Days of Jazz and Introductory French, Pt. 2
Funky Records and Funky Shops in a Funky City
In the past month or so, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy two of North America’s finest cities associated with jazz -- and, as it happens, recently named among the ‘Top 20 Cities to visit While You’re In Your 20s.’ They’re both cities that have the aforementioned jazz association, but also, interestingly enough, a deep connection to the French language, and, in general, have a certain European flair to them. Not that it means much for somebody living among the three states most likely to consider French among its most commonly spoken languages, but still. Below is my recollection of my visit to Montreal, Quebec. Part One, on New Orleans, Louisiana, can be found here.
For our eighth year anniversary, my partner and I had decided that if we could not make it to Europe for a trip outside of the U.S. that we had been meaning to take together, we would plot a weekend’s stay in North America’s most Euro-centric city, Montreal, Quebec. Usually, this would require a great deal of research to make sure every second is spent doing something productive with our time, but given that it’s just so close to our home here in Vermont, we could play a little fast and loose with our time instead. Rather than pick out a whole lot of sights to see and neighborhoods to duck in and out of, we’d spend the time as if we were already residents of the City of Saints.
And it was a good thing we did this, because we actually wound up feeling under the weather the entire time.
Still, this didn’t stop us from seeing at least one jazz club. It was our first night in town, and our throats were dry, and under a misty October sky we walked and walked and walked til we heard music.
Exactly what I wanted to hear: a Prohibition-style jazz club, dark and barely lit, with a three-piece combo in the backroom doing quick, light versions of jazz standards -- much of it, if I recall correctly, from the repertoire of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, despite the lack of a saxophone player, but still so nimble and spirited that it could not matter. The crowd was there to soak in their whiskey cocktails, early-Americana kitsch (a roll of Buster Keaton silent films played on a television in the back, the movie’s cue-cards dubbed into French), and ultra-salty popcorn. It was called Bar Bootlegger (in English -- the French translation, which I can only assume is the proper name for this place, is ‘Bootlegger l’Authentique’) on Boulevard St-Laurent, a pretty happening street, chock full of cool bars, clubs, and lines and lines of high school-age kids looking to get in.
Unless you are savvy enough, Montreal’s party vibe is surprisingly limited. There’s a few unusual rules regarding what bars are allowed to stay open, and what places are only allowed to serve beer and hard alcohol along with food. It’s not the kind of place to have an absolutely crazy night out. Regardless, after driving in from the farther end of the providence into Montreal, and not knowing exactly what to expect, it was nice to have a cocktail or two at Bootlegger.
The next night was surprisingly music free -- after spending a day feeling rather ill and having most of it in our AirBnB, we were surprised that there were so few free music nights in our immediate area. Still, determined to go out, we trekked through the rainy Montreal evening, and were at least pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a bar that catered to another personal interest of mine: Pinball.
Much like Bootlegger, the sounds I was so familiar with had to be filtered from the outside via a tiny speaker, as if to entice like a mirage for your ears. And, again, much like Bootlegger, the main bar was up a short flight of stars. At North Star, there were about 10 classic pinball machines (their website claims a range of pinball games from the ‘50s through the ‘80s, but if memory serves correct, the great majority were from the ‘60s and early ‘70s). The drinks were cheap, the pinball was plentiful. Best of all, there was a well-curated stack of records and CDs off to the corner, played at the bartender's discretion if the jukebox weren’t enough, and a black-and-white arrangement of different film and television clips that happen to feature Pinball Machines in them (whether they were thematically significant or not -- most of them not) was rolling on the back wall, in an almost art-house kind of arrangement as far as tributes go (some had clips of pinball being played lovingly -- one clip featured a bunch of old pinball machines being pushed from a rooftop and slowly exploding upon impact with the street below).
Pinball Machines; Photo by Colleen Goodhue
After another relatively early evening in, our last day in Montreal was dedicated to the part I was most excited about: record shopping. While I had found my fair share of deals at the few places to find vinyl records since moving to the Upper Valley and exploring some of the stores in near-by larger cities in Vermont and New Hampshire, Montreal was a promised land for me, boasting at least nine stores within the mile-radius of our weekend’s rental apartment in the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood.
Our first stop was Aux 33 Tours. On Yelp, it boasts the highest reviews of the area, and it’s clear to see why -- meticulously organized, very clean, with almost all of the records in Very Good to Very Good+ condition, and an up-to-date collection of recent releases, which suggests this is a store that you can trust. There was a lot that I was tempted by, and had I a better head for the conversion rate between what my American dollars could afford in addition to the lot that we’d converted into Canadian, I assume I would have picked up more here. But with only so much time on our hands and so much in our pockets, it was nice to walk away with a Greatest Hits collection of the Platters, and a collection of covers from a local artist, Johnny Farago, in French.
