One for the Road – Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

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I’m going to be completely honest: there is no event I look forward to more than the Montreal Jazz Festival. It trumps Christmas, Thanksgiving, loved ones’ weddings, detested foes’ funerals, a Patriots Super Bowl, Flag Day, you name it. When I’m walking to the train on a bitterly cold day in January, I fantasize about steaming hot days in early July, sitting outside, listening to jazz. On a steaming hot day in late June, for that matter, I fantasize about steaming hot days in early July, sitting outside, listening to jazz. I once said to my friend Brian, with whom I’ve attended the festival for the past 14 years, “My life can be divided into two unequal portions – being at jazzfest, and waiting for jazzfest.” He readily agreed. So, I hope you’ll indulge me a bit this week. It’s another non-Boston post, and while we’ll take a look at a couple of Montreal bars, I’d be lying if I said this was anything other than a tribute to my favorite annual vacation with one of my very best friends.

But don’t worry – there’s still plenty of drinking involved.

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Our first encounter with the Jazz Festival was merely a coincidence. Neither Brian nor I had ever been to Canada and, craving a road trip, we figured Montreal would be a good place to visit. This was sort of a spur of the moment idea, and the first weekend we both had available was around the Fourth of July. We were both amused by the thought of “celebrating our independence by leaving the country.”

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The day before we left, a coworker of mine mentioned that “some jazz festival” would be going on while we were there. I passed the news on to Brian. We were both casual jazz fans at the time, and since we had no agenda for the trip (other than Brian wanting to look at a car dashboard to confirm that odometers in Canada were printed with kilometers), we figured, hey, maybe we’ll check that out.

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It would be hard not to check it out – after all, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is the biggest jazz festival in the world. Jazz fans, casual and diehard, and artists, famous and unknown, flock to Montreal in droves for this event. The city blocks off the core of its downtown area to traffic, sets up stages in the middle of streets, and has jazz playing from noon until midnight (picture all of Copley Square with no cars, like during the Boston Marathon, but with a huge stage in the middle of Boylston Street).

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That’s 12 hours of jazz a day…for 10 days. And the best part? Of the 1,000 concerts that make up the fest, two-thirds of them take place outdoors and are free.

I still remember our first impression. Is this real? They seriously shut down roads for this? There’s music…all day and night? We don’t have to pay for it? We can walk around with beer? It seemed that the city had come to a standstill for the event, and our being there was an incredible stroke of luck.

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Fourteen years later, I don’t think either of us would skip it under pain of death.

That’s a long time, 14 years. I think about all the people who’ve come into or left our lives in those years. Where we were that first year, where we are now. It’s a period marked by weddings, funerals, new jobs, changing careers, new homes, and countless other twists, turns, successes, disappointments, and major life changes.

And part of what makes this trip special and unique for us is that while life has changed a lot in that time, the substance of this 4-day weekend has hardly changed at all. Brian and I have got this Jazz Festival thing down to a science. Sure, we’ve refined it, made some improvements along the way; but the formula from trip #1 is intact. And it goes a little something like this…

We leave Boston bright and early in the middle of the week. On the years I’m driving, I pick up Brian promptly at 5:30 a.m. On the years Brian’s driving, he texts me promptly at 5:30 a.m. to tell me he’s running late.

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Some people are stunned that we willingly make a 6-hour drive, but half the fun of a road trip is being on the road. Plus, when the majority of your journey is through the lush, green mountains of Vermont, you have the road to yourself, and you’ve got lengthy playlists to keep you occupied…well, I can think of worse ways to spend a morning.

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By the time we arrive, park, and check in, it’s just about noon…and time for the music to begin. After a yearlong wait, there is nothing more stirring than walking down Rue St. Catherine and seeing the festival banner on the horizon, welcoming us back.

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There are 10 outdoor stages, along with bands roaming around and playing in the streets, so we try to set up shop in a central area.  Sometimes we’ll move around if we’re looking for a particular band, but most of the time we just stay in one spot and enjoy the music floating toward us from all directions.

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Every year, our first lunch is something from Boston – Anna’s Taqueria chicken burritos. But aside from that, there is little we require that the fest does not provide. From healthy food to numerous beer vendors, we rarely have to leave the vicinity.

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Of course, even jazz lovers need a few things to keep themselves occupied during a long day. So we bring books, checkers, playing cards, that sort of thing.

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After 5 or 6 hours sitting around in the sun doing pretty much nothing, it’s time for our intermission. We pack up camp, head back to our room, and prepare for the evening’s festivities. Our strenuous day has left us with quite an appetite, and there’s no better way to satisfy that than with a true staple of Canadian cuisine – a smoked meat sandwich. Brian’s and my preferred destination is Reuben’s. I’m sure native Montrealers would scoff at our choice; the most famous place to get a smoked meat sandwich in Montreal is Schwartz’s deli. But Reuben’s is closer to the bar we’ll be going to later, and we don’t want to overexert ourselves.

