Wednesday, July 1, 2009


If Michael Jackson had to die young and tragically, the silver lining, for me, was to see Stevie Wonder eulogize him last night in a live outdoor concert as the Jazz Festival opening grand evenement. Before Mr. Wonderful finally came out on stage at 10 pm, it was already apparent that Montreal loves both musicians. Motown artists, including Michael Jackson both as the wee one of 5 and as a mature solo act, featured heavily in the recorded music they blasted from the speakers for the many, many (in my case 4) hours that people were sitting or standing on the concrete to stake their place. So when Stevie first took the stage and announced that this performance was going to celebrate Michael, the crowd cheered and anticipated the magic that was to come.

He started with "I Can't Help It", the track he wrote for Quincy Jones that ended up on Jackson's breakthrough Off the Wall album. After that, though (let's remember Jackson had died just 5 days prior), Wonder's concert paid homage by simply pausing to play recorded excerpts of some of his favourite of Jackson's songs. That, and Wonder's daughter Ayesha Morris who is part of his backup vocal section, sang a sad, jazzy ballad, I think it was a jazz standard but couldn't tell you the title. (She is good, with a clear, sweet voice, but not the dazzling vocal talent that her dad is. Nuff said.) He also ad-libbed some Michael shout-outs during "I Just Called to Say I Love You." It was kind of odd, just stopping the concert to listen to recorded tunes like that. But for me it was also moving to see that the great Motown legend and widely acknowledged musical genius Stevie Wonder is, like any of us shmucks standing there on the concrete, a fan of Michael Jackson. Nine years Jackson's senior, and a figure to whom Jackson was constantly compared as he was coming into his own as an adult solo performer, Stevie Wonder is a fan of Jackson's! He seemed geniuinely annoyed and disgusted by the Jackson scandal machine, encouraging us to just buy Michael's music if we want to help his family. And he was just sad about Jackson's death, you could tell. The two of them had much in common besides fame, talent, critical accolades, and some stylistic similarity: both were Motown icons who started as child prodigies. What a strange and strong connection that must have been.

The rest of the concert was everything I could have hoped, aside from the severe physical discomfort that attends probably most free concerts in outdoor urban places (the necessity of camping out for 4+ hours just to be able to see the stage, nowhere to pee without giving up your space, a flat audience area so short people are screwed unless they're in the front row, getting poked in the eyes by umbrella spokes, burned by cigarettes ....I could go on but won't). Lots of crowd singalongs, which I loved, especially how the francophones knew the songs so well but kind of mangled the words into their own versions of the lyrics. He was generous about playing his big hits; you can only imagine how tired he must be of some of those tunes, but he knows how we long to hear them, so he performs them energetically, getting his buzz off the crowd. He got us to sing the la la la's of My Cherie Amour, and the French parts of Michelle Ma Belle, and the whole chorus of I Just Called. His live performing style is very loose, informal, and he cracks jokes the whole time and gives lots of time to his excellent band to do solo bits. His percussion section, the trumpet player, the sax, and the guitar and keyboard players were all really good, really held their own on stage and played well together. And it struck me throughout how very jazzy so much of Wonder's music is, has always been. 

He looks good, a little heavy maybe, but happy and well, still enjoying performing and still a deeply religious man. Maybe his faith is how his star has only continued to rise, while Jackson's story turned so weird and sad. Wonder is now 59 years old. Who knows if I'll ever get to see him perform again. I'm so glad I did. He ended the show with a recorded Jackson medley, with his band and singers just standing downstage and dancing along. It was a good ending. The rabid fans in my immediate area were all dancing along too. Dave, not nearly the Wonder or Jackson fan I am, and tired from standing on the concrete for 5 hours, had arrived home over an hour before me and gone to bed. He'd left the house later than me, waiting for the sitter to come, and never did find me in that mass of humanity. After Wonder et al left the stage, the rain got heavier and the fireworks started exploding off the tops of the adjacent buildings of Place Des Arts. I floated along with the crowd streaming east down de Maisonneuve, then St. Catherine, past the long sidewalk lineup outside Foufounes, and a mere 10 minutes later I was inside our house, where it was quiet. 

And thus began Jazz Fest '09. I can hear music from the Place just sitting here in the study with the windows open. It's going to be a musical feast to end our days in Montreal. Sad and sweet.

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