Despite constant threats of rain, the 2014 edition of Sask Jazz Fest was really, really fun
It’s not really summer in Saskatoon until the Jazz Festival finally hits. Whether its lounging in grassy confines of the Bessborough Gardens, or the beer tents at the free stage along the riverbank, the event has become the official usher of the season. That said, despite some less than idyllic weather, even the rain didn’t deter the fans or the musicians.
Here are some of Ominocity’s top moments of the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival:
Despite riding a wave of popularity, and headlining major festivals across North America, St. Vincent’s appearance at the Sask Jazz Festival wasn’t exactly a sell-out audience. On the other hand, everyone who attended the Monday night Bessborough stage concert seemed to be completely enraptured by the performance. St. Vincent’s Anne Clark took to the stage and immediately launched into robo-perfect versions of songs from her latest self-titled album. Although it was more than a little hilarious to see the photos flooding in on Instagram despite the pre-show announcement warning us from doing so otherwise. That’s what you get for having incredible stage presence, I guess.
Remember when Mac DeMarco used to roll into town as Makeout Videotape? Since then, the indie sleaze crooner has come a long way, riding high on massive waves of Pitchfork hype and a Rolling Stone article about his apartment. And it seems as though the buzz has finally caught up with him in Saskatoon. The Wednesday night show at Amigos was absolutely crammed by the time DeMarco took to the stage. Playing a selection of songs from his two full-length studio albums, 2 and Salad Days, DeMarco’s live show was filled with plenty of hijinx, including stagedives, ham tossing, birthday drinks and a Neil Young cover that literally brought the audience to their collective knees.
For concert goers that seek true jazz acts during the week long festival they found this at the Christian McBride concert on Sunday night of the festival’s opening weekend. McBride captivated the sold out crowd at The Bassment during his first of two sets. Eyes were wide as he played effortlessly on his rich sounding upright bass. Drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. and piano player Christian Sands (great musicians in their right) accompanied McBride in one fantastic show.
John Legend won the hearts of the of the Besborough gardens crowd. Despite stormy skies and a bit of rain, the R&B/soul singer brought a sold out crowd who were either on the edge of their seats or swooning upfront. As expected, Legend killed it on the keys. The crowd pleasers were “Green Light”, “Ordinary People” and of course his encore “All of Me.”
Regina’s Jack Semple (a mainstay at the fest) played a late Sunday night set at Amigos with The Horndogs. In case you’ve been living under a rock and have never heard of Semple, he’s one of Saskatchewan’s most accomplished blues musicians having won Juno and Western Canadian Music awards. If you haven’t ever seen him, Jack is through town regularly so check out his tour dates.
A sadly sparse Vangelis Tavern was home to Hamilton’s Young Rival Sunday night. While they aren’t a jazz act, the three piece kept the audience grooving with their dark melodies. The band also played Vangelis Saturday, so hopefully they drew a large crowd then. Having garnered great press from their 2012 album, “Stay Young” hopefully these boys having something equally as exciting for us in the near future.
Playing at Village Guitar both Monday and Tuesday, the Montreal-based Leif Vollebekk held the crowd captivated as he jumped from guitar to harmonica, to Wurlitzer to violin. Somewhat bashful on stage, Vollebekk’s banter in between songs added to the overall enjoyment of the evening. Near the end of his first set, the bridge on one of the venue’s instruments snapped, drawing a gasp from the audience and sending Vollebekk into a charming story. It was the perfect venue for an intimate show.
Ms. Lauryn Hill
One of the fastest selling and most talked about shows of the festivals, Ms. Lauryn Hill did not disappoint. Despite her sub-par DJ opener (sorry, but anyone in the crowd could have done better), and her late arrival to stage, Hill’s performance will undoubtedly become something of a local legend. With Hill rocking a bright yellow sweatshirt, the crowd was serenaded with tracks off her album Misseducation, MTV Unplugged No. 2 and even a few Bob Marley covers.
Winnipeg’s Royal Canoe opened the Bessborough Gardens on what turned out to be one of the nicest evenings of the festival. It took no effort for them to get the crowd up and dancing to songs after their 2013 album “Today We’re Believers”. And they must have won over a number of fans, as lots of the same people followed them over to The Capitol for their second set of the evening.
