Rocking it North of the Border at Montreal Jazz Festival

Boston.com: Paul E. Kandarian: 3rd July, 2014

By the time I got to Montreal, they were 2 million strong.
Or so it seemed. I was at the 35th Montreal Jazz Festival recently, which Guinness World Records in 2004 paid homage to as the planet’s biggest jazz festival, attended by about 2 million music lovers. It still is.

On the night I was there, it felt like all two mil were with me, people angling for a free outdoor show by Canadian headliner Diana Krall. The sheer humanity of it, shoulder to shoulder, was positively Woodstockian in nature, minus the rain, mud, and drug-addled hippies. This was clean, bright, superbly organized, and sprawled over blocks of the Quartier des Spectacles in eastern Montreal

And it was all magnifique.

The programming, most of which is free, featured more than 800 concerts from noon to midnight over 11 summer days. About 2,000 musicians and street performers played at dozens of indoor and outdoor venues.

The music was eclectic, largely jazz, but with tons of blues, rock, acoustic, you name it, with killer draws like Aretha Franklin, BB King, Tony Bennett, Barenaked Ladies, Elvis Costello, Diana Ross, Michael Buble, and many more (thankfully, not Canada’s own Justin Bieber, this crowd would eat him alive). I caught three shows: Four-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves, blues brothers Ben Chapman and Charlie Musselwhite and the prolific Costello. None disappointed.

Reeves, 57, Detroit native and 2002 Ella Fitzgerald Award winner, was gracious, charming, and sang like a dream -- from thumping lows to lilting highs, silky smooth all. She covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” among other things.“

We keep the melody,” she said of the latter, “but changed a lot under it. If you recognize it, good for you.”

She rocked the house and silenced it, depending on the tenor of the tune, at one point telling the crowd “Get up, dance, do whatever you want to do, just don’t get hurt,” and then sang “Love is Here to Stay,” to her Cuban-born guitarist and long-time friend Humberto Hernandez.
For sheer raw power, nothing could top Ben Harper, slide-guitar master, and Charlie Musselwhite, who at 70 still blows a mouth organ with the best of them, his career including stints with fellow legends Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, and many others.

Harper is a soulful sort, largely quiet and not given to bantering with the crowd, though his studiousness did melt into smiles when someone would shout their love for him or Charlie, and he said “When you say you love me or Charlie, you love us both…and we love you, too.”

He also lauded the festival, saying “the older I get I find out the less I know, but that’s OK, I’m comfortable with being stupid. But I don’t need a jury or judge to know the Montreal Jazz Festival is one of the best in the world.”

They banged out 17 songs over two hours, much from their 2013 Grammy winning album “Get Up!” Harper jabbed away so hard on his slide guitar his body shook, and Musselwhite’s voice was as wonderfully clear and resilient as someone half his age. They teamed up at the set’s end on a throbbing “When the Levee Breaks.” They encored with four songs, ending with  “All That Matters Now,” Harper finishing sans mic with “But we’re together/And that’s all that matters now,” prompting one woman to scream out “Amen!”

Costello, who turns 60 in August, bounded on the stage at Symphony Hall like a kid, in white fedora, gray-black clothing and shoes with bright green strip up the sides. He famously goes without a set list, just adopting a theme from his hundreds of songs, and this night’s would have been deceit, he said, cracking “But I’ve only got 90 minutes. I have about four hours worth of songs for that.”

So he settled on an “exile” theme, punctuating the set with charming stories about his early days and family, talking about “Poison Moon” from 1975, hearing it on the radio then and being so embarrassed he turned off the kitchen light to listen in the dark.

He performed solo, his output a range of materials from four decades in the business, including the recent “The Last Year of My Youth,” which he proclaimed a work still in progress, and a sweet blend of “New Amsterdam” with “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” by the Beatles.

Hit tunes included the touching “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives,” played booming loud with cool use of pedal looping, and “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding.”

He talked often of his family, growing up in England, speaking fondly of his musician father and grandfather, playing in clubs with his dad who “went hippie” in 1968, mocking his shame of his skin-headed son by telling him to “grow your hair!”

He finished his encore with “In the Rain,” prefacing it by talking about his grandfather who was a successful cruise-ship musician until the Depression when, he said, the rich stayed rich and continued in America “to swindle the working man out of his money” and musicians returned to England and found no work.

A lovely moment came when festival co-founder Andre Menard gave the humbled Costello the Spirit Award, one received over the years by the likes of Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Smokey Robinson, Costello appearing uneasy, arms folded, waving off Menard’s accolades to the cheers of the appreciative crowd.

Then he got back to what the festival is all about – the music at the Montreal version of Woodstock and the reason 2 million folks come every year.