A decadent musical adventure in one of the best cities in the world. Cai Trefor reports on the highlights of five days spent in Quebec
Cai Trefor
11:26 15th July 2019

You’ll hear this regularly when walking around Montreal: “It’s great here… in summer”. Of course, its winter. On its worst days, the cold-ridden landscape is beautiful to look at but it packs a punch: the ice-y temperatures can kill you quickly if you’re unprepared; you hear horror stories of people getting locked out of their cars and their jaw locking within minutes.

And though people generally make the most of it whatever the weather, the atmosphere in Montreal - the biggest city in the Quebec province - during the summer is incredibly seductive. And its love of festivals in the city plays a large part in elevating that. Of all the festivals throughout the high season, the one that matters most; the one that is so etched into the fabric of the city – the city changed its downtown shape to accommodate it – is the mighty Montreal Jazz Fest.

And this year on its 40th anniversary – before even entering a concert hall – I’m hooked.

I see locals and visitors alike gathered in the hot and humid downtown, basking during the day time in the heat – a heat that doesn’t let up a night – and the cacophony of people having a good time is infectious. Throughout this stunning area – in the plaza of festival and surrounds; the million square metres or so used specifically for Montreal Jazz Festival to accommodate so many people for free concerts – we see pop up stages, street acrobats, restaurants overflowing. It’s alive with people vying for space at the food trucks or queuing up to play piano in the street, and with kids hysterically enjoying the refreshing blast of the water fountains.

Moreover, thanks to the democratic access to world class concerts i.e. lots of gigs being free not presenting barriers, people of all colours and creed, people of rich and of poor backgrounds are together. Compared with the gated confines of major outdoor festivals, which generally feel heavily middle class – and can be thought of as gated fields of privilege – it is a refreshing change and part of what makes it such a buzz.

The indoor concerts, however, are less of a socialist utopia since they’re ticketed – not massively expensive but still paid for per gig. I must accept my own position as one of privilege: being able to have the option of attending a huge number of these indoor concerts for free for reporting purposes is something impossible to not be thankful for.

Arriving nearly a week into the festival since it runs for 11 days, my first port of call is on Tuesday (2 July) at the indoor SAT (Society for Arts and Technology) venue on the street Saint Laurent, near Chinatown. It's to see Richard Reed Parry from the one and only Arcade Fire – a band who’ve done so much to cement Montreal’s reputation for being a world class place for artistic practice. The multi-instrumentalist Parry’s playing in, of all places, a planetarium named the Satosphere and it takes up a corner of this sprawling venue. You wouldn’t know it was there necessarily. At first glance, SAT is just a swanky restaurant with a roof terrace but behind the curtain is where the magic happens: the interior, replete with bean bags for every attendee to sit in and stare up at the ceiling, and gaze away from the band members and towards the live 3-D 360 projection dome visuals, which completely coat the sphere. It is brilliant using something so advanced technically with something so artistic.

                                 Richard Reed Parry photo by Sébastien Roy

In fact, I’ve never seen anything close to what Parry’s done to visually present his new albums, Quiet River Of Dust, volume one and two. A musician connected to the beauty of this earth, it’s visuals which depict nature undisturbed by man. It’s an aesthetic which connects with his harmonious psych-folk succinctly. It’s environments for these songs that seem born to exist in. Satisfied, the rest of the first evening is still spent there at in SAT on the outside terrace, sampling the incredible Quebecois beers from the swanky restaurant and chatting with Parry’s inner circle. His bandmates. They’re all great company. We arrange to interview the next day.

MORE: Read an exclusive interview with Richard Reed Parry

Wednesday is spent glued to the downtown. My journalist friend for CBC seems concerned. “I’d like you to see more of Montreal. Have you been to Mile End?” he asks when we’re stood right in the epicentre of where the vast majority of everything Jazz Fest related happens. As much as I like to venture out and see the towering Mont Royal (a small forest-clad mountain right in the centre), the Port of Montreal, the hipster neighbourhoods like Mile End; for the time being, the allure of the epicentre of Jazz Fest is too strong to be able to spend much time away and time has to be carved out for it later in the week.

Anyway, musical highlights: the most striking thing I see this day is seeing the Polaris prize-winning Jeremy Dutcher at the intimate Club Soda. It’s a tip from Richard Reed Parry and band, who are also in attendance, that prompts me to check him out. As for Club Soda, the venue’s seen countless great Jazz Fest sets over the years, not least Men Without Hats who played ‘Safety Dance’ three times in one set the other year. So with a feeling that I’m touching back into my spiritual home, I perch on a seat near the front of the stage and the most immediately captivating thing about the show, despite incredible power from the triple threat of piano, strings and percussion, is Dutcher’s unbelievable vocal. Mesmerising; deep, he oozes emotional intensity with every refrain.