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Regardless of who makes your smoked meat sandwich, the composition is pretty much the same. You’ll get an astonishing mound of salted, cured, wonderfully spiced, smoked brisket, placed precariously on – for reasons that have always eluded me – the very smallest sandwich bread that can be found. The result is a delicious but comically unmanageable sandwich. If you pause and put the sandwich down, it will fall apart on your plate. If you hold it too long, it will fall apart in your hands. So however you choose to eat it, make sure you’re sitting down and have a fork at the ready. And there’s always a thin layer of yellow mustard, just to make things a little tastier and, of course, messier.

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Smoked meat is everywhere up here. They serve it on pizza, in pasta, in omelets, you name it. Why they haven’t thought to put it on bigger slices of bread, or even in a wrap, I don’t know. But then again, who am I to argue with tradition?

After dinner, it’s on to some well-deserved libations. The first time Brian and I came to Montreal and were looking for a place to have a few drinks, we found a humble but happening downstairs bar called the Peel Pub. It has since become a nightly stop for drinks on every trip.

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Named for the street on which it resides (Rue Peel), the Peel Pub moved down the street a number of years back. No longer housed in a basement, it now occupies two floors (both above ground). The décor has been spruced up, too. Yet despite these upgrades, this place has lost almost nothing of its divey, well-worn character.

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The Peel Pub is a sports bar, its walls adorned with memorabilia of Montreal’s football team, the Alouettes, and the local hockey club, which shall remain nameless. Plenty of TVs ensure you’ll see whatever sport you’re there to watch. There’s only a tiny bar, which hardly anyone ever sits at, but there are 35 or so small tables on each floor.

The Peel Pub offers plenty of bargain-level drink specials, like $0.99 shots on Thursdays and absurdly large pitchers of beer. On our first ever visit, a waitress who strongly resembled Kate Winslet (Brian wrongly disputes this) recommended we try a pitcher of Rhum Punch.

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And thus, yet another ritual was born. Over the course of 4 evenings, depending on the nightly special, we’ll get a pitcher of the punch, a pitcher of sangria, and a pitcher of Long Island iced tea. Because really – when you’re on vacation and in a bar that has the audacity to serve it, why wouldn’t you get a pitcher of Long Island?

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The food isn’t anything to write home about, unless you’re writing to say how much you miss the food at home. Yet, slaves to tradition that we are, Brian and I used to make a point of ordering chicken fingers and chicken quesadillas – both appetizers, not full plates, which was at one point probably a budgetary decision. After 14 years of diminishing quality, we’ve decided that as of 2012, these orders have been retired. Change comes slowly.

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The Peel Pub is essentially a college bar, attracting young customers with daily food and drink specials. It’s the kind of place I’d bring a date…if I was 18 and the extent of my logic was “Well, maybe we’ll just get drunk and see what happens.”

But this place isn’t populated just by students; when I’m there during the summer, the clientele is diverse. Plenty of locals come to watch soccer or the Alouettes (Canadian football starts in July), and patrons range from young Americans taking advantage of Canada’s lower drinking age to people in their 60s who look like they once came here for the very same reason – and like Brian and I, fell in love with the place.

From there we head up Rue St. Catherine to an equally fine establishment – the Mad Hatter. Another bar that occupies two floors, the Mad Hatter doesn’t look like it’s changed much (or been cleaned much) in the past 50 years or so. And while the interior exudes a classic dive bar charm, the real gem of the place is its roof deck.

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If there were ever such a thing as a roof-deck dive bar, the Mad Hatter’s got it. From the 1970s classic poster of Farrah Fawcett to the ubercasual atmosphere, this place feels less like a bar and more like a friend’s porch. We’ve always found the bartenders and waitstaff to be relaxed and chatty, both among themselves and with us.

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The beer options are pretty basic, stocked with Canadian classics like Molson, Moosehead, and Rickard’s (if Molson and Moosehead are Bud and Miller, Rickard’s is Sam Adams).

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There are few things more pleasant than enjoying a beer outside on a summer night, when the sun has set, the heat of the day has begun subsiding, and you’ve got nowhere to be. But Brian and I do have places to be. The nighttime jazz has gotten under way, and it’s a dramatically different scene than during the day.

From the Hatter to the Place Des Arts, where the music happens, is about a 10-minute walk (probably 5 minutes if you haven’t been drinking pitchers of Long Island). The fest, already crowded during the day, is packed by 9 p.m. Walking down St. Catherine, you can see the colored lights on the horizon, hear the music growing in volume as you approach, feel the energy of an exuberant festival crowd.

Step into the festival grounds, and the rest is pure magic.

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The enormous main stage, dormant during the day, is bathed in blue, red, yellow, and white lights. In between sets on the main stage, the other stages come to life. There’s music everywhere you turn.

