Locked inside, in the great outdoors.
172. Locked Inside: Janelle Monáe with Roman GianArthur and the David Mott Quintet, Ottawa Jazz Festival, Confederation Park, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Saturday June 23, 2012, $49.
It was the perfect summer afternoon and evening for sitting outside and taking in live music. There was substantial pre-show buzz in Ottawa for this performance, resulting in a large turn out for this night of tunes capped off by an electrifying set from genre-hopping, R&B-based, tuxedo-clad headliner Janelle Monáe and her dynamite backing band of 12 musicians plus + 1 MC. As an artist who topped my current “New Act I Most Want to See Live” wish list, she exceeded all my expectations for what I hope will merely be the first time I’ll be seeing her perform.
Sounds splendid, doesn’t it? Such a shame, then, that the Ottawa Jazz Fest went out of its way to make this event as teeth-gnashing as possible.
That was my reaction to how the Ottawa Jazz Fest handled this show too, Janelle. (Photo from the Janelle Monáe website www.jmonae.com)
Cublet and I marked the start of our vacation with this gig, getting there by late afternoon, shortly after the gates opened and before any music began. We opted to arrive well in advance of the proceedings so that we could sit outside in the glorious sunny warmth, nibbling on curry and sipping our Beau’s. It also allowed us to park our collapsible chairs in the second row of accumulating concertgoers developing directly behind a fenced off VIP area which monopolized the entire 20 yards or so directly in front of the stage.
Not that we’d be sitting down through Janelle’s performance. Our chairs were merely place markers: vessels to stake out a turf and contain us until Ms. Monáe graced us all with her presence. I mean, it stood to reason that the majority wouldn’t dare be sitting down during Monáe’s hip-shakin’, high energy set. Right?
(Scans by VA)
Well, one must consider that “hip-shakin’” and “high energy” are fairly anomalous adjectives when it comes to describing most Ottawa Jazz Fest headliners. As the festival is still largely grounded in its mothership genre, most performances naturally lend themselves to a seated audience. We’ve been attending it for many years, and the majority of the acts we’ve taken in, be they jazz legends such as Dave Brubeck or less jazzy propositions such as Bebel Gilberto or k.d. lang, have been suitably low-key enough to make derriere placement in portable lawn chairs the correct vehicle through which to enjoy the annual event.
But we also saw Al Green there a few years back too, with the majority of the full house up and dancing, as they should have been. And few knees were bent for Elvis Costello’s crackling performance from last year (granted, it took place following a relentless rain dump which turned the green lawn serenity into an expanse of mud that threatened Trenchfoot at every turn).
The “Big Hit”: “Tightrope,” live on David Letterman. The finest in asymmetrical hair.
As this century has moseyed along, it seems that festivals which once may have focussed on rock or blues or folk or jazz or whatever have increasingly abandoned genre fidelity in favour of crossbreeding promiscuity — and we’re all the better for it. For those of us here in Canada’s National Capital, the most obvious example is Bluesfest, which grew from being a small blues festival in the mid-‘90s into the multi-stage, multi-week, pan-musical-category extravaganza it’s become over the last decade. (Sadly, we skipped it this year for the first time since 2004, owing to its anaemic lineup. Depressing.)
The Jazz Festival has been comparatively chaste with its own stylistic indiscretions, engaging more in Edwardian-style courting with those potential musical suitors from outside the religion. That changed decisively with last year’s dive into the deep end after a decade in the wading pool, when Costello, lang, and Robert Plant all made well-received but controversial appearances. Were the fest a Fleet Street tabloid headline, it heretofore would have read something in the vein of “Beloved Celebrity Renews Wedding Vows” only to shake things up in 2011 with “TV Presenter in Nude Hotel Romp with MP.”
In the process of the OJF swelling its breadth of admissible music styles, one might think that it might take into account the different kinds of audiences and expected live experiences that could go hand in glove with the non-jazz acts.
Surely they would.
Of course they would.
