Thursday, July 13, 2006

Jamie Cullum Rocked Montreal 

K. and I have a thing for Montreal. Even though the exchange rate is not what it was, Montreal is such a great deal for those looking for a long weekend away from The City.

What makes Montreal special? First of all, it's only a 50-minute flight to what is, for all intents and purposes, a European city. Given the power of the Euro and the time required to jump across the Atlantic, Montreal is a much more reasonable destination.

In terms of feel, there is Old Montreal which, while a bit touristy, looks and feels like the older sections of any number of European cities (say Barcelona or Basel) and it has newer sections which feel like the more modern sections of the European cities that have managed to steer away from clustering their skyscrapers and instead spread them about amongst buildings of a more human scale (again, Barcelona and Basel are good approximations). Most importantly, Montreal has great restaurants, cultural offerings and...I must admit...fabulous shopping. While the exchange rate no longer makes an American feel that Montreal shopping is pillaging St. Catherine Street Viking-style, the summer sales do make it hard for someone of my acquisitive nature to leave the city empty-handed.

We have been to Montreal over the Fourth of July weekend before and this trip was something of a dare. The last time we were there was the summer of 2002. We had just wandered out of a terrific bagel brunch at the famed St Viateur when my cell rang. It was a friend and colleague warning me that executive management had just decided to declare a “pre-packaged bankruptcy” and that if I wanted to stay employed during the transition and sale, I had best call in any favors I had left. As it turned out, my favor currency must have run out because I was laid off shortly after my return.

Returning to Montreal then, was something of a superstition-buster. Thus far, it seems to have worked as I put in a three days of work last week and Wile E. Coyote did not appear to drop an anvil on my head. We’ll see how this week goes before we declare the 2002 event a one-time happening and not having been the fault of the Canadians; neither French nor Anglophone.

We had some great meals on St. Laurent at two places we have frequented on other trips: Med, and Globe. Med has received a bit of a makeover in décor, but mostly in name (it used to be Mediterraneo) and maintains its beautiful, underdressed servers and outstanding menu. Globe does great food in an ambiance I could really skip (I abhor restaurants with DJs), but at the hour we wished to eat (after 10 on a Monday night), only the in-crowd places were serving.

The reason we were eating so late on Monday is that Fourth of July is Montreal Jazz Festival and we had just come from an unbelievable three-hour tour de force by brit-jazz/pop wunderkind Jamie Cullum.

I had no idea what to expect when we bought the Cullum tix. Mark and Cory had turned us on to Twenty Something, shortly before Catching Tales was released. I liked some of the tracks (the purer jazz ones). But, as you know if you read the Thomas Dolby post, I’m not much into pop or rock music and some of the songs are much more in those genres than jazz. Nonetheless, the majority of it won me over.

As we were planning our trip a few months ago, I was scanning the list of performers for the Montreal Jazz Festival and most of it didn’t interest me. But then I saw that Jamie Cullum was performing. I said to K., “Whaddya think?” She said, “Let’s give it a go.” So I booked a pair of what appeared to be the worst possible tickets: in the last row of the orchestra. It was all there was without heading up into balconies and I couldn’t remember what the Place D’arts theatres were like well enough to risk going upwards. (If you go upstairs at The Beacon, you can end up fainting from the altitude.)

When we arrived, we happily discovered that there really isn’t a bad seat in the orchestra of the Theatre Maisonneuve. We were fascinated to see that the audience ranged through a remarkably broad set of demographics” from eighteen year old women to groups of retirees. (The young women obliged their stereotype during the show by throwing their underwear onstage. The retirees blissfully restrained themselves from breaking any stereotypes.)

So things looked pretty promising as the opening act came onstage. A few songs later, K. and I simultaneously turned to each other with variations on “If I’d wanted to see Sarah MacLachlan, I would have bought tickets for her.”

Fifty frickin’ minutes later, she finally left the stage. She seemed nice enough, but she left us cold. Then there was a 20 minute intermission.

Finally, Jamie Cullum took the stage. And I mean took the stage. From the moment he came out, he was in control. He launched into “Photograph”, a song whose lyrics I’d never listened to that closely, but he articulates clearly. And through the power of his performance, what is essentially a juvenile pop effort suddenly became compelling.

From there on out, it was a wonderfully unpredictable affair. He continually varied the pace and the instrumentation. He played piano for some songs, only sang on others, got out an acoustic guitar for another. For one song, he looped himself live in front of the audience; laying down a beatbox rhythm like and then several vocal harmonies with the élan of someone like Kid Beyond. He then played piano live and sang against the tracks we’d just seen him loop.

There were guests partway through the show. He brought his older brother Ben (whose written some of Jamie’s hits) for a duet, and he even generously brought Sonia Kitchell back out to do an unrehearsed duet of “What a Difference a Day Makes”. (She apparently started her career as a vocal jazz performer and I thought she was far more compelling in that genre.)

Now it’s about 2 hours into the show, and we’re wondering, “How much has he got to give?” Because he had spent almost every minute bouncing about 3 feet off the floor. His energy was boundless. It got him jumping on the piano, off the piano, over the amplifiers. He’s a little jumping bean – in a fun way, not an annoying one.

But he kept delivering song after song, style after style in endlessly creative ways. At one point, he grabbed his bassist Geoff Gascoyne and jumped into the audience. Gascoyne played a stripped down electric bass while Cullum sang “Nature Boy” – without a microphone - from the center of the house! He wandered down a row halfway back into the orchestra seats, hands cupped as an impromptu megaphone, and sang the whole damn song. It was nuts.

At about 2 hours and 30 minutes into the show, he taught the audience a three part harmony and had us all singing along in a way that actually felt additive to the performance instead of awkward and stagy.

By the time he shut the show down, he had rocked the Montreal Jazz Festival for three hours in what is one of the most generous displays of natural showmanship that I think I will ever see. Old and young, everyone left feeling high. In fact, coming near the end as it did it colored our entire trip with a positive haze. If there was anything we hadn’t enjoyed before that Monday, it was entirely eclipsed by the experience of Cullum’s performance.

P.S. – Speaking of fun shows of a different kind entirely….For those of you who missed [Title of Show], it is back at The Vineyard for a limited 8-week run!
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