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Sweet Soul Music and the Low Down Dirty Blues at the Montreal Jazz Festival


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The marquee on Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee reads "Soulsville U.S.A." Although "Soulsville of the North" may be a stretch, for 10 days in July, Montreal turns into a hotbed of Soul, R&B, Funk and the Blues. From the first years of the festival onwards, the Montreal Jazz Festival has featured iconic artists such as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Ray Charles and B.B. King. Many of the contemporary artists in these genres that play the festival may not quite carry that level of stature or celebrity. Often these artists are just beginning to garner wider recognition and have been given a platform by this and other festivals to showcase their talents. They have been invited to perform on outdoor festival stages in front of audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. In recent years, there has been something of a renaissance of great soul music with artists liberally drawing on the influences of the 60s and 70s. But most of these artists also incorporate modern sounds into the mix and it would be misleading to call them retro. This was a banner year for rhythm and blues artists at the Montreal International Jazz Festival with several outstanding and most memorable performances.

"It was a hot and steamy night in Montreal" is not a phrase you hear uttered very often. Of course, that assumes we are talking about weather not pulp novels. It was simply sweltering (mid 90s and very humid) when Deva Mahal took the stage for the first of 2 excellent sets. She performed in front of a large and enthusiastic audience, perhaps numbering more than 40,000 people. I didn't actually count heads, so that is my best estimate. Deva is the daughter of legendary bluesman and "world music" pioneer, Taj Mahal, who himself was the recipient of the B.B. King Award for his extraordinary contribution to blues music at the 37th Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2016. Deva Mahal was supported by a very capable band led by Alan Markley on keyboard. The group also featured her sister Zoe Moon on backing vocals. The music draws on classic soul, gospel, blues and indie-rock. Mahal is an artist who wears her heart on her sleeve as both a performer and a composer. She performed music from her wonderful debut album Run Deep. Mahal sings songs of personal hardship, relationships gone bad and social injustice often mixed into the same song. A very powerful and rocking version of the title track was perhaps the highlight of the set. The lyrics conveys how she is ready to confront the adversity that life brings: "'Cause I gather my armour, And I'm ready for battle, I got my weapons drawn, Taking the road less traveled." Mahal can sound alternately vulnerable and fierce in the same song. She can create intimate moments that leave you with impression that you are in a small club and everyone is listening intently to the songs of heartbreak and personal redemption.

The Suffers are an eight piece band comprised of veteran musicians from the Houston music scene that came together as a band in 2011. They have been steadily building a following and touring on the strength of their fine new album, Everything Here. They are led by charismatic singer Kam Franklin. The Suffers play a kind of music that they refer to as Gulf Coast soul. Their music is strongly rooted in 70s R&B and artists like Kool and the Gang, Tower of Power, Al Green and perhaps, Barry White. The Gulf Coast soul label is meant to suggest that they are also the product of Houston's remarkably rich musical tapestry which includes reggae, salsa, gospel, rock and so forth. They were one of the festivals must-see "buzz bands" and they did not disappoint. The group delivers a relaxed groove that differentiates them from their contemporaries. Franklin is a captivating and most charming performer. She was able to develop an instant rapport with an audience numbering in the tens of thousands with songs of simple truths and honesty between song banter. The relationship between food and love was one of the recurring themes. After the Storm is a moving (personal) tribute to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey which continues to pose problems for the city. The set ended with a killer version of the Isley Brothers' Shout. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard bands play this song, it never fails to generate excitement.