This was all a moot point for the earlier part of the evening, which sailed smoothly, launched by the David Mott Quintet. Lead by the titular Canadian baritone saxophonist, the band — filled out by trumpet, bass, drums and a second sax — performed an hour-long, tightly structured piece, alternating locked unison playing with improvised, impressionistic segments. Interestingly, the piece was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, one of Kansas City native Monáe’s favourite films. She’s frequently citied the character of Dorothy and Judy Garland herself as influences.
GianArthur garnered a big response, and I know I would like to have seen more of him but, alas, his set was brief.
This leaflet is handed out to all concert-goers in advance of the show (sorry, Janelle, but it looks like I’m leaking the secrets). I particularly love VII, IX, and especially X.
Meanwhile, we were also privy to the curious “entertainment” being provided mere inches away via an inexplicable foursome in the row of chairs directly in front of us. Sitting furthest to our right was a pale, weedy fella who seemed to relentlessly admonish the teenager seated the left-most of the four. Pale Weedy Dude (PWD) was directly in front of Cublet, who later mentioned to me that PWD thoroughly reeked of booze, secreting a distillery-like “perfume” that kept wafting back at him. The teen, who was clearly the son of the lady seated to junior’s right, could not have been more bored or disconnected with it all, spending virtually all his time moping with his headphones on while playing with his various electronic devices. The perma-scowling PWD got up about every ten minutes to yabber ineffectively at his non-spawn about kiboshing the digital booty and to start paying attention. The dynamic teen simply smunch-faced back at Mr. Dude like a vexed terrier preparing to retaliate.
“He’s in a bad mood,” I heard Pouty Tech-Boy’s mum explain while flashing her Pepsodent-worthy smile. She spent the entirety of the evening in an almost inappropriately effervescent mood, given her coterie of glum and glummer. Meanwhile, Mrs. PWD was sandwiched between her hooch-saturated consort and Mama Tech, habitually dipping into a slimy bag of peeled, quartered tangerines while repeatedly looking to her left and right with a wide-eyed, terrified-deer-in-the-headlights gaze of concern as if a knife-wielding Tex Watson was going to suddenly appear.
Lordy, I wonder what the hell their story is all about.
At least they were interesting, if only from a sociological perspective. The crowd in the park had swelled considerably by this point, and a substantial wedge that constituted the wide middle swath of the assembled throngs were milquetoast incarnate, populated largely by festival-pass-owning serial attendees who may have had little-to-no idea who Monáe was.
Offsetting this somewhat was an accumulating, slender conga line of spirited, writhing, rabid fans, snaking all the way back from the front of the barricades: a firmly spirited parenthesis enclosing a mushy middle. These were Janelle’s people, counting down the minutes to her arrival and injecting the proceedings with a beating heart for her first visit to the capital.
Someone who would have been a few yards behind me as part of the Peripheral Party People shot this video of Janelle performing “Faster” at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The OJF still tries to ban cell phone photos/vids — most clued-in venues and performers gave up that unwinnable war a good decade ago.
Monáe’s set was preceded by a killer selection of tunes that sounded brilliant jumping out of the crystal clear sound system at gut rumbling volume. The Parenthesis Party People created their own celebration, dancing joyfully on this sultry, post-solstice night to such irresistible confections as Curtis Mayfield’s “Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here,” Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” The Commodores “Brick House,” Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good,” Prince’s “Kiss” and “When U Were Mine,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” and more. Perfect and sublime.
Regardless, the mushy middle remained passive-aggressively resolute that they weren’t going to be aiding and abetting anyone wanting to genuinely get into things. As Cublet presciently observed while surveying the expanse of demure Ottawanians amassed behind us, “I don’t think they’re going to be getting up and boogying.”
Monáe’s M.C. clearly saw the same inevitability as he came on stage to rouse the pack, building up to the star’s arrival. Upon taking in the sea of bent-knees, he postulated on their posture by announcing “I see a lot of people in their seats. Ottawa, this isn’t that kind of show,” before giving the Partying Parenthesis their recognition, beseeching the beating hearts to “encourage the people in the seats to be having as much fun as you’re having.”