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People often ask if I go to the Jazz Festival to see a particular artist; I never do. But I always come home as a fan of someone new. Yes, there are plenty of big-name acts that you can pay to see in the indoor venues, but Brian and I can’t fathom leaving the beautiful weather, the stunning visuals, and the incredible free music. And there’s plenty to discover.

The festival is truly international, drawing 3,000 artists from 30 countries. One night we saw a Japanese funk band called Osaka Monaurail, their singer an Asian version of James Brown. On another night, we were treated to the beautiful voice of Souad Massi, whose sultry North African, folk, and flamenco sound complemented the hot summer night.

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The highlight of our second-last night, and probably of the entire festival, was a Los Angeles-based sextet called Orgone. Their music blended jazz, funk, soul, R&B, and psychedelia. We saw their first set at 9, and couldn’t resist seeing them play again at 11. The energy of this band was beyond description. It’s rare that I literally dance in the streets (or anywhere, for that matter), but I guess there are times when your feet move whether your brain instructs them to or not.

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On our final night we saw a band called Chromeo, and when you find yourself singing along to songs you’ve never heard before, you know the artist has connected with you. Chromeo is electro-funk duo who describe themselves as “the only Jewish-Arab collaboration in history.” I realize this would be the place to make a profound remark about the power of music to transcend political and religious conflict and unite the world or something, but I’d labor over that for days. You get the picture.

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I have no idea how the festival organizers find bands like this, but I do know that I’d never encounter this music on my own.

From the perspective of a bar blog, I suppose I could review the beer vendors (called “Jazz Bars”) that are conveniently scattered all over the area, but there’s little to say. They pretty much serve only Heineken. They advertise Molson, which is appealing in that it’s a dollar cheaper, but every time I ask for one, they still give me Heineken.

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Not that I should complain about prices. While a $5.60 cup of beer isn’t exactly a good deal, 10 days of free music is a pretty amazing deal. Since everything you buy at the fest supports the event, it’s always easy to justify another drink.

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Warm air, phenomenal music, a great crowd, beer, a good friend…there’s only one thing that could make a night like this better.

Poutine.

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In my humble opinion, poutine is the crown jewel of French Canadian cuisine. For the uninitiated, poutine consists of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Simple. Unique. Delicious.

I would eat this stuff any time of day; but late at night, after a few beers, there is absolutely nothing better. Poutine is sold all over Montreal; Brian and I even used to get it at McDonald’s and Burger King. And while locals can probably tell you which restaurant does it best, our favorite is the kind we get from the vendors at the fest. Again – why would you ever need to leave?

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With minor tweaks and variations, we cheerfully follow the same program for the next 3 days. Then the music fades out, the crowds disperse, the beer and poutine vendors close up shop, and Brian and I mournfully transition from the “being at jazzfest” portion to the “waiting for jazzfest” portion of our lives. But while the festival only lasts 10 days, it is my sincere hope that there is no end in sight to Brian’s and my tradition.

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Encore

Over the years, people who know about our trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival have often asked, “What the hell do you guys do all that time?” Now you know.

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The festival attracts some 2 million attendees every year. Not all of them are jazz fans, and plenty of the music isn’t “jazz.” Some quibble with the varying styles, and I understand this. As a purist, I sometimes wish a jazz festival was all jazz; but with bands like Orgone fluidly combining so many styles of music and making it work…well, who defines jazz anyway? Then again, I have no idea why James Taylor was part of the program (paid, not free). And who the hell would pay $110 to see Seal? Seal? Seriously? Regardless – there’s plenty of pure jazz to be found, for free or for a fee.

There are also plenty of excellent bars in Montreal. The Peel Pub and the Mad Hatter aren’t necessarily two of them. But the particulars of a bar are often less important than the memories you have there, and Brian and I have a deep well of them.

For Brian and me, we’re there for the jazz, the non-jazz, and the general Montreal routine we’ve established for ourselves. And we’ve gone out of our way to keep a lot of silly rituals intact. So yes, we recycle a lot of old jokes; but we still laugh just as hard. We always play checkers, and Brian always cheats (before succumbing to my infinitely superior talent). We spend an absurd amount of time pondering such challenging scenarios as “what superpower would you have if you could have any.” It is equal parts tradition and obsession. Hell, it took us 14 years to agree not to eat food that neither of us were enjoying.

Some of that may sound dreadfully boring to you. Fair enough. But change is constant in our lives. Brian and I manage to preserve something we really love for 4 days out of the year, and I think we’ll do that for as long as our lives will allow.

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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal:http://www.montrealjazzfest.com/default-en.aspx/

Peel Pub: 1196 Rue Peel, Montreal, Quebec

Website:http://www.peelpubmontreal.com/en/index.php

Mad Hatter: 1208 Rue Crescent

Website: http://www.madhattermansion.com/