Part one of this article can be found here.
Words and photos by Aron Harris, except Hannah Williams photos ©Valerie Gay Bessette and Ian Anderson photos ©Benoit Rousseau
As the festival team works, undoubtedly, right now to produce the 40th anniversary festival starting June 27, 2019, they’ll reflect upon one concern and one controversy from this year’s edition. The first was the unexpected heatwave that descended on Montréal 2 days after the festival’s start. 53 people died during this heatwave and while no deaths occurred on the festival site, the intense heat did affect those who did choose to venture out to Le Quartier Des Spectacle while the sun was up. It also made daytime productions challenging for performers. It was a leading news story prior to my arrival, which luckily was timed with the heat breaking to sub 30º temps. The Saturday I was there was the hotter of the two days. Misting posts borrowed from the Osheaga festival offered some relief.
The major controversy that marred this year’s festival centred around SLĀV. It’s peak was reached when indie soul artist, Moses Sumney cancelled his FIJM set in protest of the Robert Lepage and Betty Bonifassi production. The show is described as a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” and was performed by an almost-entirely white cast. While Sumney called out the festival for continuing to defend the production despite protests, he appreciated organizers for the initial invitation to perform and discussing his issues. However, Sumney moved his show to a different venue and had FIJM tickets refunded. While part of the festival’s decision was made for them as Bonifassi fractured her ankle cancelling shows slated for June 30, further consideration and growing negative attention eventually led to an official cancellation of the production on July 4. Many questioned the festival seeming to bewilderedly question the outrage and requiring the explanation of many finer points from Montréal’s black community. That they appeared unable to see what many took issue with made the delay and pushback infuriating. Robert Lepage posted on Facebook that the cancellation was “a direct blow to artistic freedom” furthering the frustration of missing the sentiments of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. After hearing the entire story, my immediate question was “How did NO ONE involved in the approval of booking this production consider that it may be considered offensive?” Ultimately, the festival addressed this point by claiming that they merely purchased the show based on Betty Bonifassi’s previous show, Lomax and the acclaim it received. In the wrap-up press conference that was largely dominated by this controversy, a press release was read and offered some relief by telling that the festival engaged their local black community to develop deeper understanding, as well as getting the sense that they will question their own role in racial awareness in the future. The entirety of the festival’s reaction may be summed up in one of the closing statements:
“We have already had a constructive meeting with a number of members of Montréal’s black community on these issues. And we wish to continue this essential dialogue. Our point of view is simple: issues of race must be discussed openly. We must take the time to communicate in order to better understand one another and do better in future.”
Voices calling the festival at large racist seems misguided to me. From its inception, FIJM has not only celebrated black artists but been aware of the ethnic roots of the music it has spent 39 years promoting and developing. The show was cancelled by the time I arrived. So any statements made here are based on personal opinion and research and not as a reaction to seeing the production.
As the closing day arrived, weariness was palpable. Understandably, from baristas to hotel staff to security to the press team, servicing the enormous crowds that flock to this festival and the mountain range of tasks required to keep it running like clockwork must seem endless. Backing up the claim that Montréal’s population increases by 20% during the festival, I don’t think I heard more than a couple French words in the brief amount of time I spent at the official hotel, the Hyatt Regency Montréal. As is when in a city as exciting as Montréal, my use of the hotel didn’t include much more than sleep and fuel. Luckily, the bed was wonderful, the drinking water plentiful and the food and coffee excellent. I did a fair bit of roaming of the site to see the spots I may had missed running around the previous day. What I did notice on the Friday and continuing into Saturday was the great effort the festival makes to ensure the entire family can have fun. Friday, I saw several groups of daycare-aged children taking in the sights and experiences, including many young performers living out their dreams on the large outdoor Rio Tinto Stage. And more importantly, to large audiences willing to accept the festival’s curation without question. Additionally, it was obvious how accessibility was of importance. I saw many people using assisted devices moving freely around the festival site.
As the sun started to fall, my head was turned by a soulful voice whose power I’ve not often heard. I turned back away from the direction I intended (maybe I was getting another amazing falafel from Boustan). I checked the FIJM app and confirmed that the woman wielding the voice was indeed Hannah Williams. Backed by a full stage of players and backup singers dubbed The Affirmations, she kept the stunned silent crowd enthralled until each song ended and they became alive with cheers and applause. I watched as long as I could until I had to run to another show.
