Friday, July 06, 2012

Joyeux Noel

Switzerland might be best known for expensive watches, freakishly punctual trains and abstinence from both war and the Euro (much the same thing, some might say), but in Montreux what stands out the most are white trousers. And conspicuously labelled outerwear. Oh, and while we're at it, suede loafers in every hue imaginable.

Montreux is one of those chic little Euro enclaves where everyone sports a year-round tan and dresses on the formal side of continental casual.

It is also gnawingly tempting to describe Montreux as a somewhat smug town on the already smug Swiss Riviera, but as I have effectively just done that, you may have already made up your mind about this community of 25,000 burghers on the shores of Lake Geneva. 

For two or three weeks each summer it is overrun by musical tourists, shelling out a generous quantity of Swiss francs to experience one of the great fixtures of the summer music calendar: the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Even though this event has been staged every July since 1967, there is still an air of bemusement among the locals as the town's railway station disgorges the newly arrived. Perhaps that is why, on my own arrival, clad conspicuously in board shorts and hoodie, I was asked by a waiting limo driver which band I was with.

© 2011 Lukas Mäder - Montreux Jazz festival Foundation
It is always amusing to see local conservatism disrupted each year by the infusion of a relatively modest number of music fans who come to celebrate some of the best musicianship on the planet.

When the charismatic Claude Nobs (right) founded the festival 45 years ago it was a product of the times. While never the free love wigouts that Woodstock, Monterey and Isle of Wight turned into, Montreux has endured all these years through Nobs' own passion for the event, for good live music and for the region (he was working as a local tourism officer when he staged the first festival).

Over the years, the festival has evolved from out-and-out jazz jamboree, replete with bearded patrons listening intently to noodly instrumentals, to a mainstream entry on the calendar. In the early days it was 'pure' jazz artists like Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, along with fusion acts like Weather Report, Chick Corea, Return To Forever and The Crusaders, but as the festival has matured its range of acts has diversified with rock, hip-hop, blues, soul, funk, electronica, world music and, on Wednesday in particular, Britpop.

The double-bill of Bombay Bicycle Club and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds brought to Montreux a confluence of the well-healed who frequent the festival each year and a solid sprinkling of English football fans and their significant others. Some might say "the chavs and the chavs not".

Coldplay redrew the blueprint for earnest young men, whom you might otherwise walk past in a pub, creating melodic rock, but the "Bicycle Club" are en route to carving out their own niche in the category with a decidely upbeat brand.

If nothing else, they will do extremely well out of guitar endorsements. The exchange of axes between roadies and vocalist Jack Steadman, guitarist Jamie MacColl, bass player Ed Nash and even touring keyboard player Louis Bhose looked like they had more Fenders backstage than a high street instrument shop. It was therefore quite understandable that backing singer Lucy Rose looked mostly embarassed when called into the spotlight: she was lacking any sort of stringed instrument.

"Tight" guitars are the key to BBC's sound, with Steadman and MacColl demonstrating the sort of high-necked interplay not seen since the electricity-sapping heyday of The Eagles or the Allmans.It's a cool formula: take a few parts of New Order (especially on Bad Timing), throw in the pop of Deacon Blue (Lights Out, Words Gone) and the vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes (How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep) and then open it up to the aural expanse of a venue like Montreux's Igor Stravinsky Auditorium and you see a band who have got a very long future ahead of them.

Like Coldplay, Snow Patrol and others of their ilk, the BBC induce legs to twitch gradually as their show wears on. The Club's more youthful following - drawn from various points on the European compass and presumably by the band's appearance on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack - attempted half-hearted shuffles in the early part of the set, before the entire auditorium felt suitably warmed up by the time Beg came along for a more concerted frug.

With a solid following, BBC shouldn't go wanting for ticket sales, but it will, however, take more than a teenage following and a few mildly danceable tunes before they are headlining arenas on their own. And when they do, it will take a lot more stage presence. Chris Martin may not be Freddy Mercury, but he and his somewhat awkward-looking compadres can command an audience. There's no doubting BBC's musicianship, but their stagecraft needs a little more work.

As a stopoff for tours that encompass both modest theatres and megaseat arenas, the Stravinsky Auditorium provides a level of immediacy rarely enjoyed by star and fan alike. But that's the fun of the Montreux festival. This is no summer mudbath: unless heading off on their tourbuses, artists stay at the viciously well-appointed Montreux Palace hotel, directly across the street from the Stravinsky and the neighbouring Miles Davis Hall, the two main venues.

