes. Constant capacity crowds witnessed inspired collaborations and programming exemplified a continuing standard through another July jubilee that proved Montreux Jazz remains at the pinnacle for any type music festival. The scene is a recurring, golden era evolution all its own. That was as crystal clear as the shimmering shoreline water that captivated thousands of well-attired attendees from all sectors of society, united in musical passion.

For at least a few drifting days it seemed like the whole world, or maybe just everyone in that part of Switzerland, had a prevailing love of jazz. Evening traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, seemed only to be headed toward the music. Consistently exceptional promotion featured custom banners throughout town. Buses were decorated with bright new images of musical notes or performers. Advisory signs and signals atop modified barricades simply stated "JAZZ" with florescent arrows pointing the way to the center of the action in the convention complex area. Many persons of the beautiful persuasion were inspired, en masse, to follow that wild call of horny howling in the garden of bops and beats.

Interaction with frivolous fringes of the crowd indicated that for many jazz fans, Montreux has remained a unique designer destination. An estimated total attendance of around 200,000 turned the usually serene, flower laden walkway along Lake Geneva into a throbbing mass of rare proportion and presentation. If there is a more comfortably compact, constantly fashionable locale for jazz to be found, it would be surprising.

The upscale vibe included glamorous waterfront lounge areas or exotic dining stands alongside interspersed, guzzling swarms around a Swiss army of Heineken stands. It was a massively melodic mob scene but completely orderly and well mannered. Disability access was probably limited in some outside areas simply due to the crush, which made squeezing by a not too harsh chore at some bottleneck standstills. It was a reasonable price for massive social interaction along the lines of a beehive.

Overall, the festival sold approximately 85% of the available tickets. Auditorium Stravinski, cavernous home to most of the top dollar concerts, was reportedly sold out for 14 of 17 shows. There was brisk business at many of the dozens of lake front vendors in a street fair atmosphere. Inside the main complex, souvenirs, liquer and more caviar to be consumed than imagined possible were dished out in abundance.

In between and all around the more prominently featured pay events were some exceptional free shows, including an excellent variety of performers in the Parc Vernex outdoor band shell. DJs or film screenings filled the Jazz Café and Studio 41, where dance/trance parties ran from before dusk to after dawn. In what was billed as a "world premiere" the high-demand, standing room sold out show by Quincy Jones's global project was broadcast for free in 3D at the neighboring, regal Petit Palais, complimentary 3D glasses included. Little touches like that keep the customers coming back for more.

Some of the very best musical moments of the two week gala were saved for last, and the throngs danced in appreciation with greater numbers and abandon than during some earlier nights. Heading into the final weekend of a 16 day waterfront party that was blessed with mostly beautiful weather and beautiful people, Mark Knopfler gave a deep, subtle performance that ranked as one of the festival's finest, then a night later the still expanding elder statesman Herbie Hancock headed a stage full of all-stars who joined his Imagine Project in a classic set.

There was no huge frenzy similar to last year's surprise short notice grand finale sets by Prince. When Daniel Lanois' motorcycle accident forced his collaboration with Brian Blade and Trixie Whitley, deemed Black Dub Collective to cancel, replacement Emmanuelle Seigner brought along her recently released US fugitive husband Roman Polanski, which caused a minor paparazzi fart. Is Seigner two years younger than Polanski's conviction based victim? It seemed like the majority of festival attendees were just fine without any drama, tabloid worthy or not. Montreux must mean mellow.

Thursday, July 15: Money for Something

Knopfler's current enterprise is billed as the Get Lucky tour, which supplements the 2009 release of traditional folk based, multi-instrumental narratives in an acoustic format. While a handful of newer material like the opening "Border Reiver" was further introduced the vast majority of tunes in the approximately two hour set consisted of Knopfler's biggest amplified epics from both Dire Straits and his distinguished solo projects. That's exactly what the faithful wanted: sticking close to the original blueprint with just enough interesting twists to keep familiar refrains fresh but basically intact.

Just before the band took the stage, a politely humorous gentleman shuffled out and implored folks, on behalf of Knopfler, not to detract from their neighbors' experience by using cell phone cameras or other recorders. "Please respect Mark's wishes and resist the temptation to use these devices," concluded the crewman. Nice sentiment. You can guess how many seconds it was before some goober stuck a glowing mini-screen into 30 peoples' immediate plane of vision. When ushers attempted to enforce the no film policy it was even more of a distraction. Leisure humanity at their finest.

