Monday, July 07, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Bastian Baker & Everlast

So, the summer then. Dig out the flip-flops and prise yourself into a pair of ill-fitting, age-inappropriate shorts. While you're at it, take yourself off to a summer music festival. The common concept is that such a festival is, in essence, a variation on Glastonbury: a largely white, middle class affair at which latter-day hippies and Shoreditch hipsters ponce about in £150 Hunter wellies and push bewildered infants in Porsche push-chairs through fecal matter cleverly disguised as mud.

Far better, in my view, is to go Swiss. The late, great Claude Nobs launched the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967, just before the wave of pop, rock and blues jamborees that ended the 60s with a puff of free-lovin', let-it-all-hang-out dippiness. For the cognoscenti, Nobs created the music fan's music festival. Authentic, discreet, exclusive, Swiss.

"Funky Claude" is, sadly no longer with us - the result of a tragic skiing accident in the mountains around the canton he helped put on the map, firstly as a tourism officer and then as founder and mainstay of the Jazz Festival which this year celebrates it's 48th edition. It has, though, long since ceased to be 'just' a jazz event. For its week in Montreux What Would David Bowie Do? will embrace blues, world music, rock, trip-hop, and a lot of what American music executives like to call "crossover". No, me neither.

To get things off to a representative start, we are down in the Montreux Jazz Club, a long room in the basement of the main Festival venue, the Stravinski Auditorium, for an evening of acoustic singer-songwriting fare. And here's where things instantly get interesting, and totally in keeping with the stupendously high standards of Nobs' curation.

First up is Bastian Baker, a local lad. He is, however, no token nod to the Swiss music scene, nor some local talent competition winner who got lucky. He is, at 23, a remarkably accomplished performer, singing in English, speaking in French and German, and for effect, Italian (thus demonstrating Switzerland's complex split personality). He is also ridiculously handsome, a point I bring up on the back of 46 years' unblemished heterosexuality. With his James Dean quiff and an instant beguiling relationship with the audience, Baker charms the crowd with low-key banter while he detunes and retunes his guitar between songs that are lyrically sophisticated and possessing a maturity way beyond his relatively slender age.

It would be very tempting to compare Baker to Jake Bugg - there are skiffle elements to his exclusively acoustic guitar-performed set that merit similarity - but whereas Bugg has drawn inspiration from the tough environment of housing estate Nottingham, Baker - who is from the aflluence (even for Swiss standards) of Lausanne - concentrates on life's romantic travails.

With a single album, Tomorrow May Not Be Better under his belt, Baker delivers a sturdy 45-minutes of his own material, save for one cover - Don McLean's American Pie. At its introduction, I cringe: this is a song done to death by wine-fuelled office karaoke nights and Tube station buskers, not to mention Madonna (and the less said about that the better). 

And although Baker milks it's singalongability for all it's worth, there is an admirable earnestness about his performance, with a strong voice and an equal adeptness with the guitar helping eradicate any over-familiarity. 

Baker is unsurprisingly an increasingly big star in Switzerland and, bizarrely, in Belgium where he was involved in their version of The Voice. Globally, of course, a drop in the ocean, but with the right promotion, there is no reason why his talent and charm can't be unleashed on audiences more broadly and, who knows? 

Claude Nobs' engagement of up and coming acts like Baker was always matched by his sponsorship of acts that, on paper, were not what you would expect to be Montreux material. But, then, with a history that stretches from Pet Shop Boys to Pink Floyd to Prince, it's hard to truly define what shouldn't be at the Festival.

Take Everlast, for example. Since his second album, Whitey Ford Sings The Blues introduced rap to blues and country-influenced guitar, the now 44-year-old has become the Johnny Cash of hip-hop. 

He hasn't abandoned his rap roots completely - his seminal outfit House of Pain came together a few years ago as the side project La Coka Nostra - but his current focus (an the evening's headline act) is the somewhat unplugged project of his current album, The Life Acoustic, a career retrospective that turns much of his earlier work - including the obviously hip-hop material - into what he describes as a cross between "construction-site country and Southern rock".

I'll be the first to admit I've never been a fan of rap, but stripped down to lyrics laid over a single acoustic guitar and piano (the latter provided in Montreux by LA-based keyboard player Bryan Vasco), Everlast delivers a compellingly soulful performance.

His vocals - a whisky-hewn Southern drawl - are perfect for the bluesy treatment of impassioned songs about Afghanistan (Stone In My Hand), the first flush of romance (Black Coffee), dealing with his daughter's cystic fibrosis and his own brush with death (Put Your Lights On - the Grammy-winning song originally recorded with Carlos Santana). And, equally, he adds a brilliant grit to covers of Bill Withers' Lean On Me and, bravely, Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, which he pulls off with perfection.

Everlast takes his time to warm up to the audience - compared with the evening's previous act who was all about engaging the crowd - but when he does, he does it with self-depreciating warmth and the heckler skills of a stand-up (including a great gag about normally singing about "poor people", noting how that might be lost on the "rich people" of this audience), which adds additional irony to the trailer park anthem White Trash Beautiful.

Almost from the moment he walks out stage, voices in the audience call for Jump Around, House of Pain's 1992...erm...crossover megahit, and the song which triggered Everlast to make the The Life Acoustic album. At almost every acoustic show he'd been playing, someone would suggest it - "jokingly", Everlast says - but here it provides a brilliant, bouncing finale to the show, inspiring even the more reserved members of the largely local audience to start grooving away.

When it began in the early 1990s, MTV's Unplugged series reintroduced a welcome informality to live performances that had been lost in all the bombast of the previous decade. Many noted the similarity to Elvis Presley's 1968 televised 'comeback special'. So, on the 60th anniversary of Presley recording That's All Right Mama at Sun Studios with Scotty Moore and Bill Black - white musicians playing a black blues standard - setting in motion the chain of events that would invent rock and roll and teenagers in one single measure, there's a neat closing of the loop in hearing a rapper of Irish ethnicity with an acoustic guitar and a southern voice singing "I got more rhymes than the Bible's got psalms".

I think it's going to be a beautiful week.

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