The Toronto-based music graduate is of Wolastoq descent and fluent in the indigenous Maliseet language. The young man wrote his Polaris Prize-winning album inspired by First Nations Maliseet songs he retrieved from a museum and samples them into the set intermittently; sounding somewhat like lo-fi radio going out of signal, distorted in the best kind of way. Perhaps the most immediately palpable thing about the show is Dutcher’s heartfelt desire to play a vital role in indigenous cultural preservation and join in a narrative of reconciliation like what many Canadian music industry folks are doing. Him acknowledging the indigenous territory we’re on is read out, and good great on him for doing so – it’s something I’ve seen regularly from indigenous and white Canadians alike and can only build towards a better future. Anyway, the UK need to catch up with Canada's Jeremy Dutcher, seriously.

Prior to catching the show, I strike an old favourite off the bucket list: Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Packing out the Maison Symphonique in Place Des Arts – a not-for-profit arts centre and music school at the heart of Jazz Fest, the greatest achievement of their set is a staggering cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, a cover plucked from their new album. “We had the audacity to cover this on two acoustic guitars,” laughs a very charming Gabriela. But she needn’t apologise: if anyone is going to cover your music on two guitars then Mexico’s finest are the answer, they get every ebb and flow and atmosphere as well as the main riffs down to a tee, not neglecting what Pink Floyd are about whilst still putting their own stamp on it.

                           Rodrigo Y Gabriela rocking the Maison Symphonique

Meanwhile, Thursday at Jazz Fest is all about neo psychedelic king Connan Mockasin at Club Soda. Mockasin’s touring Jassbusters – an album greatly connected to his melodrama Bostyn and Dobsyn that he scripted when he was a kid living in Te Awanga, North Island, New Zealand. Though not a huge name to everyone, his cult following is intense and there are a lot of people here with a fierce energy to greet the hero of truly alternative music. At first, being a Jassbusters-heavy set it’s a calm, heady mood which contrasts with the raucousness stemming from the crowd. But famed for quite a strange sense of humour, things crank up a notch when he transforms into a mock rock star. Swapping his sheepish bucket hat for aviators, a pilot’s hat, a t-shirt tux and mod scarf and studded belt, he suddenly has a skip in his step and things get a tad more rambunctious on stage during his rendition of his masterpiece ‘Dolphin Love Forever’. It’s a track at the heart of Connan’s own bamboozling mythology and sets the mood for an extended encore and the band just don’t look in the mood to leave the stage, which is great, and complimentary to the Montreal crowd. I suspect Montreal crowds give a lot more love towards artists than in most cities I’ve ever been to.

MORE: Live Review: Connan Mockasin at Club Soda

Earlier in the evening, I’m at the outdoor blues stage which has a sloped dancefloor and it's the one where you often find the wildest crowd reaction. New York’s Popa Chubby – a name which is a play on the slang pop a chubby (get an erection) takes it by the horns: “I don’t like anyone telling me what to do!” he yells, sat on his stool with a guitar and ripping through some of the hardest rocking blues cuts. Cuts full of movement, based on the seductive 12-bar patterns, but with an invigorated tempo and flair. Playing at dusk, the sounds intertwine with the sticky sweet odour of outdoor BBQ and the adrenalized spirit of the outdoor bars, and the essence of postcard North America is palpable for a second. If only I had an Iced Tea.

Penultimate Jazz Fest day Friday brings the chance to see one of the all-time greats of the blues, pop and rock world: Peter Frampton. Not being of a generation who would have heard him more on the radio all the time, I think I might be able to dip in and dip out of the set to mix it up with some of the free shows happening outside. But it’s so good I just stay and am completely transfixed by the band. To Frampton’s left is a long-haired rocking Fender Rhodes player who anticipates Frampton’s every move on the guitar and responds with his tight rhythmic and melodic grip and beguiling tone. Frampton’s second guitarist is flashy when he gets a solo, too. But it’s Frampton’s life journey from Humble Pie heart-throb to becoming recognised as a virtuoso rooted in the blues and mentioned in the same breath as his heroes Django Reinhardt and The Shadows that takes precedent. You see it a lot – these farewell tours and have never really fancied them because it implies they’re past their best. But a lot of people who’ve seen Frampton before are telling me this is the best they’ve ever seen him. And since the emphasis is on his guitar and not vocal gymnastics (though he still sounds great), age isn’t really an issue, he rips and roars through the hits with an inspiring level of craftsmanship, showmanship, and more. The guitarist is the complete package for a two-hour plus show to keep you entertained.

