Wednesday, July 09, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Pharrell

Picture courtesy of the Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

Holidays are supposed to offer a fresh perspective on things. Read a book, learn a language, visit a museum - stuff you won't get to do in the daily maelstrom. Sometimes you arrive at your new vista by design, by forcibly escaping routine and seeking out opportunities that might otherwise be ignored. And then, sometimes, you trip over it quite by accident. 

Though hardly epiphanous in the grand scheme of things, my eye-widening moment occurred midway between the shallow and deep ends of the hotel swimming pool (luxury, eh, Glasto, punters?). Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball came blasting through the sound system. 

I was, it has to be said, a particularly captive audience, given that there was little-to-no chance of making a dash towards a safer, Cyrus-free locale. But as a result of this aquatic entrapment, I came to appreciate - over the course of two-and-a-half more lengths - Ms. Cyrus's power ballad as astonishingly good pop music. No, really.

Given that the song was propelled to the northern reaches of the charts by a somewhat toe-curling video in which the 21-year-old swung naked on the titular demolition apparatus while fellating a sledgehammer, and that this has inevitably led to questions about the parenting acumen of her parents (one of whom is the grandson of a Bible belt preacher), you might think that What Would David Bowie Do? should jog on and not add further oxygen to the whole "look, no pants!" exhibitionism of Cyrus junior. But, no. Tabloid froth and nonsense aside, it's as good a three-minute, 41-second pop song as you're likely to ever hear. And, no, I didn't have water in my ears.

Luckily for the good people of Montreux, neither Cyrus is, to my knowledge, in the Swiss Riviera this week, which means a blessed lack of paparazzi hoping to capture the tongue-poking, twerking minx doing her thing. That, though, doesn't mean that contemporary music doesn't have its place at the Jazz Festival. 

Montreux has had its fair share of serious jazz musicians, replete with its fair share of serious jazz fans nodding their heads sagely to twenty-minute bass solos. But it has also given a platform to plenty of more populist acts over the festival's 47 years. 

And despite its somewhat staid image, I can assure you, Montreux does like to partaaayy. Which is why 3000 people are crammed, sardine-like, into the Auditorium Stravinsky for a standing room-only performance from the current golden boy of pop, Pharrell

This last year has seen the diversely applied Pharrell Williams get married, be a part of two huge albums - his own GIRL and Daft Punk's multiple Grammy-winning Random Access Memories - score gazillion-selling hits with DP's Get Lucky and Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, and made even the most curmudgeonly among us curl their mouths at the edges with the insanely infectious Happy.

All of which - one suspects by the fact that his band are on stage and hanging about in darkness for a full quarter of an hour before he comes on stage - that Williams has already achieved diva status. Be that as it may, he has the crowd jigging about within the first seconds of his Montreux showcase finally getting going with Lose Yourself To Dance, the second of his contributions to the Daft Punk album.

It is slick, polished and pristine, and embellished by the six female dancers that remain for the rest of the show, and the requisite collection of session players filling out the stage. There are early suspicions in the crowd that Williams might be relying on a backing tape, rather than his own voice. From its claustrophobic pocket barely a few metres from the front of the stage, What Would David Bowie Do? is undecided. You can usually tell. And you'd hope it isn't, for the memory of Claude Nobs if nothing else.

Brass in pocket: WWDBD? is somewhere in this melee 

If Williams is miming, the majority of the crowd doesn't care, responding to being in the presence of pop's current 'it' name by hoisting their smartphones in the air, presumably for the benefit of YouTube.

Williams works his way through his own material, including his debut solo single Frontin', and Come Get It Bae and Marilyn Monroe from GIRL along with a cover of Snoop Dogg's Drop Like It's Hot, before halting proceedings to declare 2014 "the year of the woman". It's not entirely sure whether this was on the UN's calendar this year, but Williams applies plenty of old-school soul star smooth when he declares that 2014 is the year when things change for women.

"My new album is an ode to women," he advises, adding "I make no apology. I love women in every kind of way", before inviting the women in the crowd to make their voices known, followed by the men to shout their approval, and then everyone giving it some. Hard to tell whether this is a large wheel of Swiss cheese or a somewhat awkwardly pitched bid for gender diversity.

A pop star hides behind some smartphones
© Simon Poulter 2014
If it is, then the choice of next song, Thicke's Blurred Lines, is baffling, seeing as it was flooded in the sort of controversy Miley Cyrus could only dream of, the result of one promo featuring topless models and an awful lot of media chatter about misogyny and flames of promoting date rape.

Things don't get much better, thematically speaking, when Pharrell's next song is Get Lucky, the Grammy-hoovering paean to landing some hows-yer-father.
"I told you, it's all about women," Williams adds in commentary, tongue possibly searching for a parking space in cheek.

At that goes for the tried-and-tested 'awwwww' approach,  plucking a bewildered young lady, Silada, from the audience, who promptly bursts into tears and struggles for composure at striking lucky herself (geddit?). 

"We are depending on a girl like you to grow up and change the world," Williams tells Silada as she remains on stage. Everyone goes "aah". With that the band launch into Happy, sending the heaving crowd understandably wild and Silada into another burst of tears. 

It is a stupidly enjoyable song. Sure, it doesn't exactly push back the boundaries of rock'n'roll invention, and like any pop song built around a hook that won't quit, it will test human tolerance when it turns up on unrelenting rotation on radio stations, in holiday resort nightclubs, and from the music systems of just about every retail establishment in the western hemisphere. But it is another example of the perfect pop song. By turns annoying and annoyingly familiar.

For Pharrell, however, it is the limit of his live performance. Barely an hour after going down, the house lights are up and the packed crowd in its forced intimacy starts looking around to see who it was jabbing them in the back for the duration of the show. These are minor irritations, however, when compared with the grumblings being heard as WWDBD? leaves the Auditorium Stravinski from the ticket-paying public expecting more than nine songs for its less than modest outlay.

The Beatles, it should be remembered, would play for just 30 minutes at the height of Beatlemania, maintaining that they could have played anything for all the pubescent screaming that drowned out their shows. Pharrell is nowhere close to - and should not think himself - in the same category of pop accomplishment as the Fabs, but there is no denying the sheer force of his nature.

If this nine-song set was merely an extended promo, rather than a traditional sit-down-and-take-notes Montreux performance, I doubt the vast majority of the audience cared. Williams is, as he himself acknowledged, in the sweet spot of his career, in possession of the right amount of talent and charisma to make even the briefest of evenings in his company fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment