Sunday, June 29, 2008

God Made Me Funky Indeed

I've never played in a band, but it doesn't take more than a little empathy to realize how crowd energy contributes to performance. I've seen God Made Me Funky play before, and they are always an energetic, entertaining gang. But this time, they were on fire and their coordinated dance moves were outtasight! One thing that this bands does is bring back some songs from the 80s that are... well... funky. Or groovy. Or both. Songs like Walk this Way, Superfreak, and Jump Around. Perhaps I date myself, but these songs are due for a comeback. I miss them... and I know all the words.

In general, if there's one thing that god makes me funky realize it's that Montreal could truly use a jam band scene. We have indie pop and underground hip hop and reggae and jazz and metal. Why don't we have any jam bands? The city is full of French hippies who go around in their hemp clothing and through off their shoes at a moment's notice. The tams are packed with people who are jam band ripe. The enthusiasm of the crowd at this show made me realize we are thirsting for jam bands here. I do hope that in my sojourn, a few jam bands materialize here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Leonard Cohen Tribute Highs and Middles at the Montreal Jazz Fest

Yes, I was one of those people who stood around for an hour plus, in a huge sea of people waiting for the Leonard Cohen tribute to start. We were packed in like... packed things. This obese lady in front of me actually had a portable chair that she sat in most of the night, eventually falling asleep in the middle of the crowd. Behind, a group of Mexican ladies, perhaps 6 of them, all petite, squished into a space that was equal to the space the sleeping lady took up. Overhead, a camera boom swung back and forth, and I tried not to play the "what could go wrong" game. I was close enough to watch the singers, rather than the screens and that is what matters most.

The show was worth the discomfort in the end. The best performers were beautiful reinterpreters of Leonard Cohen's poetry. The worst ones were medicore at the worst, but its hard not to enjoy Cohen's deceptively simple music. I thought I'd give a play by play of what I could distinguish.

Chris Botti has been called the Jeff Buckley of the trumpet. Ringing over our heads he played Hallelujah, which was followed by a video of Leonard Cohen performing it with his band on the big screen. Although the two videos that punctuated the evening, Suzanne and Hallelujah, are probably the two best known Cohen songs (also, there was Closing Time), and perhaps it is best that no one individual sang these songs, I found it highlighted Cohen's decision of conscious not to show. I think this kind of no-show attitude is a bit graceless. All of these fans came to celebrate and listen to Cohen's works in his hometown. If I'm not mistaken, he was performing not a block away. The least he could do is wave at everyone and say a few words of blessing or appreciation.

One thing that struck me especially was the degree of nervousness a few performers seemed to have. When asked to cover with a story for Adam Cohen while he tuned his guitar, Serena Ryder stood in silence. Buffy Sainte-Marie paused momentarily in the Partisan, as if suddenly forgetting the words. Lhasa de Sela looked as though at any moment she would burst into emotional tears (although, she's always like that). Sometimes the performers seemed to be ushered on and off the stage like bewildered cattle, as if in a state of shock. The audience was enormous, perhaps more than some were used to seeing.

The highlight performances were wonderful. Steven Page stole the show with his dramatic performance of A Singer Must Die. At first I thought he was caught up in a bit of broadway theatrics... but he's also so emotive and so genuine. He gives a lot of his heart when he sings and holds nothing back. I'm a newly minted Bare Naked Ladies fan (though, I suppose, I've always been a bare naked ladies fan). Buffy Sainte-Marie has this deep, throaty voice. I always think these singers of the 60s and 70s have an authenticity that today's singers often lack. Although she seemed nervous, she sang the Partisan tinged with a bit of irony (she's a native American singer)

Adam Cohen, Leonard's son, was redeemed by his blood relationship to the man of the hour and a half, his charming personality and his willingness to share a bit of his life with dad. I think the audience hungered to hear about Leonard Cohen, perhaps even more than hear his music. Cohen performed with gusto, but I found him a bit sparse in comparison with some of the better artists who took the stage. His duet with Serena Ryder was far better than the solo, since she brought width and depth. Ryder is a gifted and admirable singer, anyway. Yet, of all the women performing, I think Madeleine Peyroux's Dance Me to The End of Love, was a sultry hit a la Billie Holiday or Diana Washington. She was a surprise for me. I'd never seen Katie Melua perform before, and I don't think I need to see her again. Euro pop stars. Nor do I think I ever need to hear Garou ever again. Quebec pop stars! However, where the singers fell short, the backing band rose to the occasion and filled in with richness and precision.