This one was for the aging rockers. Jethro Tull turned 50 years old in 2018 and to celebrate, main flutesman and singer, Ian Anderson hit the road with a retrospective show. Presently Tull doesn’t exist, but Anderson put together a formidable cadre of musicians to run through the years and do the songs justice. Hosted in the stunning Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts, the show opened with a montage of archival footage of Jethro Tull combined with news clips of the day while the band played My Sunday Feeling off the first Jethro Tull album, This Was. Ian Anderson leaped ran onstage from the wings and started the song. As energetic as Anderson’s performances were in the heyday of Tull, the man hasn’t lost a step. He moves with the grace and energy of a man half his 70 years. Full of charm and wit and still perching on a single foot, Anderson was theatrical as ever. While his lung capacity for playing hasn’t seemed to have changed, his voice is a different story. Apparently, Anderson damaged his larynx in the mid 80s from heavy touring. It’s believed a number of surgeries followed in an attempt to repair the damage. Whatever the true story is, and there doesn’t seem to be an official statement, sadly Anderson can’t pull off similar vocals to anything recorded in the past. Given the 70s lifestyle and plain ol’ age, few classic rockers sing as they once did. Anderson’s run through the Tull material had occasional pitch issues as well as rarely having the breath to end a note. That being said, the musical contributions were beyond reproach. The band was solid and looked a touch over-rehearsed. Guitarist Florian Opahle was a standout both in skill and in looking as if he could snap off every solo under sedation. Each song got an introduction by not only Ian Anderson, but also via video by former members and rock star friends and fans. The list included Tony Iommi, who we learned played a single performance with JT, along with Joe Bonamassa and Joe Elliott from Def Leppard and Slash.
Again, with the speedwalking shoes, I departed Place des Arts to make my way for the closing show of the festival. If this was a ticketed event, it would have fallen into the ‘hot’ category. Of all the shows I shot on this weekend, this one was the busiest and biggest with a photo pit of roughly 50 photographers and an audience that was likely the largest of the entire festival. This was the show that I was most looking forward to. With the sun down and heat broken, the swiftest breeze of the weekend began to blow swirling smoke and mist of the gathered crowd and up into the air. An enormous cheer went up as The War On Drugs walked out onto the stage and struck up the first notes of Brother from their second album, Slave Ambient. They played a 15 song set that mostly covered their last two albums, both of which I love. However, this was the first time I saw the band live and to reuse the expression that you haven’t heard these songs until they’re being performed in front of you stands with this band. Lead Warrior (or is it Druggie?), Adam Granduciel has put together a most complimentary band to elevate his songs. With standout drummer Charlie Hall keeping an ever-steady rhythm with bassist David Hartley, a most melodic drone from a combination of saxophonist/keyboardist Jon Natchez, guitarist and keyboardist Anthony LaMarca and full-time keys player, Robbie Bennett and Granduciel using thick washes of reverb as part of the guitar layers, I can listen to this band all night long (that wasn’t meant as a reference to their song). And I did. By the time Strangest Thing was being played, I found a perch on the Hyatt terrace above the crowds. This is likely my favourite TWOD song and to have it play beautifully on a magnificent night is something I’ll never forget. I looked around at the other people and quickly realized few knew anything about this band but I saw that most people got it. Granduciel doesn’t sing like an angel, nor are all his guitar solos sweeping symphonic masterpieces. He works with what he has, despite an at-times ragged voice and jarring Neil Youngian guitar solo style, but it all works to make a tremendous modern heartland rock sound. Even the synth freakout during Under The Pressure didn’t phase the soccer mom swaying beside me. She got it. As did the Québécois grand-père watching his grandchildren. He turned to me and asked who this band was in a way that made me think he was going to buy their album the next day. At around song five, Granduciel told the massive crowd “We love being here in Montréal and love being in Canada”. Whether the crowd was tuned out, feeling particularly separatist or, the most likely reason, so large that cheers from the first hundred feet of the audience were too far away for me to hear from the back of Rue Sainte-Catherine. As the gorgeous You Don’t Have To Go closed the show and the festival, the blissed-out crowds made their way home on the heels of the band confirming that the winds of love blow through and take us into the night. And what a night it was. I was missing it while the music was still in my ears and the smile had no intention of leaving my face.
The next morning, I headed back out to take a last look at the festival ground before flying home. The crews had started early taking the stages and booths down. The site was surprisingly clean and just required putting the furniture away until next year. Even for a short two days at FIJM, I knew I was going to miss it, but for the hardworking, dedicated thousand-strong team, I also knew that it was time to let them rest, on their laurels and beds. Most of what I saw was the busy press team. Not only do they manage every request for hundreds of media outlets, they also take responsibility for them as well. The care they showed me and the other press I worked alongside allowed us to focus on our jobs of covering the festival and artists and not worry about things like staying hydrated and figuring out logistics.
What makes FIJM such a special event? There’s no doubt that the consistently stellar lineup holds something for everyone from the most hardcore of jazz scholars to a relative neophyte like me to a kid who just wants to chug a beer and feel a face melter at a free concert with her friends. To spread a thick layer of appeal over such a vast canvas requires not just an army, but wisdom. That Montréal has had years to perfect their festival and despite appearing to make a clueless misstep to some regarding the SLĀV fiasco, understands that there’s always going to be something to learn for next time.
What they’ll reveal for number 40 is several seasons away, but there’s no doubt it’ll be the best one yet. Until the next one.