The set from Maceo Parker was definitely one of the best of the festival. The 71-year-old saxophone player played an absolutely killer show to an embarrassingly empty Bess Gardens. With a 50-year career under his belt, Maceo has played with the late of James Brown and others. If you have no idea who Maceo Parker is (shame on you!), you better start educating yourself on the world of jazz – this show should have been sold out.
New Orleans funk band Galactic co-headlined the Gardens Friday night following Maceo Parker. While either act could have headlined, Galactic kicked things into high gear with trombone, sax and keyboard solos. After a few songs they brought on Maggie Koerner and the crowd fell in love. The 25-year-old (also from New Orleans) delivered a performance that was vocal perfection.
Tegan and Sara
Having last seen Tegan and Sara at Louis’ in 2005, I was quite excited for the duo’s return to Saskatoon. From college club to sold out Bess Gardens performance, the twin sisters have gone far in nine years. Tegan and Sara played all the classics from ‘If It Was You’ and ‘So Jealous’ despite transforming their sound from acoustic folk to dance pop on their latest album. While I find 2013’s ‘Heartthrob’ less enjoyable to their old material, the dance tracks sounded great live and really kicked up the energy and fun spirit of their performance. The sisters joked with the crowd and put on a delightful show that had everyone in the Bess Gardens dancing.
Delhi 2 Dublin
Like their name suggests, Delhi 2 Dublin is a Celtic/Indian (technically Bhangra) influenced group from Vancouver. Having played the festival before, they drew a decent sized crowd to their free stage show. Well worth checking out if they are back through again.
A household name in Saskatoon’s jazz community, Don Griffith played to a sweaty and cramped crowd at the James Hotel. Not too sure why this is a festival venue as both sound and capacity were issues here. However Griffith played a solid set. If you’re looking for a more spacious venue to see him play, he frequently plays down at The Bassment.
Regina’s up-and-coming Indigo Joseph the Freehouse Friday night. Being a nice night weather-wise, it was just as great to listen to the band from the patio or the sidewalk as it was inside. Perhaps, influenced by Montreal’s Karkwa, the group brings French influence to their rock/blues sound, a unique style Saskatchewan. Their first full-length comes out this fall.
The Outer Bridge Ensemble
A collective of four musicians from Calgary and New York, the Outer Bridge Ensemble is one of the best groups to frequent the festival on an annual basis. In addition to leading late night jazz jam sessions at The Bassment, the group along with a few others teaches a week long Jazz Intensive workshop to high school and university students. As a jazz fan it was great to once again watch these guys tear up solos and inspire others to get up on stage as well. The group currently features Toronto based (Saskatoon ex-pat) Soren Nissen on bass.
Five Alarm Funk
Shutting down the free stage on Sunday night was Vancouver’s Five Alarm Funk. A little bit of rain didn’t scare away the band or the crowd. It’s great to see such a huge turnout on the last night of the festival. The nine piece funk group plays with an energy and gruffness that one won’t ever forget.
Downchild Blues Band
If there’s a festival concert you should have taken your parents to, it would have been this one. With different line-ups, this Canadian ‘supergroup’ has held together for 40 plus years. Umbrellas in hand, the crowd danced in the rain during the last main stage show of 2014’s amazing festival.
One of the must-do things during the summer in downtown Saskatoon is go for a walk by the river and the Bess. It’s made even better when there are talented buskers. This “venue” is one of the Jazz Fest free stages and plays host to several groups through the week. Jordan and Mike are a talented two-piece that entertained those who wandered by on the Wednesday night.
Two non-Jazz Fest acts steal the show
Oddly enough, some of this week’s best shows came from two non-Jazz Fest acts. Cousins, whose latest album The Halls of Wickwire was recently nominated for the Polaris Prize long list, brought their creep-pop act to Vangelis. Despite the thin crowd, the duo barreled through an inspired set of stripped down melancholic-yet-dance-crazed garage rock. Similarly, Sudbury’s Strange Attractor managed to play a low-key yet jam-packed basement house party. Crammed into a converted bedroom, the four-piece left themselves, and the audience, drenched in sweat as they bounced out what seemed like 50 razor-tight bubble gum punk songs in less than 45-minutes. No regrets!
– Photos by Ryan Smith, Jade Bugera and Mike Morien. Words by Smith, Morien and Chris Morin.