BLOGGING AND VLOGGING FROM CANADA'S BEST KNOWN UNDISCOVERED OLD WHITE BLUESMAN

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Festival over - almost

It’s the last day of the Toronto Jazz Festival  and I am still left with making some a hard decisions. Guitar maniac Fred Frith is playing tonight at a non-festival event and a wild and crazy bunch of Yugoslavians called the "No Smoking Orchestra". Frith played a solo set in the festival a couple of nights ago but I opted for John Scofield’s Piety Street band and I’m glad I did. Scofield and vocalist/pianist Jon Cleary provided a blues/gospel show with all the soul you could ask for but at a level of musicianship and improvisation that is a few notches higher than most any blues band. When they tore into Ray Charles’ “Don’t Need No Doctor” (a tune I’ve been playing for years) it was fascinating to hear their take on it. Cleary even picked up a guitar for this one and went head to head with Sco in a burning guitar duel. Sco was playing a Fender Strat at the sound check but it was nowhere to be seen at the show – maybe it’s the same Strat that Cleary was playing but I don’t think it was the same colour. I came upon Sco chatting with Donna Grantis, guitarist for Shakura S’Aida who opened the show. I was flattered that he remembered me from previous years (I’ve lost count of how many appearances he’s made at the festival – in so many different incarnations). This time it was unapologetic blues and it would appear some of his fans have not exactly embraced the Piety Street project, live or on record. And meanwhile blues fans haven’t even heard it and would probably have the usual resistance to jazz guys playing blues. I only wish I could have rounded up a bunch of my blues musicians friends to hear that show. I even found myself walking around the site with an extra comp in my wallet looking for some deserving young blues player who would benefit from hearing Scofield close up but there was not one familiar blues face was on the square that night.

Anyway, Shakura and her band were pretty happy to be there. Guitarist Donna Grantis had dropped in to the after hours jam at the Hard Rock Café the previous evening and did a tune with the guest host, Montreal’s Vanessa Rodrigues on Hammond B3 and I noticed she brought only one effect pedal so I asked her what pedal she would bring if she could only have one and she said Ibanez Tube Screamer...hmm, maybe I’ll try one. I did get a chance to join the jam, though I avoid jazz jams like the plague but this time I had my guitar in the car and after much internal dialogue I convinced myself to take it into the club. Once in, I listened to the end of Tony Monaco’s set and he was on fire – he is a true B3 master, ending the set by having someone in the audience giving him a match book and he used the matches to jam between the keys and make a droning chord that was fatter than you could ever do with human hands, then he crawled down under the organ and began playing the pedals with his hands. Vanessa was not so theatric but she owns that instrument and she can groove. I was hoping to pull out one of my original tunes and see how she worked with it but that was not to be. They did, however, dumb things down for this old blues guy and called a couple of blues tunes...Chicken Shack and Georgia...tunes that most but not all blues players would be familiar with. I’m afraid I fit into the latter category, so I struggled a little bit trying to play the riff for Chicken Shack and trying to figure out the mystery chord in Georgia. It was not a stellar display but I got to play with Vanessa and I will again.

My only other “play” in the festival was with “my son the DJ” at a dance club on Queen Street. When we dropped off the gear in the afternoon the place looked like a construction site. They were actually pouring cement! Joel was promoting the night and spent more renting extra sub-woofers than he paid for talent. Then we set up our 3 laptops directly in front of the sub-woofers. It was brutal...and that’s just the way they like it in the dubstep world. I got some compliments on my guitar playing, but I was convinced once and for all that I am not cut out for playing guitar parts over a wall of sound. I think I need to establish the song first and then let it build up into a wall of mashed up sound.

