Blockbuster openers are nothing new for Montreal's international jazz festival.
Director and co-founder André Ménard has always known how to market the product. As Tuesday's pre-concert video loop of stills from over 30 years of the festival's history showed, giants like Pat Metheny, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Miles Davis have all been marquee draws. So, to mark the 30th anniversary of the granddaddy of all Montreal festivals, Stevie Wonder was to host the free opening public bash.
Earlier in the day, Ménard was effusive in presenting Wonder with the Spirit Award, honouring a musician's quality and innovation. Yet Wonder fans had begun to gather at the newly refurbished public square as early as six in the morning. By 8 p.m., the initial estimates of 100,000 fans had been surpassed and some media were guessing that 200,000 would be closer to the mark. Even with the skies opening to a chilly and drenching downpour, folks just put up umbrellas, donned rain gear or stripped down to baggy shorts and runners.
And the crowd continued to grow. By 9:30 the rain had, almost miraculously, stopped. Ménard announced Wonder would be taking the stage shortly. A half-hour later, when he still hadn't showed, people began to mutter. Was he unwell? Were rumours of his being too grief-stricken over Michael Jackson's death true? A couple of hundred thousand damp and anxious people can easily lapse into bizarre musings. The more mundane explanation, to those who watched the towers around the 12 giant screens, was that the technical crews were drying things off.
At 10 p.m. Stevie Wonder emerged with his band and his lovely daughter Aisha Morris and invited one of the largest crowds in the festival's history to join him "to celebrate the life and legacy of Michael Jackson." Those who watched the BET Awards will have seen first hand that Jackson's death has moved Wonder enormously. The two had collaborated in the past, notably through their common association with Quincy Jones. But anyone who thought Wonder might be too distraught, well, they were just wrong.
He began with a directness that exuded strength. "First thing", he said, "there's so much talk and hearsay, all kinds of craziness." He mused that those who are feeding the gossip and rumour mills around his late friend are simply making money off the tragedy and it amounts to nothing. "What we can do is be grateful that God blessed us with his talent to sing, to dance, to make music." He urged people to buy Jackson's music so the proceeds might help his family and "if people don't like what I'm saying you can tell them to blow. Are we ready to celebrate?"
With that, the concert rocked into gear. The tunes were evocative of Jackson and particularly the bond between Jones, Jackson and Wonder, building to Jackson's Let's Dance. That segued really beautifully into Wonder's own All I Do.
But this wasn't just an expiation of Wonder's loss of a friend. Somehow we ended up in a lovely and spare reading of Lennon and McCartney's Michelle (yes, all right, owned by Jackson) and a playful Wonder emerged reminiscing about being 15 in Montreal and having a Frenchwoman speak to him.
An hour into the concert the skies had pretty much cleared and the mood was upbeat. Wonder was in fine form, some sticky mike hiccups were cleared up and the band was just stellar. And because this is a jazz festival, Wonder gave plenty of room for some bluesy instrumentals with him on piano or harmonica and absolutely stunning solos from his crew on trumpet, bass, guitar and percussion.
Easing into a party mood with the huge crowd, Wonder went from Nat King Cole's Our love is here to stay to Ma chérie amour, Signed, sealed, delivered and (how could he not?) Superstition. After midnight and a couple hundred thousand folks were still bopping to that giant of American pop culture and his sounds were reverberating off of Montreal's skyscrapers.
This is one resilient man, even in grief.
Special to The Globe and Mail