Alas, it fell on the deaf ears. Perhaps Geritol may have helped.
Following the musicians getting in place to “Suite II Overture” (the orchestral number which opens Monáe’s dazzling 2010 debut album proper, The ArchAndroid), three robed, hooded druids marched out and commenced with the rap in “Dance or Die,” their backs to the audience. In short order, the middle’un tore away the robe, revealing herself to be Janelle: just the start of what proved to be a theatrical set. This revelation sent the perimeter punters proper barmy.
Many of The ArchAndroid’s (top) key themes of androids, control, otherness, and what it means to be human were inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, while the original film poster above was clearly an inspiration behind the disc’s cover.
From the start, Janelle and her band were up on that stage giving 110% with a frenetic-yet-polished show, greeted at her feet by an assemblage who smiled pertly, while kinda, sorta tappin’ their toes in a bland vision of MOR resplendency. What an embarrassment. Perhaps these people had taken to Monáe’s android concept far too literally.
Meanwhile, the deservedly rave review from the Ottawa Sun’s Denis Armstrong proclaimed that “everyone was on their feet from the moment she arrived.” Huh? A distinct selection of folks were immediately on their feet, but that’s it. Armstrong: were you actually at this concert or did you dream it? This statement is simply untrue. It would have been lovely if this was the case — but, it wasn’t.
Meanwhile, festival volunteers worked diligently to maximize buzzkill, ensuring that no one enjoyed themselves too much, getting their knickers in a twist about anyone standing in the VIP pen or the mushy middle, and pouncing on photo snapping, videoing fans like cats on a bag of Temptations. This is 2012, correct?
The vibe emanating from both the staff and mushy middle telegraphed to something along the lines of “Who do these people with a pulse think they are? This is Ottawa, after all!”
Cublet and I quickly abandonded our seats and joined the Perimeter Party People after a Barrhavian Princess just about having a stress-induced bowel movement when I stood for a short period. Meanwhile, Janelle and her arkestra delivered a blinding, thrilling set. However good I was hoping she would be, she far surpassed my expectations. Onstage, she pairs her strong, expansive voice with a keen sense of presentation, staging and pacing. There simply wasn’t a dull moment.
While ArchAndroid material formed the bulk of her set, none of its jazzier or loungier turns, such as “BaBopBye Ya,” “Say You’ll Go” or “Sir Greendown,” made appearances. Instead, we got a peek of coming attractions via “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” (“They tell me this is a jazz festival. Can I play an original jazz piece?”). It was also cool that she opened the show with the same four-song suite of sorts that opens the album (the aforementioned “Overture” and “Dance or Die” plus “Faster”and “Locked Inside”), somewhat reminiscent of Prince’s killer four-track opening salvo on his classic Parade.
Prince was referenced specifically via a faithful, well-executed rendition of “Take Me With U,” one of the night’s revealing, well-chosen covers which also included the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and the Charlie Chaplin-penned standard, “Smile.” Best of all was the encore medley of two classic Bond themes, starting with Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” and before she channeled her inner-Shirley Bassey with a confident, commanding “Goldfinger.”
The Bond theme medley of “You Only Live Twice” and “Goldfinger,” here performed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, one month before the Ottawa show.
Elsewhere, she created a painting onstage during the psychedelic “Mushrooms & Roses” (it was later a departing gift for a birthday celebrant who was able to supply proof-of-birth ID!) before closing out the main set with “Cold War” and the big hit (and car commercial staple), “Tightrope.” It gave the full audience ants in their pants at last, but was a case of too little too late.
For her encore, she surprised us with the aforementioned Bond tunes before heading into an extended rendition of “Come Alive,” one of the rockier — and one of my lesser favourite — tracks from ArchAndroid that, well, came alive as an elongated show stopper, including leading both band and audience to die down before a vertical re-emergence. “You’re finally out of your seats now,” she noted, with more than a twinge of vexation in her voice. And rightly so.