Maybe its the vast variety of human elements in Knopfler's perceptive portraits that strike such a strong chord with so many of his followers, and why the Dire Straits catalogue continues to thrive. It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that Knopfler's loud, loyal crowd was by far the grittiest and probably most devoted in a festival with no shortage of intense headlining characters. A large number of patrons held a drink in each hand. It was a moody blue collar atmosphere, and Knopfler was definitely the working class guitar hero. The swarm crammed into Stravinski and lined up outside the doors overflowed a capacity of approximately 4,000 while dozens stuck outside were forced to watch on HD screens.

That's not to say Knopfler is the type performer who makes it look easy. In fact, one of Knopfler's strengths is how the apparent effort of what he's aiming for translates through, if not flawless dynamics, pure inspiration. Despite considerable accolades and rare material rewards, Knopfler still faces challenges in being accepted as a traditional craftsman opposed to a star of more style than substance. Compositionally, Knopfler continues to prove himself as a historical novelist, often preferring projects closer to his heartfelt instincts than more profitable paths along the hit parade.

Knopfler's smooth skinned palate shined with intense, introspective expression when he bent into the strings, but he never seemed to be taking himself too seriously. Considering that he possesses one of the most distinct, trademark twangs in popular music, it says a lot that he doesn't seemed satisfied with "good enough."

Knopfler is quite under-stated on stage. His picturesque narratives are more a soft spoken word style than sung, delivered in low tones and usually with minimal movement. Tonight a chagrined Knopfler was confined to an office-type chair from an injury, but seemed more focused than hindered from a comfortable looking perch in front of his majestic, red Reinhardt dual amp set.

Yet there is nothing subtle about the enduring impact of Knopfler's songbook, from which he and a group of frequent collaborators tweaked a few bridges and folked-up some familiar anthems. As Knopfler alternated between a Stratocaster and a Les Paul, sometimes you heard the same note in a different galaxy.

The show began with shadowy overtures between flutist Michael McGoldrick and violinist John McCusker, who each got almost as much overall solo time as Knopfler but didn't act like wingmen gone wild. The pair also kept things grounded with touches of mandolin or wind instruments and were as basic to the beat as bassist Glenn Worf and drummer Danny Cummings. Keyboards were manned by Guy Fletcher and Matt Rollings. For the mutually experienced ensemble, it was all systems go.

As the audience settled back to submerge into Knopfler's deeply detailed landscape it quickly became obvious he remains one of the great storytellers in music, whether drawing upon whimsical characterizations or sculpting personalities and social commentary from rituals of the past. Knopfler can twist his six-string signals around the hall and around people's heads, holding some notes that seemingly float above others. Could such timing come from generally being left handed and playing from the right? Knopfler may have jump started a few frets at first but it added to the true texture of performance purity. Once again, the humanity factor at work.

"Sultans of Swing," done virtually note for note as a quartet, might as well have been Dire Straits over twenty five years ago. Knopfler nailed the now standard solo with precision that made it seem new, not like something he's done a million times. Judging from the jungle land reaction, that blazing interlude was the point of the whole exercise for some customers anyway, and why not? If you've got a proven body of work like Knopfler's, flaunt it.

The key to Knopfler's success tonight was not straying too much from the soul of his source song pool. Nothing helps a show keep crucial momentum like an audience consistently cheering the opening chords of song after song. Brief introductory passages on familiar themes that could be termed industrial folk were preludes for some pieces, but such flute or keyboard solos soon led to heartily recognized refrains.

Knopfler featured four fine tunes from Sailing to Philadelphia (Mercury 2000) , "What It Is," "Prairie Wedding" and the title track, which highlighted Knopfler's ability to create life like characters. Tonight on "Speedway at Nazareth," a proven crowd favorite and concert fixture, the band probably hit at least a 9 on the 10 scale performance wise.

One of the only instances when the spell was briefly broken came during "So Far Away," which plodded predictably in comparison to the rest of the set list. The assembled swarm was oblivious to any letdown, if indeed there was one. Even a cynic would have to admit that Knopfler's efforts were highly agreeable to a broad public, while many spectators acted like it was the show of the year. When Knopfler and crew basked in the cliché-proof, heartfelt standing ovation then toasted the audience, fans literally bolted for the bar to return the favor.

Knopfler broke from the last harness with a lit up thumb and index finger, then came out of his chair with serious intentions for the climactic jams of "Telegraph Road." Get a close up of the hundred fevered faces in the stage left standing area forty feet from Knopfler's reverbing amps, and put this one in the Montreux time capsule.

A sterling version of "Done With Bonaparte" had the simmering crowd swaying across Stratocaster waves to a shore of bliss. The roaring response verified that while Knopfler isn't the most dynamic front man, he remains one of the most powerful. Tonight was a clinic on how Knopfler possesses one of the most popularly recognizable voices and equally identifiable guitar tone signatures on the planet. The set was a triumph of both intellect and riffs.


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