                            Peter Frampton playing his last ever gig in Montreal

It’s bittersweet though because Frampton, who was spotted by Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones when he was 14, and rubbed shoulders with anyone who’s anyone from the blues explosion and the glam scene, is very unlikely to make it back to the stage after this tour. The guitarist's been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis (IBM) four years ago and it’s going to debilitate his playing. There’s a glimmer of hope he’ll return and he tells us in a press conference earlier in the day that he’ll be the first to shout it from the rooftops if he is able to come back. But as he bows out from the stage and says, “I’m not going to say goodbye”, trying to hold back the tears, there’s a feeling that this could well be the last time he plays Montreal. It is immensely sad and difficult not to be moved.

Saturday, meanwhile, is the end of an era for two others: the last day that the charismatic two founders of the festival Andre Ménard and Alain Simard are part of the Jazz Fest organisation as they’re retiring having sold it to a company named Evenko, who also own Osheaga and the big arena venue in town. A press conference is called to commemorate the passing of the baton to the next generation. It’s sad to see them go as part of the magic of the festival is undoubtedly their charisma. The way Ménard and Simard come across in a press conference is as music lovers. It's at their core. And they’ve built up their dream bigger than they could ever have realised. The best players in the world have come to play their festival and they can be proud of that and proud of the way they’ve treated people. Peter Frampton wouldn’t have said in an earlier press conference that artists think of Montreal Jazz Fest a notch above the rest and a badge of honour to come and play otherwise. Nevertheless, there’s a sense positivity from them towards the next generation, who can continue the ethos and spirt of the event forward forever hopefully. What they’ve laid here is a beautiful thing.

With nightfall looming, it’s off away from the press area to see the best new-to-me discovery of the week: Holman Trio. And it's helped by them being in the best venue in town – the old Monument-National is a privilege to see music in thanks to its beautiful ornate interior whisking you back centuries in time. The band fuse the indigenous Chilean rhythm of the Mapuche with the power of the jazz trio and are spellbinding at doing so. They sound doom-y at times, with the charismatic long, balding grey haired bass player – who is flanked by a grand pianist and drummer – making expert use of his fifth bass string. After their set, I bump into them in the corridor just as I’m leaving to see Buddy Guy tear it up in the Place Des Arts, I thank them for their set and they tell me a top record label exec and Bruno Mars’ producer is a big fan. There’s room for this band to blossom in this industry yet.

Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, meanwhile, is typically on fire. Sporting a polka dot shirt, flat cap and charming grin that shows no sign of abating ever, he’s a rabble rouser getting the seated auditorium crowd on their feet with wild yelps and mini ‘fuck yeah!’s’ popping out of people’s mouths thanks to his insane technique. One of the best blues players of all time, he coined the behind the head guitar move which Hendrix made famous, and manages to get some extra cheers for that. Though into his 80s, he’s mightily sharp and aware of the womanising in some of the lyrics in the songs. “What? I didn’t write this song” he quips before continuing to play hits from across his lauded oeuvre. I skip out of the last part of the set having seen him make the same joke about not writing the song before a couple of years ago here, and start to want to see something I haven’t seen: The Tame Impala and Beach House inspiration Mercury Rev are playing up at L’Astral, on the vibrant Saint Catherine street.

I see the closing bars of Mercury Rev and they sound a phenomenal wall of sound. It's how I want more bands to sound. A friend emerges from the aural spectacle feeling moved: “That was very psychedelic,” he says in his deep southern United States drawl. Regretting not seeing more of it, it’s not the perfectly planned ending to Jazz Fest I wanted but nevertheless this stage clash issue is a good one to have; a stellar example of the fact any given time whenever you’re watching one thing something else extraordinary is happening around the corner. And even if you don’t go, it’s so incredibly inspiring and stimulating being surrounded by musicians of such calibre in the short space of a few days. So long as the next owners keep up to the standards that have been laid here the last 40 years, and this edition, being a very fine example of how well they curate and manage a festival, then we’ll be absolutely fine in years to come. So here’s to another great 40 years, and then some. Merci Montreal.

Photo: Festival International de Jazz de Montreal