July 8, 2009

Now in its 30th year, the Montreal Jazz Fest is only tangentially about Jazz or even music. As the city’s biggest annual event, the amount of tourist dollars riding on the event is enough to record Blue Note sides from now until infinity and the lineup is accordingly focus grouped and carefully weighed so as not to ruffle any feathers. Although the indoor shows tend to deliver enough adventurous material to keep open minded enthusiasts emptying their bank accounts (with names like The Bug, King Sunny Ade, Femi Kuti, Burning Spear and the Orb – none of which this blogger could afford to check out), the free outdoor events tend towards milquetoast world music or boomer superstars whose fan bases swarm the venue turning what should be a bargain deal into a nightmarish experience justifying the usual 100$ ticket price.

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So it was a welcome surprise last night when the Montreal Jazz Fest delivered on its promise of an allstar tribute to Rocksteady bringing in some of Jamaica’s biggest names from the mid 60’s for a fantastic revue pleasing both hardcore devotees and casual fans alike. With a lineup built around the documentary film Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, the night featured legends Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Hopeton Lewis, Leroy Sibbles, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffith and The Tamlins along with a top notch backing band of their contemporaries. With all the good vibes of a family vacation, the singers ecstatically lead the 50 000 plus crowd of revelers through a surprisingly deep set of oldies. Though only vaguely familiar to the crowd, pop hits “Stop that Train” and “No No No” kept hips swaying and the obligatory tribute to Bob Marley sparked a massive sing-along and more than a few spliffs. With everyone from the band to the crowd having a good time in surprisingly good weather, there were few complaints to be had although I think I can happily live out the rest of my days without ever hearing “No Woman No Cry” ever again.

Props go out to the Jazz Fest for putting up an event pleasing both connoisseurs and casual heads alike. Drawing just the right crowd for the space (less than a week after Stevie Wonder caused massive gridlock), the event was A+ from the organization to the sound quality. Now if only we can get a free Dub Event next year. What? I’m only sayin’.

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