If a person played the trombone, wrote about the trombone and had trombone in the title of his blog, that person would reasonably be expected, as part of his first trip to the jazz festival in Marciac, France, to attend a concert that featured trombonist Fred Wesley and the New JB Horns. So when this person reported that his attendance at said festival did not, in fact, include Fred and the JBs but instead aging rock star Joe Cocker, one could reasonably respond, "WTF?"
Some months ago our Bordeaux friends, Joëlle and Alain told us they were going to Marciac and not only invited us to go with them but threw in an offer of the free use of her car. If not for the help of this couple in more ways than can be listed, I'm not sure how things would have gone for us here. So when Joe Cocker appeared at the top of their "to see" list, it went onto ours, too. We could only afford two days so a quick look at the schedule made it clear that Fred, who came a couple of days later, was out. In short, loyalty trumped preference. Besides, Joe's opening act was jazz singer Kellylee Evans so all would not be lost. And the day before was blues night with Eric Bibb opening for Taj Mahal, an old favorite, but it meant our first trip to one of the worlds most prestigious jazz festivals would contain precious little jazz.
Marciac is a little town of around 1200 in the Aquitaine about 120 miles south of Bordeaux. Every year since 1978 it has held a jazz festival during the first two weeks of August that brings in some of the jazz world's biggest names. But even in France, these festivals aren't immune from having to augment the gate by booking rock stars like Joe Cocker. In fact, Sting played Antibes this year and I don't think any American festival, including New Orleans, can get by without big name rock and pop padding.
Despite its size, it never seemed over-crowded. In fact, the first day we got to town late in the afternoon yet Alain was able to find a parking space less than a block from the village square. Administratively, Marciac is know as a bastide village which, in a nutshell, means it's got a big square in the middle of town. The main festival venue is a temporary structure they call Chapiteau, which translates as "Big Top" and is just that - a huge tent that holds 6,000 and sits on the town rugby field. In the town square was a stage surrounded by a bunch of permanent and temporary cafés where you can enjoy a drink, a meal and free music all day. Most of these performers seem to be homegrown and when we got there Wednesday, a great young French quintet was playing original straight-ahead jazz. Then next day must have been Dixieland Day, at least during the afternoon. I've mentioned my surprise at the French singing in English but with traditional jazz, the repertoire doesn't give you much choice. One guy did the best Louis Armstrong-Pops-with-French-accent I've ever heard.
Marciac's third venue is a new, in 2011, 500-seat theatre, L'Astrada, that means jazz here is no longer confined to the two weeks of the festival. We didn't get a chance to hear anyone there which was too bad since any feeling of intimacy is impossible at the Chapiteau. It's not as bad as a stadium, I guess, but for someone used to smaller venues, the 3 giant TV screens definitely made for a more pop-like vibe. Then again, there was no way to get a good look at the performers without the jumbotrons.
Wednesday night's performance was a bit disappointing, not because of the musicians but the threat of severe thunderstorms caused a cancellation of Taj Mahal after only three numbers. His opening act, Eric Bibb, an American who lives in Finland, at least left us feeling like we hadn't been cheated. The highlights of his set were a version of "Wayfaring Stranger" that made Cynthia cry and Steffan Astner, my kind of guitar player. He looked like a guy you'd meet at a bowling alley but played the shit out of a Telecaster like it was no big deal, which means, at least in part, no facial contortions and no gyrations while standing more or less in the same place.
Okay, this is getting a bit longer than I intended so I'll just have to say we dug Kellylee Evans and that her performance, lively and engaging, was almost the polar opposite of Joe Cocker's. It was as good a chance as you'll get in one evening to see the contrast between jazz, or improvised music, and popular music of all types. Now, to Joe Cocker.
First of all, let me state right off the bat that I have nothing against Joe Cocker and his music. I've owned two of his albums, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "Cocker", the latter I bought solely for "You Can Leave Your Hat On", though I now admit to preferring the original Randy Newman version. Anyway, I've never really been a huge fan and certainly, until recently, would not have parted with a not insignificant amount of euros (by the way, if anyone knows a slang name for euros, like bucks and quids, let me know, 'cause it needs one) to hear him in concert. His voice is limited, to say the least, and his stage manner bizarre, though no longer as twitchy. His set, which the crowd loved, consisted of his hits the same way he's been doing them, in some cases, for over 40 years. This audience was the first I've seen here that didn't include a lot of young people and the last time I saw so much white hair we were still in Florida. Luckily, aging boomers here don't share their American counterparts enthusiasm for waving arms over their heads, thus eliminating the hazards posed by flapping arm flesh. The average age must have been around 65, not surprising when you consider Joe himself is 72. Soon into his set, it occurred to me that there was a real possibility, based on age, appearance and past life-style, that this guy could very well drop dead right before our eyes. This in itself could provide an incentive to attending rock concerts - "I was there the night (insert name of elderly rock star here) stroked out!"
I distinctly recall considering, probably around 16, that rock would not translate well into old age and am thankful for appreciating jazz. It didn't take an Einstein to realize that at some point "I hope I die before I get old" would lose its appeal. Don't get me wrong, I still love the music of my youth but prefer memories to reality. In the privacy of my own home I can put on headphones, cue up "Live at Leeds" in the iPod, crank the volume to high, close my eyes and be magically transported back to the age of 18. And there is still a woman I love here to slap me on the head and insist I'll go deaf.