The British Soul Invasion has produced a number of excellent artists such Adele, Corrine Bailey Rae and the late great Amy Winehouse. UK soul singer Hannah Williams leads a crack rock and soul band, the Affirmations, which liberally draws on sounds of the sixties. They were also listed among the must-see bands in various publications and they delivered in spades. I caught the second of two sets and it was easily one of the highlights of this year's festival. The eight piece band has some sonic resemblance to the great soul reviews of the late 60s and early 70s. It features sax, trombone, keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and two backup vocalists. The horns feature most prominently, but there's a nice balance of sounds in the musical mix. I was reading a press release from her booking agency and they say "Hannah Williams is a whirlwind of soul, love, lust and anger that leaves behind tatters of whichever stage she graces." I wish I had said that first, but cannot say it any better. She has a powerful voice and is an incredibly dynamic emotional performer that coaxes every last ounce of energy she has and leaves it all on the stage. Among the highlights of the set was a killer version of Dazed and Confused (best known as a Led Zeppelin song). This was played as a horn-driven psychedelic funk number and it worked incredibly well. Williams voice has been compared to many other singers including Janis Joplin. However, on Dazed and Confused, she sounds a lot like Ann Wilson (of Heart) who incidentally also performs this song. Another highlight was the lead single, Tame in the Water off their excellent album, Late Nights and Heartbreaks. In short, this was simply a fantastic performance.

Zara McFarlane is a young British soul/jazz singer who is developing quite a reputation in her native country. I had not heard of her previously and only caught the last 15 minutes of her performance. McFarlane is of Jamaican heritage and distinct Afro-Caribbean influences are evident in her music. However, she just slayed with a heart melting version of the profoundly melancholy and ironic Spring is Here. It was inspired by one of McFarlane's primary influences, Nina Simone who does a great version of this standard. I look forward to hearing more from this most promising artist.

Soul music is more of kind of feeling or means of expression in song rather than a narrowly conceived genre. No singer sang with more soul and depth of feeling than the late great Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde, an island country off the west coast of Africa. Elida Almeida is a young singer who hails from the same country. At the show in Montreal, she paid tribute to Evora, whose Morna music was clearly a significant influence. However, much of Elida's music is joyous, up tempo and shows a broad range of influences. She is a wonderfully charismatic performer and I absolutely loved what I saw of her concert. Banda Magda is a multi-cultural group led by Greek-American artists led by songwriter, vocalist and accordionist, Magda Giannikou. I have seen Banda Magda perform on a number of occasions and they are a superb live act. Giannikou is an artist with astonishing range. She sings in five or so different languages and across musical genres including Samba, French Chanson, traditional Greek folk music to jazz standards to name just a few. What is most impressive, she and Magda Banda can perform these songs in a distinctive and completely compelling fashion. It is not some sort of sought after world music fusion, but a core part of their musical identity and heritage. No group is more deserving of wider attention than Banda Magda. Their performance in Montreal certainly lived up to that very high standard.

The Metropolis, rebranded MTelus after Canadian wireless giant bought the naming rights, is a cavernous large club/performance space. It suffers from poor sound and mediocre site lines (depending on where you are positioned). However, it has a large floor space and can be a great place for a blowout party. I've had the pleasure of seeing stellar performances by bands such as Bootsy Collins, The Roots, Amadou and Mariam and Janelle Monae at Metropolis. At the 2011 jazzfest, Prince played 2 legendary midnight shows (lasting 4 hours each) that are still talked about in reverential terms. The concerts were announced at the last minute and sold out in what seemed like seconds. Sadly, I did not get tickets. Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles played the last two festivals to rave reviews. Each year, they played successively larger venues to accompany their growing audience. Henry is a virtuoso organist who was perhaps best known as a member of the jazz jam band collective Snarky Puppy. The Funk Apostles including Henry and 2 terrific backup vocalists are a high octane funk unit capable of delivering a blowout party and that they did! Henry glides across the keys of his Hammond B3 with great intensity and sense of purpose. He sometimes steps out to shake a tambourine and exhort his fellow Apostles to greater heights. The music included great covers like Stayin' Alive and Proud Mary (Ike and Tina style). The original compositions were a little thinner in musical content, but that did not diminish the great energy and good time vibe of this most excellent live band.