I don’t think much can be said about Encore of Golden Hits by the Platters -- it’s as brilliant a collection of classic ‘50s/’60s era R’n’B as anybody could ask for, short of the name ‘Smokey Robinson.’ But the collection by Johnny Farago, Mes 21 Grandes, is a similar collection of greatest hits of American/British hit songs translated into Quebecois French, including “Prends Cette Lettre Maria” (R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria”) and “Pends-Moi” (Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” -- a quintessentially American country-pop song!) that you wouldn’t think translates to French, and yet his reported love for Elvis Presley breathes through the music. It’s not an exact replica, or even a cheap one in the vein of a hokey Elvis impersonator tries to make classic era rock n’ roll seem fun and exciting through flashy presentation a la the 70s-era Elvis. Farago shares Elvis’ genuine love for the simplicity of the music and makes it his own in French. While far from essential listening, I’d still recommend checking out a few of Johnny Farago’s covers both for the sheer novelty of classic American pop songs in French, but also because he’s just so talented at translating both the language and the excitement.
The next stop for us was Beatnick Disques, also in the same neighborhood, and perhaps a little more my personal speed. When I go record shopping, I try to stick to the places that have more of a well-curated used selection rather than an assortment of everything at once that sort of evens out the prices to be about the same. There’s a lot of value in record stores making the effort to create a place where a record-is-a-record regardless of age, but I’d still rather dive into the rough of things in the hope of finding a gem.
And boy, did I find a gem at Beatnick! My partner picked up an album by Motown’s The Dynamic Superiors -- a group perhaps best known for a song called “Shoe Shoe Shine.” This would be their third album, You Name It, released by Motown in 1976. It’s a record that, of its own merits, isn’t particularly remarkable, but it is very nice to have a record of its particular sound -- verging between soul and disco -- among our collective collection that is otherwise missing. Still, I’d recommend checking out a few tracks on the album, partially because some of them will remind you of other Motown hits of the era, and partially because the structure of the song is pretty darn funky.
But that aforementioned gem I found at Beatnick is one for the ages: the Bar-Kay’s Soul Finger. The debut album by the Stax/Volt records house band in excellent condition and priced surprisingly low -- for either Canadian or American dollars. It was a genuine surprise, as I’d been dying to find this album -- a veritable party-in-a-box! -- without the aid of the Internet or asking a savvy store clerk to help me track it down. It was in my hands -- the goofy technicolor illustrations of party people groovin’ to the music on a big-white plane, complete with John Lennon-look-alike cartoon looking directly at the buying public. Every track, a horn-heavy, bass-thumping, slinky-guitar affair guaranteed to start or keep on any great party. It’s all in the title track, and it keeps on from there. And with no less an authority on the matters of soulful funk than Booker T. (of the M.G.’s fame!) writing the liner notes vouching for the Bar-Kays’ legit strut, it just makes the record a whole lot more special to hold, and to listen to, now safely on my turntable on the other side of the border.
One weekend is not enough to explore Montreal -- either as a place to see a show, or to obtain some records, of even to enjoy the cultural diversity that surrounds the entire city. One discernible difference Montreal hipsters have on their American city counterparts: a respect and deep love for the diversity that thrives in their city, and respect for all of the cultures therein represented, from the funky and cool, to the inherently traditional and (by comparison) a little lame. It’s all good in Montreal.
Recommendations: I'm surprised and kind of pleased to see Childish Gambino's latest album, Awaken, My Love, get a lot of good press, and even hearing clips of his new tracks as bed music beneath clips of Monday Night Football.
For the uninitiated, Childish Gambino is the rap alter-ego of Donald Glover, a multi-talented performer who has written for NBC's 30 Rock, acted on Community (short-lived on the same network), performed stand-up and improv, and has released two albums and several mixtapes so far over his career. So far, he's making a case that Childish Gambino is more than just a rapper, but perhaps a cover for his general music projects, especially with the turn taken on Awaken, My Love.
His first album, Camp, was a straightforward album that made good on his early mixtapes -- confessional and personal in a shocking way, but nothing out of the ordinary for indie rap at the time. His follow-up, Because the Internet, was far more ambitious in scope -- incorporating a short film and a screenplay as part promotional material, part read-along projects. It earned him worthy comparisons to Kanye West and a Grammy nomination.
Awaken, My Love is a completely new project all together. Still working alongside composer Ludwig Göransson (who also works primarily in TV), Gambino doesn't rap at all here. Instead, it's a tour through 70s-era soul, funk, and R&B, a sort of Maggot Brain-lite -- and I do mean this in the best possible way. While it may not be a multi-faceted art project like his previous album, the same level of ambition comes through in its radical departure, confident that it works because, well, it's Gambino, and nobody else is doing what Gambino does -- and if that's the case, then he must be the best at it, right?
Much like even the best Funkadelic music, there's excess and laziness dressed in the artifice of artistry throughout (the bombastic first track, "Me and Your Mama" will make your jaw drop at its dramatic turns, but it does overstay its own welcome; "California" is fun but difficult to find its place among the other songs). But, again, much like that band, Gambino presents it all through a funhouse mirror of sorts. It's not always pleasant to experience, but it's above all in the name of fun. And being such a fun album, just as his second was ambitious-but-lighter-hearted-than-most, it rewards re-listens this time with surprising moments of impressive composition and performance. If you haven't heard a track yet, I guarantee you will sometime in the coming year. Consider this the first best album of 2017.
Below is my favorite cut from the album, "Have Some Love."