Here we are at Jazz Fest 2019! Let’s be real though, the term “jazz” is used pretty loosely during this festival, as a large portion of the roster is not jazz in the purest sense, but also not even in the same genre. Case and point being that I found myself watching The Strumbellas and Elliot Maginot; two acts that are NOT jazz but folk-pop. At this point, there are SO many music festivals in Montreal that they all kind of mix together anyway, which is pretty freaking wonderful if you ask me. Who cares what category an act falls under? No one at MTelus on Thursday night did. Everyone was in high spirits; ready to kick off a full season of non-stop music!
First up was Elliot Maginot, who hit me with the first sucker punch of my summer vacation. I did not expect the sound that came out of that man’s mouth! The sheer passion and power that seemed to almost involuntarily pour out of him would put current-era Bruce Springsteen to shame. It was like watching that famous scene from Alien in real life! Some of the audience didn’t even know what to make of it. Most of us just stood in sheer astonishment, while some nervously laughed. People nowadays aren’t used to such bombastic vulnerability, I guess… His backing band was also hypnotic and provided a repetitive, yet soothing soundscape that instantly reminded me of The War On Drugs. He and his band worked damn hard to win over the people in attendance who didn’t know him, and although they didn’t always succeed, they put up a damn good fight!
Next up were The Strumbellas, whose music didn’t impress me as much as Elliot Maginot, but were entertaining to watch nonetheless. It was akin to being at a country fair jamboree. There is a warm and inviting sensibility to this humble folk group that makes you want to raise your fists in the air, even if their music might not be your thing. It’s obvious they have a very supportive fan base though, based on how passionately the audience were singing along to the choruses! A lot of love was especially given to lead vocalist Simon Ward and keyboardist David Ritter. Ritter was particularly beaming with excitement and having the time of his life. He was such a goofy, self-deprecating teddy bear, with his banana shirt and hat with his own name on it. At one point, there were loud chants of “DAVE, DAVE, DAVE!” as he pranced around the stage. He won me over— the geek that I am— by re-enacting the way Cheap Trick introduced “Surrender” on Cheap Trick at Budokan when introducing the band’s own “Salvation”.
The music itself was tightly performed, and the onstage chemistry between band members made it impossible to not enjoy. There was no pandering or cheap gimmicks to hide the hollowness of the music. They just played to the crowd and genuinely enjoyed talking to us like we had always known them. I might not be a big fan of all their songs— some of them being a bit too filler and bland for my taste— but I can’t deny that their music and stage-show is created with much love, and is definitely being returned in kind. At one point, Ward attempted to speak French and was visibly nervous. The crowd cheered, laughed with him, and encouraged him to keep trying. A good live band brings people together and leaves all other bullshit at the door.
I thought for sure they would end their set with their biggest hit “Spirits,” but they defied expectations by actually finishing the night off with the much more folky album cut “Shovels and Dirt.” This was my favourite song that they performed, and to my surprise, the audience agreed with me. Usually, a show ends with an adrenaline rush, or that one song that EVERYONE knows, but The Strumbellas know their fans and knew that they would appreciate a song that they feel belongs to just them. It ended things on a much more pensive and reflective note than I’m used to. It definitely felt right though. The room mournfully sang the final words: “I got a sick shooting pistol and I’m ready to leave.” It was evident that they were not, in fact, ready to do so.
Alas, the festival must go on, and I, for one, am excited to see what else the season has in store for us. If you haven’t made plans to attend some Jazz Fest shows, then…WHAT ARE YOU DOING? It’s summer and there is something happening here every night; there’s no excuse! If this first show was any indication, there is a wealth of talent visiting Montreal, and it is only going to get better from here on out.
Written by Shawn Thicke
Photography by Marc-Antoine Morin
*edited by Chris Aitkens