An extended take on “Come Alive” closed out the night and proved its highlight. Here she is, a few nights earlier at the Toronto Jazz Festival. Ottawa Jazz Fest: take note of the fans up in front of the stage. Whoever shot this from the front of the stage: Thank You! It’s wonderful.
The night closed out with Janelle introducing her band to the soundtrack of Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy” (nice touch!) and acknowledging the faithful by conveying her “thanks to our supporters” as she alternated her gaze between the two peripheries. “I saw you babe,” she noted.
While understandably perturbed with the sedentary majority, she brought the love to her real fans on the margins. Earlier, she had leapt off the stage and down into the front of the VIP barricades, ignoring those who reactively ejected themselves to great her, instead heading straight over to our neck of the woods. Monáe proceeded to high five everyone she could get to before dashing over and doing the same with the mirror crowd on the other side. Now that’s class.
As we made our way our way out of Confederation Park, we found ourselves on the Elgin St. traffic island at Laurier, waiting for the signal to turn. As we approached, Cublet and I were talking about how lame so many in the crowd had been. A woman overheard the commentary and, incorrectly assuming I was talking about Monáe herself, turned around and said “Well, I thought she was very good.” “I wasn’t talking about her. She was amazing,” I retorted. “It was the people who were lame. She didn’t deserve that audience. She deserved better. And they didn’t deserve her.” Traffic Island Lady merely wrinkled her nose and turned back around.
From the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival program.
Ultimately, however, I don’t blame the audience — I blame the Ottawa Jazz Festival and their anti-engagement arrangement. Why book an act like this without giving any consideration to the artists’ actual fanbase who would come out? It’s a Jazz Festival by nature, and having it as a predominantly seated event with a VIP block plunked right down in prime audience real estate isn’t much of a problem for more sitting-appropriate programming (even if most fests smartly have these sorts of areas a bit off to the side rather than monopolizing that entire key front ground) .
But Monáe is not that kind of artist. It says a lot about the folks behind this event that they sure liked putting her name up on their marquee as a hip currency to sell tickets, yet clearly had zero intention of accommodating those who turned out specifically to see and cheer her on, not to mention how bizarre it must have been for Ms. Monáe and her talented band to be staring out into a sea po-faced masses, extricated from the fans they most wanted to reach, that reciprocal energy between artist and audience neutered. Any performer will certainly want the most enthusiastic patrons close at hand. I’m sure Richard Burbage was damn pleased to have those groundlings at his feet at The Globe Theatre.
Contrast this with Ottawa Bluesfest. They long ago blew up the programming rule book but also altered how the fest was staged in the process too, in order to accommodate the realities of a transitioning clientele.
This was nothing more than a cash grab. Future OJF attendees who intend on heading out for this kind of show: be warned.
While we may have been dealing with the frustration of being locked inside the pen along with the other peripherals, that in no way impacts the fact that, musically and visually, Monáe and her backing band were a treat from start to finish. It’s deeply annoying to see a performance of this calibre given an unacceptably understated response, save for its closing segment.
Regardless, she’s on a roll. A few more albums as good and as ambitious as ArchAndroid in tandem with continued live shows like this one and she could be legendary in time.
“For the love and support you’ve showed us, we’ll be back,” exclaimed Monáe before leaving the stage. Note that she didn’t say she’d be returning to the Ottawa Jazz Festival specifically.
Janelle discusses the significance behind her tuxedo and general philosophies on the Mo’nique Show shortly before ArchAndroid‘s 2010 release.
“Locked Inside,” live in 2010.
Next On Stage –> I’ll continue alternating between posting the last of my “catch-up” entries (originally published on my corresponding Open Salon blog) covering the end of 2010 and the first half of 2011 with Broken Social Scene’s swing through town, in what may turn out to be their final tour. I’ll also be returning to the present by looking at another great show that was experienced under difficult circumstances, starring rising jazz sensation Esperanza Spalding, before dipping back into the distant past for one of my most memorable concerts ever: David Bowie in 1983.
NOTE: I simultaneously cross-post over on my Open Salon blog, where I also have a deeper backlog of entries.
© 2012 VariousArtists