All in all, a wonderful tribute that would have been even better if the man himself had arrived on the scene

The list of performances:

Chris Botti: Hallelujah
Zachary Richard: Bird On A Wire.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Partisan.
Steven Page: A Singer Must Die.
Adam Cohen: Take This Waltz
Adam Cohen with Serena Ryder: Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
Serena Ryder: Sisters Of Mercy
Madeleine Peyroux: Dance Me To The End Of Love
Katie Melua: In My Secret Life
Lhasa de Sela with Thomas Hellman: So Long Marianne
Lhasa de Sela: Who By Fire
Steven Page with Joe Lovano at the saxophone: Memories
Chris Botti (trumpet): A Thousand Kisses Deep with the words projected in the back of the stage
Garou : Everybody Knows
Michel Pagliaro: The Future
Giant screen: Leonard Cohen singing Closing Time
Salute from all the artists followed by Leonard Cohen singing Suzanne on giant screens.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer Solstice SubCollisions Style

I had plans. Oh, did I have plans! I was done up like it was prom and I was going to slow dance with every attractive man and perhaps even woman, just to keep things lively, at the hipster slowdance. However, you can't dance if you're the only person who arrives. A lack of muller-arounders outside convinced me that the Slow Dance party was not my part. Instead, I wandered St. Laurent until I stumbled upon SubCollisions playing at Divan Orange.

There are days when I fear for the Montreal music scene. Anything "too cool" often stops being fun. Cool becomes a barrier between those who are in and those who are out. And these are extremely arbitrary decisions that serve to exclude. I was more than pleased to learn that there are bands in Montreal who are more fun than anything else. Subcollisions is one of these.

A 10 piece band, though I think only 5 musicians stayed on stage, they belt out the most incredible good time cabaret. Since it was solstice, everyone was dressed like they'd stumbled out of a Midsumemr night's dream. Inbetween familiar and unfamliar songs, small acts that included a poetry reading and a horse "he's hung like a horse" seducing a virgin turned the whole thing into a scene out of Moulin Rouge, but without absinthe. This was total mayhem, total randomness, total fun. The whole crowd was dancing and singing along, stomping their feet. It was a revelry.

And, if I don't mention the talent, well, slap me with a cold salmon across the face. The band is amazing and the two female singers have incredible voices.

Bravo. I rung in solstice in a way it deserved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Grant Hart and Greg McPherson at La Sala Rossa

Punk as fuck. That's the only way to describe Grant Hart, former drummer and half of the singer-songwriter power of Husker Du. Admittedly, I'm borrowing the phrase, but this guy is the genuine article. But, I suppose to understand that, one must first take a look at good, solid Canadian indepedent act, Greg MacPherson first. The comparison between new school and old school was well illustrated.

MacPherson is a Winnepegger touring juggernaut. He poodles back and forth across Canada with his weathered guitar, opening his veins and his lungs from club to club. This current tour is a bit atypical for MacPherson, as he reminded us many times he hadn't performed solo in almost a year. Since I've never seen his backing band, I find it difficult to imagine him as anything but firey, grand solo MacPherson. Seul. Sans autre.

One either hates or loves MacPherson. There is no other option. His show at Sala, peppered with nervous and self-depreciating comments, was raw, generous, and fierce. MacPherson is powerful by the determination of his effort and likable for his authenticity and humility. His most popular song, Company Store, is an Irish miner's fight song that rouses the audience to punch their fists and sing along as if at McKibbin's Pub. Despite its fraternal mask, typical of MacPherson, the lyrics are thoughtful and politicized.

for all the heart, MacPherson's shows are a bit like slamming a hammer into your thumb. They are a non-stop pounding -- loud, emotive, and with little delicacy. There is limited modulation of mood or conquering energy.

Which is where Grant Hart comes in.

