Friday, September 07, 2012

Bettye Lavette, The Big Sound, Get The Blessing @ Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 23, 2012)

  Bettye Lavette: photo by Michael Ligon

Like many of the music festivals that either have the words jazz, blues, or folk in their name, it's pretty much a misnomer these days and the Toronto Jazz Festival isn't any different. Although jazz still remains it's foundation and focus, I can say for a fact that many of the feature acts this year were not jazz, at least by purists standards.

On Saturday June 23rd, I had a few different acts on my schedule and I started on a sweltering late afternoon down at the Nathan Phillips Square, Outdoor Stage to catch UK band called Get The Blessing. Out of the all the acts during the festival which I saw, Get The Blessing were the most jazz. Formed from the rhythm section of Portishead, Jim Barr (bass) and Clive Deamer (drums), the band added Jake McMurchie (saxophone) and Pete Judge (trumpet) to the fold. During their set, a member of the band jokingly bantered about their instrumental songs, that they had two types of songs - ones about food, and ones about literature. The bright hot sun, didn't quite match the mood of the music in my opinion, the set being a heady mix of jazz, fusion, groove, and a slight dub reggae influence at times, the band gussied up in their dark suits, white shirts and dark sunglasses. But their was also an upbeat tempo to some of their tunes, enough to get several persons in the audience dancing enthusiastically, with a member of the band at one point giving a shout out to 'the woman in the white hat', and the 'man with the blue frisbee'. Pretty stellar playing all around, although I was particularly fond of the warm tones of the guitar playing and the occasional fuzzier solos. A decent start to the the the day.

This show was also an opportunity for me to catch local Motown-covers collective The Big Sound who'd I'd missed their semi-periodic residency at The Great Hall on several occasions. With a base group of musicians (guitar, rhythm section, etc), a horn section, backup singers and a select group of featured vocalists (I recall five or six different ones), I soon lost count of how many people were on stage. Of the vocalists, I'd only recognized Drew of The Bicycles and local vocalist-for-hire Maylee Todd but every one of the vocalists brought something unique to whatever they sung, Drew for example utilizing his sweet falsetto on Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears" and Maylee belting out Jackson Five's "I Want You Back". The piece dé resistance had to be at the end (near the end?) of the set when Maylee and one of the male feature vocalists belted out the Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Most of what the collective performed was pretty familiar, whetting the appetites of the crowd with each song performed and as the set drew to a close, the crowd was sufficiently warmed up.

Ms. Bettye Lavette's career has been a lifetime in the making, having started her career in 1962 at the age of sixteen when she recorded a single, "My Man - He's a Lovin' Man", and since then her rise has taken baby steps. It wasn't until 2005, when ANTI- released her album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise an album comprising covers of songs written by other female artists including Aimee Mann, Joan Armatrading, Sinéad O'Connor, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton and Fiona Apple when many more people started to take notice. I'd recently been introduced to the music of Brooklyn-based soul artist Charles Bradley whose own story of being discovered late in life was an intriguing one and this was part of the motivation for me to check out Ms. Lavette.

Dressed in a silvery, sleeveless top, Ms. Lavette commanded a great deal of respect and applause as she came on to the stage. Backed by a four0piece band, Lavette ran through a set of soul balladeering, interspersed with some more uptempo soul tunes. Lavette's singing style on the slower numbers, tended towards strategic pauses, creating moments of quiet. Lavette displayed her versatile vocals, capable of belting out on the more uptempo numbers and dialing it back on the quieter ones. Her band, while capable musicians, seemed a bit on the reserved side, though the guitar solos and some harder drumming toughened things up at times. My only previous sampling of Lavette's work was her 2007 ANTI-released album The Scene Of The Crime which was a collaboration with Drive-By Truckers as her backing band and I was hoping for that grittier instrumentation, so I was disappointed by her backing band who were by comparison almost antiseptic. Draggier moments seemed to come and go during the set, but the set picked up steam in the latter half and there was no doubting Lavette's power such as on "Love Reign Over Me" which she got a standing ovation. At the conclusion of the set her band left the stage one at a time, the crowd giving her a standing ovation for several minutes and Lavette then returned to the stage for an accapella number to soothe us before we walked out of the tented area into the warm summer night.

Photos: Bettye Lavette, The Big Sound, Get The Blessing @ Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 23, 2012)

Monday, September 03, 2012

Janelle Monae, Roman GianArthur @ Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 22, 2012)

  Janelle Monae: photo by Michael Ligon

R n' b / soulstress / chanteuse Janelle Monae is making a return visit to Toronto for a show at Sony Centre For The Performing Arts on September 9, a mere three months after her playing the main stage at Nathan Phillips Square, which had kicked off the Toronto Jazz Festival in style. That was only the second time I'd seen her live (the first time being when she opened for Arcade Fire at Olympic Island during the summer of 2010) and it only confirmed my first impressions of her - her talent seeps through every pore of her being and she's in it for the long run.

Opening up the show was Roman GianArthur, originally from Winston-Salem, NC. Not much information comes up on the 'net about him although apparently a debut LP The Good Dreamer is in the works. And there is no doubt, that as Mr. GianArthur's set exemplified, the man is talented, playing guitar and belting out his funk / soul tunes with precision. Perhaps, it's that last point wherein the problem lies - there's a Prince-like quality to GianArthur's music and overall approach, but so far at least, there isn't much of a distinct personality behind it. Maybe, it's just because I don't know much about the gentleman but it's early on his career and I'd be more than willing to give him a chance towards paying his dues.

After having gone through my photo-set of the show, it was quite obvious how kinetically-charged this show was. Although a female, Monae's performance embodied male icons such as Prince, James Brown and Michael Jackson, both in her vocal intensity as well as her physical stage presence and dancing. I'll admit that maybe her gender as a female makes her talent seem that much more special; were she male, maybe she'd be called out as a copycat. But rather than over-think this any more, I'd rather focus on what a spectacular show she and her band-mates put on. Everyone was dressed to the nines in white shirt, dark trousers and black tie, a few sporting vests, with her three-member string section sporting the white body suits, and her backup vocalists doing the opposite with the black bodysuits. It was so freaking amazing how tirelessly energetic Monae and her band-mates were and I'm thinking how do they do it from night to night? They gave it a 110% and more.

The set list was a terrific mix of her own songs (from her debut LP The ArchAndroid) and covers. While the set list including encore seemed short in length, Monae and her band extended many of the songs into impromptu james, playing up to the crowd, with guitar and drums solos. Songs of hers like "Faster" and "Tightrope" hit the crowd in all the right places, while covers ranging from Charlie Chaplin's "Smile", Prince's "Take Me With U", Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" and Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" displayed how versatile Monae is. There was an interesting point in the show during one song where she painted on a canvas and at the end of the show, a lucky fan (whose birthday it was) got to keep the painting. It was just another example of how giving Monae had been to the audience that night. If your a newbie to Monae's live show and you are going to see her at the Sony Centre For The Performing Arts this coming Sunday, you are in for a really special treat.

Photos: Janelle Monae, Roman GianArthur @ Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 22, 2012)