By Cameron Arndt, all photos by CA, all shows reviewed took place 9th-12th July 2017
It’s been a stormy day in Montreux. We step off the train into a torrential rainstorm and struggle through the short walk to our hotel near the lakeside. The usual spectacular view is completely obscured by clouds and mist, with only the start of the lake visible and no hint of the stunning vista of mountains that lies on the far side.
Fortunately the rain has halted by the time Sari Schorr takes to the outdoor park stage at the festival at 8pm. One of the (many) great features of the Montreux Jazz Festival is the amount of free shows that one can see. With no admission charge to the festival itself, the enterprising music fan can wander in along the extensive promenade of bars, food outlets and venues and discover a host of eclectic musical delights on the park stage and other free venues – in addition to the bigger paid shows in the Jazz Club and Stravinski Auditorium, which towers above the rest of the festival.
Where else could you see an artist of Schorr’s calibre absolutely free and in a stunning (albeit still somewhat cloud obscured) setting? Schorr and her band, The Engine Room, quickly dispel any lingering unease at the temperamental weather and – despite an unfortunate recurrence of the rain midway through their set – turn in a typically sensational performance.
Sari Schorr And The Engine Room
Opening with Ain’t Got No Money they treat the hardy audience members to a large chunk of music from Schorr’s excellent debut album, Force Of Nature, and the rocking, bluesy and soulful tunes are a perfect antidote to our weather woes. Schorr is clearly delighted to be here and delivers every number with typical passion and intensity, morphing her sterling voice to suit each song. At times her vocals are smooth, bewitching, and at other moments they are raw and full of grit.
She’s accompanied by her four piece band – and they’re very much a band, no mere conflagration of backing musicians. Hardened by months on the road this year they play with an almost telepathic synthesis. Witness, for example, the rhythm section of Kevins O’Rourke and Jefferies laying down a spot on blues groove on Demolition Man, while keysman Anders Olinder tops it with lashings of organ. Meanwhile, what can be said about guitarist Innis Sibun that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? The former Robert Plant guitarist is a sensational player, and fires out scorching solos and subtle licks throughout, while stalking the stage, kneeling down to play to rain soaked fans at the front and providing the perfect foil to Schorr’s commanding performance.
The guitarist’s history is nodded to on a visceral cover of Led Zeppelin’s Rock & Roll – where O’Rourke also gets to show off his chops on the dynamic fills. Indeed Schorr herself seems so entranced watching the band she almost forgets to sing, prompting a dash to the mic for the opening line. She makes it, and completely owns a challenging, iconic vocal.
Elsewhere the band turn in a mesmerising new take on Led Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? With Schorr digging deep down to emulate the great man’s low tones then soaring to great peaks that are all her own. She makes sure to note that without Led Belly there would be no rock and roll, then invites us to journey to her part of the world on the silky, grooving Oklahoma.
Sibun’s skills are brilliantly showcased on Freddie King’s superlative guitar instrumental Hideaway, while the band tempt fate during a powerful, knowing Stormy Monday before Olinder backs Schorr with sweet piano playing on the gorgeous Ordinary Life.
The rain eases a little for the rocking Damn The Reason and excellent Aunt Hazel before Schorr and The Engine Room bring the curtain down on a superb hour and a half with their reinvention of Black Betty, which breathes new life into the oft-covered standard.
Catch them while – and whenever – you can!
Something I was a little disappointed in ahead of this year’s festival was the retirement of the free ‘Rock Cave’ in favour of a ‘more eclectic’ line up in the new ‘Liztomania’ venue. Granted rock and blues are my own personal favourite genres, and I realise the need for the festival to appeal to as many fans as possible, however I was afraid this change would prove too big.
Nevertheless we sure needed time out of the rain, so headed into the venue, situated directly under the Stravinski Auditorium. Sadly my fears proved rather well founded with a line up which featured many acts playing ambient, dance oriented music. While such groups obviously have a place, and a fanbase, this year I found opportunities to see rock, metal, blues and jazz acts much reduced and, with a ton of bars along the lake front all providing entertainment by DJs I’d like to think there could be a place for more back-to-basics music as well. Why not have a bar or two dedicated to local/up and coming bands perhaps?
Also, while the name ‘Rock Cave’ perhaps sounds a bit narrow, in previous years I’ve found the line up to be pretty eclectic, with bands such as US blues duo Moreland & Arbuckle, English indie rockers Marmosets and former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock all appearing alongside excellent bands from Switzerland, France and further afield. To me it just seems a shame that the Park Stage was the only place one could see a variety of rock, indie, jazz and other bands this year and I hope the festival thinks about how they can add this back in next year – along with the more eclectic stuff which is clearly popular amongst younger festival goers.