Hart hopped onto the stage, his eyes glazed over, straggly hair, wearing a ratty grey jacket with patchwork stitched at the pocket. Even at the age of 46, long past the days of Husker Du, he oozes anti-authoritarian punk, and not the kind you can buy, but the kind that gets you beat up and left choking in a puddle of your own blood and saliva. He spent the first few songs finding himself and then seemed to step through the portal to the other side, easing into the music and riding it to other more surprising places. The show felt like one was sitting in his living room (or standing, I suppose), and he was just fiddling around on his guitair, some old songs, new songs, and occassionally just playing around and experimenting.

Hart, with his old guitar, his old amp, his bad ass attitude, his clumsy memory, and even his crude bedside manner, has that quintessential grasp on what makes indie music great. It's not a matter of trying to be something, of trying to get a message out, of trying to cajole love or acceptance out of anyone, of trying to be cool or posturing at cool or having a look or a style. There is something precious about being one's ugly, imperfect self with a take it or leave it attitude and just loving the act of making music itself. Hart is not a people person and I'd be all to happy if he left the provocative attitude at the border. But, perhaps the attitude is necessary, because when he isn't making obscure references, ironic comments, or carping, suddenly on stage appears a vulnerable, fragile artist, the epiphany of the very thing I usually have to strip through layers to find. Hart lays it out, exactly as it is, and to do that is a true gift.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Elephantine at Last!

It took me awhile before I finally managed to catch this little local Franco band around the city, but man, I'm so glad I did. They're awesome. They seem to be playing everywhere these days -- with good reason -- they have an adaptable sound that is soft enough to fit as an opening band for most indie pop acts. But, at the same time, most songs seem to lapse into these great spaced out riffs that can get heavy and hard. These guys have it down, the yin yang of electronica and acoustica (can I market that term?). I think I'll be seeing them around for the next few years.

La Marea at Festival Trans Amerique

My faith in the goodness of Montreal's cultural scene is restored. Winter can be a bit sparse on the offerings and a time when journeying more than just a few blocks is an effortful production. That said, with the return of festival season, I am delighted to report that the FTA's freebie offering, la Marea, under the direction of Argentina's Mariano Pensotti was a rousing return from the winter sleep.

La Marea consisted of a series of vignettes around the theme of love. Each scene was performed with minimal speech, and the characters' thoughts or the narration appeared overhead in French (and occasionally English) subtitles. Voyeuristically dropping into another person's stream of consciousness affirmed the basic common desires and hopes among diverse people. Most refreshing, each vignette made use of the apartment balconies and storefronts of Rue Emery in the Latin Quarter as a backdrop. That natural street traffic of pedestrians, residents, and film goers periodically crossed in front of the scenes, which made every episode all the more vivid and added relevancy. Characters from one scene would reappear in another, as pedestrian traffic, which also added to the naturalism. Over a two hour period, attentive crowds wandered from vignette to vignette, each a fleeting 10 minutes of mental chatter and poignancy.

I attirbute the success of La Marea to a number of factors. Phrases and names particular to Quebec, such as street names or mention of the FLQ, rooted the universal ponderings to a local setting. In this way, all the themes of love raised were applicable, rather than abstract. Personally, I found this attempt to integrate Quebec into the play a bit forced and it could have been done more subtly and with less frequency. I also enjoyed the novelty of walking from scene to scene, all of which were quirky and brief. It never felt redundant, even though most of the vignettes seemed to focus on love's brevity. I found myself waiting to see how each vignette addressed certain shared points: Every character shared an escape fantasy. Every character expressed a desire to be liked. Every character faced self doubt.

Of all the vignettes, I found the two characters who fail to meet up outside a movie theatre the most compelling. Making use of the theatre on the street, after five minutes of waiting for his date to arrive, the bitter man walks away. In the meantime, a woman arrives at the theatre and begins to wrestle with her faith in God as a consequence of her frustration at being stood up. Presumably, the two were supposed to meet each other.

Hopefully Montreal will continue to sponsor innovative productions like La Marea in its festival programming. For the past two years, the Festival Transamerique has brought high quality international work to this city in a variety of performance genres and this year's offerings are no exception.