The Blues Stage is one of the most popular at the Montreal Jazz Festival. It gets a great turnout of more raucous fans, someone of whom only show up for the blues shows. I didn't get there are as often as I would have liked this past year. But I did see a fabulous performance by Thornetta Davis, Detroit's Queen of the Blues. For most contemporary blues artists, the boundaries between blues, rock and rhythm and blues are completely blurred. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't mean to suggest that Davis is a purist and devoid of other influences; in fact she has sang in other styles including jazz, soul and gospel. She even recorded an album in the 90s on the indie-rock label, Sub Pop. However, there is an authenticity, depth of feeling and commitment to the blues in her music and singing that shines through. She is an unhyphenated blues singer. Davis has a very powerful voice, but also sings with great clarity and purpose. The group rocked the house with a high energy performance led by Carlton Washington on guitar and Jim Alfredson on organ and keys. In late 2016, Davis released her first album in 20 years, Honest Woman consisting entirely of her own compositions. It was very well received and she has been touring the world on its strength. The group was equally adept at playing classic boogie, tender ballads and the great Texas Shuffle, Further on Up the Road. One of the best blues shows I've seen in a very long time!

George Thorogood was the fifth recipient of the B.B. King Award for his contributions to blues music. The truth is that I only caught the first song of the set and can't really review the concert, but the opening is worth noting. Just before their entrance, Eve of Destruction—the original version by Barry McGuire played over the sound system. It wasn't meant as a political statement, but a warning for the impending musical carnage to be delivered by the Delaware Destroyers. Then a boxing ring announcer's voice is heard saying "Ladies and gentlemen, it's now time for the main event, the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight rock and roll champion of the world—George Thorogood and the Destroyers." The band then made its entrance to a laser light show more reminiscent of 70s arena rockers than a workingman's blues band. To their credit, the band came on with guns blazing and delivered a full throttle version of Ain't Coming Home Tonight. Thorogood at age 68, has lost nothing off his fastball as either a guitarist or as a performer. Unfortunately, I had to miss what I understand was a great show, but had to run off to photograph Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

Jazz drumming great, Jerry Granelli has had a long and distinguished career as a sideman and leader in a remarkably diverse range of musical styles. Granelli now resides in Nova Scotia, Canada. It would be a stretch to call him a blues artist, but play the blues they did at their recent festival gig. The group was fronted by the excellent twin guitars of Robben Ford and Bob Lanzetti. I only caught the last 15 minutes of the show, but immensely enjoyed what I saw.

Okay, this is getting kind of long. But I did want to note that next year is the 40th anniversary of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. They are already dropping hints that next year will be something really special. Every year, there is a Grand Spectacle, free outdoor show featuring a popular artist that draws in excess of 100,000 artists. The years ending in 0s are causes for an even greater celebration. Stevie Wonder performed at this event on the 30th anniversary of the festival and he was just superb —an inspired choice. It will be hard to top that. There is already speculation as to who will perform at this main event next year. They will invariably invite an artist with broad appeal. The selected artist is unlikely to be a jazz performer, though Pat Metheny delivered an outstanding 2.5 hours performance at the 10th anniversary show. Drake is an immensely popular Canadian artist, but he lacks a certain cross generational appeal. Arcade Fire are a Montreal based indie-rock band with broad popularity and they are also a phenomenal live band. Although I would be happy with their selection, they don't quite hit that mass appeal sweet spot either. A fellow festival photographer proposed Paul McCartney, an interesting, but unlikely choice. It will probably be an artist who plays soul, R&B and/or hip hop. Prince would have been perfect, but sadly, that is not meant to be. I would like to propose Janelle Monae and in fact, start the campaign now! Monae performed at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. I attended the event as a photographer knowing almost nothing about her music, but expecting to take pictures of a photogenic and charismatic performer. Those goals were easily fulfilled. But she also gave an awesome draw-dropping performance, the likes of which I had only seen a few times in my life. Many of us were just floored by her dazzling display of artistry and high energy. I can only imagine what it was like to see James Brown in the early 60s (saw him in the 1980s) or Prince. Monae is sort of the logical successor. So if you are listening, Janelle, please hold off on booking those European Summer 2019 tour dates.
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