Funky Style Brass
We braved the elements to head back into the rain and check out the intriguingly named Funky Style Brass at the park. I don’t know what I was expecting but nothing could have prepared me for what awaited. With, I think, eight or nine musicians crowded onto the stage, the ‘FSB’ are dressed in a riot of colourful, ridiculous costumes, led by a gentleman in a black Napoleonic tunic, giant spiky orange wig and, of course, a cape. Elsewhere trumpets and saxophones are played by a variety of sun-glassed, behatted fellows, a punk in a kilt plays a giant tuba and two men, dressed as a policeman and a chicken, handle a variety of drums and percussion instruments.
Their music is euphoric, their performance hypnotic, and the rain is forgotten as they lead the crowd in choreographed dance routines broken by extended periods of ‘freestyle!’ and get everyone singing with simple, easily repeated lyrics despite mostly performing in their native French. No amount of silliness would make up for a lack of musical skill, and the group have that well covered as well, with a huge, powerful sound provided by the myriad brass instruments and backed by glitzy keyboard (and keytar) from a hippy at the back.
Particularly brilliant are a few numbers where ‘The Chicken Man’ steps out front to lead proceedings with rapping vocals, while still playing the large drum strapped to his waist. The set abruptly seems to end with solos from each band member, and they quickly file offstage. Before the assembled, rain-soaked mass can gather their wits, however, the band stride out from backstage into the middle of the audience for another blast of music which finally ends with the Chicken Man placing his drum on the ground then sprinting up to hit it before attempting to leap up to the stage.
It’s all been very hard to describe, but an absolute blast. Very much a band you NEED to see live!!!
Rest Of The Fest
Each night after the paid shows in the Montreax Jazz Club a free after hours jam takes place, and each night it’s a delight. Over the three nights we spent in Montreux we witnessed a cornucopia of fantastic musical talent with a huge range of stellar guitarists, singers, drummers, piano players and some more unusual instruments all combining to perform jazz standards, blues excursions and even the odd pop hit to the joy of the many music fans present. On the Monday night there was even a special free concert introduced by none other than the legendary Quincy Jones. The after hours jam is a perfect place to unwind after a long day in the rain (Sunday, Monday) or sun (Tuesday, Wednesday) and really shows the great, true and enduring spirit of the festival, which is now in it’s 51st year.
On Tuesday the weather had finally shaped up and the park area – and festival as a whole – was utterly packed. We caught a couple of school big jazz bands in the park in the afternoon – always a good place to chill out with a beer on a nice day – and then in the early evening watched an enjoyable set by Octave Lissner. Backed by a white-clad four piece band the Frenchman led the way through a set of strong, catchy songs which touched on elements of country, soul and blues while maintaining a strong rock n roll vibe and a strict sense of melody. A couple of covers including The Stones Dead Flowers helped reel the audience in, but Lissner proved an engaging frontman throughout, with a smooth, pleasant singing voice and easy charisma he had no trouble getting the relaxed, busy crowd to join in with a singalong or two. Meanwhile the band was on good form, solidly backing the frontman with the dirty licks of the lead guitarist proving a particular highlight and counterpoint to Lissner’s acoustic foundation.
Closing the park stage that evening was US soul singer Annie Goodchild. Arriving onstage at 10:30 she took us through to midnight with a spirited set of slick, varied tunes. At times the band veered into ambient, Pink Floyd-esque territory which saw Goodchild topping some atmospheric soundscapes with stunning vocal acrobatics. At other moments they provided a batch of raw soul-blues cuts which the singer attacked and owned with gusto. She also proves an endearing presence in between numbers, apologising for her lack of French and gamely having a go at the translations provided by fans at the front.
With the great weather continuing it’s a nice warm evening and the park is consequently packed with people who all clearly enjoy the band’s cool vibes and energetic excursions.
Just a flavour of what a few days in Montreux can offer then, with plenty more going on over the two weeks of the festival. Although I was a little disappointed with some of the changes from last year – in particular the lack of traditional rock, indie, blues and jazz bands – there’s still plenty of great music to discover, and plenty more besides to see and do. during the day there’s big band jazz, the nearby Chillon Castle, the Freddie Mercury Statue and Queen Studio Exhibition as well as boat trips, plenty of stores, stalls and buskers, while at night there’s still lots of free live music, great bars overlooking the lake and every night the wonderful surprises provided by the free jazz jam. Roll on the 52nd year in 2018!