Monday, July 15, 2013

Party over, oops, out of time: Prince at the Montreux Jazz Festival

And so What Would David Bowie Do?'s Great Summer Of Shows™ draws to a somewhat high-end conclusion.

It has taken the TGV from Paris to Montreux in Switzerland, enjoying a life-affirming journey through rolling fields in full summer bloom before cutting through alpine gorges on the approaches to Geneva, and then hugging the sun-kissed shores that curl around Lake Geneva's pristine waters to arrive at Montreux at its northern end.

Even at Geneva's central station, where you change trains, it is so peaceful, you can hear birds chirping as near silent trains glide through in the dappled sunlight. Not a yurt or any traces of mud, vegetarian hot dogs or surf shorts being worn age-inappropriately in sight.

Of all the summer music festivals, Montreux has always been the most exclusive, the most elegantly-located and in many aspects, the coolest.

There are few others I'm aware of where you can watch the evening's headline act on stage one minute and then an hour later be hanging out with across the road at Harry's Bar, watching Quincy Jones holding court in a corner while George Benson props up the bar next to you.

Exclusivity like this doesn't come cheap - it was once described as "the Rolls-Royce of music festivals" - but just because there is a degree of elitism about Montreux it would be wrong to see it as the antipathy of Glastonbury's hippy idealism. Both festivals were born in the same era, Montreux's the result of Swiss tourism executive Claude Nobs' enthusiasm for both the Vaud canton and his passion for good live music.

Nobs tragically died earlier this year, but it's clear that he left the festival in good hands, with it this year staging 18 days of music from headliners like Leonard Cohen, Sting, Bobby Womack, ZZ Top, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Gregory Porter, Oleta Adams and Charles Bradley, festival regulars like Randy Crawford and Joe Sample, George Benson, Joe Cocker and Deep Purple, plus Montreux newcomers like Jake Bugg.

Whoever draws you in to Montreux, and whether you stay for one or all 18 nights (which, with eye-watering hotel rates and even more eye-watering ticket prices, must be for the extraordinarily well-healed), the common denominator is that the quality of music curated by Nobs and his organisation is always of the highest. Which is how WWDBD? has found itself on a train to the Swiss Riviera.

With reassuring Swiss efficiency, the festival's program is normally announced on the third Thursday of every April, prompting a frenzy to snap up both show tickets and one of the town's relatively few hotel rooms. However, this year, there was an early surprise, when it was announced in February that Prince would headline three nights at the Stravinsky Auditorium, the Festival's 3500-capacity main venue. Despite the exorbitant ticket price (though nothing to get Mick Jagger's accountant worked up about), it still took a frantic half hour's hitting the 'refresh' button to be amongst the lucky 10,000 or so to book themselves a spot in the hall.

This is how Prince rolls. An enigma in pop's soup of enigmatic figures, his visibility is one of its most guarded, his image its most carefully controlled. Ever since that contretemps with his record company, and the adoption of a squiggle as a means of saying "up yours" to them, the Purple One has gone about his business very sparingly.

Not that he's withdrawn to his Paisley Park complex to reclusively count his collection of exotic girlfriends. Instead he has been copiously adding to The Vault, the supposed mass of unreleased songs that are piled high like gold bars in the US Federal Reserve. Unshackled by record company hegemony, he releases what he wants, when he wants to on an ever-changing array of websites, each devoted to the latest pet project. Prince is, without doubt, one of the true pioneers of putting music out over the Internet, and employs his considerable legal might to police any transgressors of his online oeuvre.

With hardly a hit single, let alone a hit album to draw on, he doesn't have to worry about what anyone thinks, though I doubt public opinion has ever swayed him. And thus, after the New Power Generation ensemble, infused by lead guitarist Donna Grantis and drummer Hannah Ford from his latest project 3rdEyeGirl, bursting into life with the obscure big brass number, Strays Of The World, the diminutive 55-year-old bounds on stage, sporting an afro that takes a little getting used to on his minimal, black-suited frame. For the next two hours we are treated to a non-stop, cramp-inducing, foot-stomping, relentless funk, 3500 now intimately acquainted people sweatily frugging like there's no tomorrow.

Claude would have loved this: for the first time in 46 years he wasn't standing at the side of the stage, grinning wildly at the musical marvel he had persuaded to come and play at his little shindig on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, not that he ever needed to do much real persuading. Artists love playing here, loving the intimacy. They like playing a set inside what amounts to a large private club.

Prince is clearly in his element. Rumour has it that he offered to play Montreux and didn't have to be asked. Throughput the show he grins and smirks, having an inordinate amount of fun with the massed ranks of the NPG.

Indeed, the only people not having any fun, it would appear, are the over-zealous stewards entrusted with protecting Prince's image. Throughout the evening they manically leap up and down waving torches in the faces of anyone caught with a smartphone or camera aloft. One - a particularly odious Gary Neville lookalike - wages a noticeably losing battle: as fast as he rises above the crowd to flap torchlight at an offender, another iPhone is thrust upwards. He has even developed the charades gesture for a movie, anyone filming gets the flapping torch, the movie motion and the universal 'no' finger waggle popular with dissenting footballers. It's hilarious, actually, in a counter-establishment way, akin to wartime ARP wardens screaming "put that light out" during The Blitz.

But back to the music. This is not meant to be a hits jukebox (1999 is the fourth song and almost appears to be in the set early enough to get it out of the way). For the rest, we are treated to an exhaustive trawl through the Prince album collection - both his own work and the work of others, including Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and James Brown's I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself). Indeed it is Brown's legendary stage performances that Prince draws most upon, as he conducts the NPG like latter-day JB All Stars, carefully orchestrated and equally well choreographed routines stretching songs into eight-minute extended funk workouts.

Breathlessly the band lurch from song-to-song, throwing in the most recent Prince release - Ain't Gonna Miss U When U're Gone - amongst old album tracks like Dark from the Come album, Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) from 1999 and the online-only single F.U.N.K.

Somewhere close to the two-hour mark - I wasn't really counting, to be honest - Prince and the NPG troop offstage. There's a lengthy pause, to the consternation of impatient punters clearly not appreciating that getting so many people back on stage takes as long as it took them to get off, before the stage fills up again and The Impressions' We're A Winner gets dusted off at the start of an eight-song encore that includes Sign O' The Times'  Housequake. A cover of Sheila E's The Glamourous Life closes the sequence and the band troop off. part of the crowd expecting that to be that and head off for a much needed livened in the bar. Of course, that isn't that. And a second encore beckons with Musicology and Extraloveable forcing weary feet to frug some more, knackered arms to punch the sky a little longer.

With that, the house lights come up and the Stravinsky Auditorium starts to empty to universal signs of exhausted satisfaction and bewilderment. But wait. There is more. A four-minute, slowed down version of Purple Rain. How very Prince. How unpredictable. How it should be done. How Funky Claude would have wanted it done.

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