As a result,  it is not uncommon for the hoi-polloi to mix with the stars as they unwind in Harry's Bar over the road, a rare intimacy in a business where 'the talent' is usually fascistly protected by minders. Four years ago, my friend Klaus and I were sat two bar stools down from George Benson, with Grace Jones hovering unnervingly behind us as I indulged a cold one (and no, I don't mean Ms. Jones), while Quincy Jones turned up for the umpteenth time (we were convinced he was stalking us). It's an enjoyable symptom of the festival's close-quarters nature.

Which makes Noel Gallagher's appearance in Montreux even more incongruous.

For two decades the creative force of Oasis has progressed through the gears of audience size, scaling - after just six years - the dizzying heights of playing to 250,000 screaming fans over the course of two era-defining nights at Knebworth.

And now, here he is amongst just 4000 people, exchanging banter with punter Norman Flynn down the front, who appears to have the night's set list in front of him.

The Montreux debut of Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds may have been a "mistake", as the Mancunian joked amid a barrage of sarky comments about jazz being "shite" (and the ever-popular rock star riff from
This Is Spinal Tap about "blues-jazz or jazz-blues?"), but coming midway through his first over solo tour, Gallagher gave as assured a performance fronting his own rock band as it is possible to give.

When he embarked on his tour to promote the fantastic Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (review - Brother Beyond), Gallagher - in an unusually modest moment - claimed it was odd to be the main focus of attention in a band, having spent the previous 21 years side-kicking his little brother. The fact that the senior Gallagher had played a few solo gigs before (e.g. for the Teenage Cancer Trust, not to mention stepping up during Liam's occasional AWOL moments), didn't seem to count.

Either way, in Montreux on Wednesday he looked as if he'd been starring in his own show his entire career.

Flanked by Scouse bassist Russell Pritchard, Atlanta-native Tim Smith on guitar, Mike Rowe on keyboards and Jeremy Stacey on drums (and sporting a Bonhamesque bowler hat and Droog boiler suit), Gallagher battled an annoying cough - the hangover from a cold that had made misery in Poland a couple of weeks ago - to plough effortlessly through High Flying Birds, some of its B-sides (like Let The Lord Shine A Light On Me) and Oasis crowd-pleasers like Supersonic, Half A World Away, Little By Little and Don’t Look Back In Anger (and no-one seemed to bemoan the lack of Wonderwall).

Like the album much of the set came from, it was a show of vigour interspersed by Gallagher's good natured bonhomie, a natural comic timing that only served to endear him further to a partisan crowd (albeit including a few slightly confused older patrons who may have been mistaken into believing Rory Gallagher had posthumously returned to the shores of Lake Geneva).

The Guardian can continue to churn out think pieces about the demise of guitar rock as much as it wants, but as long as Noel Gallagher is writing songs like The Death Of You And Me, all will be well in the world. Live, these things pick up an additional energy - the latter missing nothing in the absence of the trad jazz trombone of the album version.

AKA What A Life pounded away superbly, taking with it an edgier tone. Likewise Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks, stepping securely away from its softer feel on the album and sounding more like the Small Faces tune it clearly aspires to being - and can justifiably claim to better.

At some stage in the future Gallagher may not have to rely so much upon the Oasis back catalogue for live material. Born into the stadium era, he has a natural gift for writing simple songs, based on simple melodies, which could fill the most chasm-like venue. Everybody's On The Run is one of them - opening the album but easily being capable of closing a show at the expense of more familiar anthems in the canon. If I Had A Gun is another. A love song, rather than anything mischievously directed towards "our kid", it sits alongside Wonderwall as a song you can snog to, sway your arms to or jig about blokishly to.

Playing the Montreux Jazz Festival might have been, for Gallagher, a slightly strange detour from the football crowd familiarity of his traditional beat, but this was no more of a sell out than his appearance Chez Blair for the then-prime minister's 1997 celebration of "Cool Britannia". His visit to the 10 Downing Street parlour was hardly in the same league of coked-out rock star faux pas as Bowie's apparent Nazi salute at Victoria Station or Clapton appearing to agree with Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" prophecy. And even if - as he semi-joked (and shortly before Claude Nobs presented him with a 10,000-euro Parmigiani watch as a thank you) this would be his only appearance at the festival, Gallagher has earned the right to be regarded as a performer worthy of taking his place amongst the illustrious Montreux alumni.

Over the years we've had no shortage of braggadocio from the brothers G, usually around the theme of their greatness; and while - for Noel at least - it may have been tongue in cheek, there should be no doubt that his is a unique songwriting talent. He may not be the most gifted guitarist, and his chord library may not extend much further than that of Messrs Parfitt and Rossi, but in his application of melody, tunesmithery and stage-filling, Gallagher can justifiably bear comparison to another north-eastern Englishman with a melodic gift. The one who recently turned 70. Yes, even him.

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