REVIEW: Ry Cooder at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival

Ry Cooder (right) receiving his award from André Ménard

Ry Cooder
(Theatre Maisonneuve, Montreal. 29 June 2018. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Ry Cooder inspires loyalty among fans. The rarity of his appearances meant that the devoted had a clear triple imperative for last night: they needed to book early, to get in, to be there. The concert had sold out very quickly. This was the kind of audience who were not going to miss this concert for the world. And in the event, the concert delivered everything it had promised.

Among those devotees is Festival co-founder André Ménard. He has disclosed that he had been trying in vain to book Cooder for several years. "Imagine my surprise," Ménard writes in the festival programme, "when I learned this time that his agents had contacted the festival."

A long-term ambivalence towards live performance (picked up by Richard Williams in an interview back in the 1980s quoted here) does seem to have been a consistent thread for Ry Cooder. So the fact that he has relented in 2018 is something genuinely worth celebrating: it was a very strong and memorable set.

Cooder and his excellently tight band and backing singers, the Hamiltones from North Carolina, (Antonio Bowers, James Tillman Jr. Corey Williams II) were above all featuring the deliciously slow, bluesy, gospelly vibe of Cooder's very characterful and listenable new album Prodigal Son.  And there were also some surprises, not least the performance of Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm. Could a performance by Ry Cooder be called barnstorming? I would say yes. That punchy song was a real highlight.

And there also was humour with a bigger purpose, and a very strong message to give. Jesus and Woody starts nonchalantly, but develops and darkens, and has some very pertinent comment on the times we live in:

"Now they're starting up their engine of hate/ 
Don't it make you lonesome and blue?"

Musical values were very strong throughout. Cooder, ever the perfectionist,  had several instruments to choose from and was changing after virtually every number. On drums, Ry Cooder's son Joachim was an energetic and supportive force. Saxophonist Sam Gendel specializes in processed sounds (here) and made a very strong contribution with his rollicking and rhythmic bass sax.

Sam Gendel had also been part of the short support set from Joachim Cooder, who sang, and played an electronic zither and Cajon drum, using loops for both instruments. They performed some love songs whose main features were their jejuneness and a similarity to each other. That said, it was a difficult slot to fill, as everyone in the audience was awaiting the arrival of their hero en gloire.

At the start of the concert, Ry Cooder had been awarded the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award. This award was started in 2006, and the first four winners were Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Stevie Wonder, no less. Cooder responded thoughtfully and warmly on receiving the award, reflecting on the ways in which Montreal believes in – and supports – culture.

This was an evening to venerate Ry Cooder. And not just for what he has been. Last night, in Montreal, he absolutely earned all that devotion.

SET LIST

Nobody's Fault But Mine (Blind Willie Johnson)
Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right (Blind Willie Johnson)
Straight Street (Pilgrim Travelers)
Go Home Girl (Arthur Alexander)
The Very Thing That Makes You Rich Makes Me Poor
Highway 74 (The Hamiltones)
Gotta Be Lovin Me (The Hamiltones)
Vigilante Man (Woody Guthrie)
Jesus and Woody
You Must Unload
Jesus on the Mainline (Mississippi Fred McDowell )
The Prodigal Son
Get Rhythm (Johnny Cash)
Encore: TBC (?)

BAND

Sam Gendel (sax)
Joachim Cooder (drums)
Robert Commagere (bass)
Glenn Patscha (keyboards)
The Hamiltones

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