The 34th edition of the storied Montreal International Jazz Festival was, like every year, overloaded with acts worth checking out, traditional jazz or otherwise. From June 28 to July 7, the crowded streets in the city's renovated Quartier des Spectacles brimmed with the sounds of artists from across the globe, the smell of grilled meats, and the sight of tourists and locals undeterred by the muggy weather and grey skies.
Montreal favourites the Triplettes De Belleville turned ten. Chicago's Mucca Pazza crammed the population of a small country onto one stage. The Bad Plus performed until they nearly collapsed. Spirited debates were held regarding She & Him’s restrained performance.
And yes, actress-turned-jazz singer Molly Ringwald even covered "Don't You (Forget About Me)."
Here are a five other performances that stood out in the end.
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1. Gregory Porter at Club Soda, July 1:
The jovial former college football linebacker made a name for himself at this year’s Fest, and not just because he’s a big guy with a deep set of pipes. The Harlem jazz singer, clad in a white suit and black headdress, demonstrated impeccable technique and control, going for the right notes instead of pure bombast (although when he did wail, he did so while impressively scissor kicking the air). It’s not just his confidence, warmth and the quality of his own material - from 2012‘s Be Good - that make him a cut above. His proficient band shared the stage with the large frontman, including diminutive saxophonist Yosuke Sato, who went a different route than Porter by delivering a blistering, squealing solo on almost every song. The group met in Harlem, at the famed, now-closed St. Nick’s Pub, which explains the noticeable comfort level, and also how they’ve been able to combine jazz and southern soul into an exciting-yet-familiar hybrid.
2. The Specials at Metropolis, July 7:
Co-frontman Neville Staple is no longer with the band, meaning one of ska’s most decorated elder statesmen had to settle for not being superhuman, but merely one of the most entertaining acts in the world - minus their most electrifying dancer. The Specials’ no-nonsense Sunday night set was an example of a band from yesteryear playing every hit in their catalogue exactly how you remember them. A crowd full of bald heads glistened, and everyone skanked awkwardly to obvious favourites like “A Message To You, Rudy” - which received the biggest pop of the night. The band, comprised mostly of original members, performed with so much energy it hardly even mattered that singer Terry Hall seemed more content to sneer than dance. Upon exiting the venue, patrons were treated to a torrential downpour - but in truth most in attendance were already drenched in sweat.
3. Woodkid at Metropolis, July 1:
One of the most talked-about indoor pay shows starred a Frenchman equally known for his music video directorial work for the likes of Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry. As a musician, Yoann Lemoine’s music is impossibly grandiose: his quiet vocals were engulfed by a booming combo of live brass, bass triggers and two percussionists pounding on drums befitting a procession reserved for a returning Roman conqueror. The blinding lights and background videos of ornate cathedrals also helped create an imposing scene, and at certain points the boisterous crowd stomped so hard in unison the venue violently shook. Because of the French connection, Woodkid has already amassed a huge following in Montreal, but on this night he solidified his status a young artist deserving of worldwide attention.
4. Rhye at Metropolis, June 30:
Sometimes the mark of a truly confident, talented live performer is how they deal with the unexpected. The 2,400 capacity Metropolis wasn’t packed for this intimate meeting with the sensual quiet storm pop group, fronted by Canadian Mike Milosh and his arresting, effeminate falsetto, so any sounds emanating from the audience could easily be heard on stage. At one point, two older guys to the left of the stage were loudly gabbing amongst themselves, which did not go unnoticed by Milosh. In mid-song, the singer changed his lyrics on the fly, singing directly to the rude men, who confirmed their cluelessness by not even realizing that everyone was now staring at them, including the band. Throughout the night though, the small but passionate crowd hollered and shouted at the group, who besides that one instance were clearly galvanized by the fun, loose environment they had created.
5. Leif Vollebekk at Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, July 5:
A young Montreal folk songwriter highly recommended for fans of the whimsical Patrick Watson, albeit with a rustic Americana twang. Joined on stage by chamber music string collective the Warhol Dervish, Vollebekk’s stream of consciousness style of storytelling melted into the dusty, time-bending arrangements. He also performed a surprisingly heartfelt cover of The Killers’ “Read My Mind,” as well as atmospheric renditions of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around.” Vollebekk’s songwriting is greatly indebted to the latter two legends, but the compositions from his 2013 release North Americana confidently stand on their own.