As far as first days go, yesterday was pretty great.
We kicked things off with the duo of Jane Bunnett and Hilario Duran at 12:30, at what is a new venue for us this year – Holt Renfrew. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking launching a new series – will anyone show up? – so we were pleasantly surprised when the store had to add more chairs! It ended up being a standing-room-only affair; Jane and Hilario demonstrated why they are each acclaimed as musicians, but also why the music of Spirits of Havana still resonates 25 years later – interesting compositions, performed brilliantly.
After the show I bought socks. That may not be exciting to you, but it was exciting for me. I firmly believe that everyone needs fun socks, so I’m just doing my part. I also had a bit of downtime at home – spent catching up on last minute details – before making my way down to Nathan Phillips Square for opening night festivities.
Kardinal Offishall set the mood shortly after 6 pm in his role of DJ and emcee, spinning a funky mix of soul, R&B, hip-hop and jazz. At 6:30 the Heavyweights Brass Band worked their way through the crowd to the stage, and were received enthusiastically for their mix of New Orleans brass band, soul, funk, r&b…and even a Rush tune. A highlight for me was Jay Douglas, who joined the band for the latter part of their set. His voice was in fine form, showing off why he’s still in demand after more than 45 years on the scene.
Next up was We Came to Get Down: Swing vs. Street. I was particularly excited about this show. A couple of years ago, I saw a video online of something called Swing Riot in Montreal – an event at which swing dancers and street dancers faced off in a friendly competition. For whatever reason, I loved what was in that video, and ever since had hoped to figure out how to make it happen at the festival. So when I was introduced to Judi Lopez – founder of Keep Rockin You and an acclaimed street dancer – I felt like we suddenly had the opportunity to make it happen. Judi brought on 16 dancers – 8 on “team swing” and 8 on “team street” – and, after months of planning, We Came to Get Down became a reality last night. It was so fun to watch the dancers dance, interact, and explore each other’s music. Tim Shia, with his Worst Pop Band Ever, along with vocalist Chloe Watkinson, provided the outstanding live soundtrack. The crowd loved it, the performers were all smiling as they came off stage, and I got the feeling this could become a regular addition to the festival.
The evening’s activity on the square wrapped up with KC and the Sunshine Band. We were looking for a party, and KC and his crew delivered. It was quite a show – lights, fog, streamers, costume changes…and all of the hits. The square filled in nicely, the vibe was feel-good, and a good time was had by all. In the months leading up to the festival, it at times felt as though opening night takes was taking as much planning as the rest of the festival combined…but to see it all come together, as it did last night, was very satisfying.
After a bit of a hang at the square, I made my way over to The Rex for the first of the daily late night jams. The bar was still buzzing after Dave Young’s sets and while some people left, a nice crowd remained when Chris Gale and his quartet took to the stage. They played a short set to warm up the crowd; the real fun started during the second set – by then, most of KC and the Sunshine Band’s horn section had arrived. Soon they were all on stage, tearing it up along with some of the local players also in the house. I was toast by about 2:45 (toast at the jam? Ha!), but the music was still going strong. That’s the fun thing about festival jams. You never know who will show up. (And who knows – tonight Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are in town…)
So in case you’re keeping score, here is a completely random assortment of facts from opening day:
Number of pairs of socks purchased: 3
Foods eaten in inappropriate quantities after 10 pm: poutine, pizza
Amount of fun had by all: yes
And so here we are on day 2 – I’m writing this as I listen to Bill King’s Rhythm Express kick off the Lunchtime Series. Pretty groovy stuff! I’ll be bouncing around a bit today, checking out a variety of venues. It’s a busy day – you can see the full line-up here.
See you on the square!