Other highlights of the past ten days were hearing Allen Toussaint and meeting his guitarist Renard Poche. Toussaint played before Mavis Staples, but I wasn’t able to stay for the whole show because I had to head out to my BlainBLAIN gig. I hear Colin James made it down in time to sit it for the last tune (glad that worked out, albaby!) I did get a nice friendly greeting from Mavis as I stepped out of the Media trailer – I think maybe she thought I was the guy who signs the cheques... Boy she’s not very tall, but glowing with energy, and, contrary to some rumours I had heard, she was in great voice. As I sat with Raoul Bhaneja watching Toussaint Raoul spotted Mavis’ guitarist Rick Holmstrom, and invited him to join us. I had a nice chat with Rick, a very inventive blues guitarist who I have enjoyed for years.

Next day, Mike Stern was holding court in an intimate club setting, the Hard Rock Café.  I told Mike about arriving at his gig at last year’s festival just as he was striking the last chord of his encore. I told him I had felt the energy he had infused into the room without hearing the music. This time I heard a whole set and fully intended to get back for the second set after catching a bit of Stanley Clarke on the main stage. Well, as it turned out, you can’t just “catch a bit” of Stanley Clarke. I was riveted by the intense chemistry between Clarke and Japanese piano star Hiromi. They traded riffs rising higher and higher in intensity with Hiromi standing at the piano slamming down huge chords as Clarke moved closer and closer ripping at his electric bass. Even though the show was delayed and was running late, the audience would absolutely not leave until they heard more. The bass had been removed, roadies were already dismantling the stage and the house lights were up, when this amazing quartet returned to the stage for a rousing encore. Nobody wanted it to end.

I also got to meet Maceo Parker’s guitarist, Bruno Geist, who gave me some tips for getting that funky, choppy guitar sound (“it’s all in the upstroke”). One of the tough calls I had to make midweek was between Angelique Kidjo and Coco Montoya. I opted for Coco, even though I’ve seen him many times, going back to when he was playing with John Mayall. He was in great form. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a packed Silver Dollar Room made quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop by Coco did it. Meanwhile I hear that Angelique gave an amazing show – it was the only festival show that mattered to some fans, including radio host Jian Ghomeshi who sent glowing tweets.  

The Taj Mahal/James Hunter show went on without a hitch despite the second round of G-20 protesters. This time they marched across the Square but did not make any trouble. The worst thing that happened was that Taj’s guitars (and luggage) never made it to Toronto but I don’t think we can blame the G-20 for that. He played a pretty straightforward blues set on his rented Gibson ES-335 with a simple back-up of bass and drums, and they played very sparse.  James Hunter is my man – I love what he’s doing and I think I have seen him pretty well every time he's played Toronto (3 plays for the Jazz Festival). Every show he delivers (even once when he was deathly ill) is impeccable. And a very sharp looking band, too. I complimented James on his suit and he opened the jacket to reveal the label "The Traveller" and I took that to mean it's one of those suits you can crumple up into a suitcase and it still looks good when you get on stage. When I had a chance to talk to Damien, his tenor guy, I couldn't resist asking who did the horn arrangements and he told me it was mostly James himself who designed the horn charts. I love that tenor/bari combo!

It felt a bit like a war zone just driving down to Nathan Phillips Square. I gassed up at at a gas station there were several nondescript Suburban SUVs and a large contingent of police donning their flak vests and riot gear. Driving downtown, it seemed like every second car on the road was police or mysterious looking SUV.

And now I’ve spent so much time writing this blog that It’s too late for Fred Frirth. I checked him out on You Tube and feel that I have experienced his “prepared” guitar thang sufficiently. Now I’ll head down to the Sound Academy to hear the No Smoking Orchestra...wait a minute let’s check them out on YouTube.  Hmmm, what a wild and crazy bunch of Yugoslavians. Two guys hold up a 20-ft makeshift bow while the violinist slides his fiddle on it. Then the guitarist gets into the action. Maybe I don’t need to see this in person. Makes you wonder about the promotional benefits of YouTube. Please take a few minutes to watch the set I just loaded up...then you wan’t have to come see me live. Ah, but those tunes are all from previous albums...it’s my Eastern Townships medley!