As we reported in our last column, the festival offers in cabaret-like venues the kinds of acts that we don't ordinarily get a chance to see in New York's cabaret clubs. A trio called Safa is a prime example. The group's three members come variously from Teheran, Montreal, and San Juan, and their music reflects a blend of their disparate cultures. Safa's sound is a delicious stew of gypsy music with classical elements--here a little klezmer, there a little Arabic influence. Very tasty stuff, served with guitar, clarinet and percussion. (The name Safa, by the way, is a Farsi word meaning inner purity and sincerity; oh, the things you learn at a music festival!)
We heard Safa in Québec City's famous jazz club, the Clarendon. Another impressive performance we caught at the same venue on another evening was that of Pierre Bensusan, a French guitarist-singer with a poetic nature. He played his guitar like a consummate lover; the strings truly did quiver. We didn't understand a word he sang, but his voice was used to wonderful effect, often in counterpoint to his playing.
At the Pub Saint-Alexandre, a winning combination of working-class bar and tourist attraction, we were offered the opportunity to see the historically significant Fairport Convention from Great Britain. This once groundbreaking folk group, which transformed a hokey form into a new, hip sound in the late 1960s, played two late shows, and we are pleased to report that their sound is still stirring and effective. One of the most exciting acts of the festival also appeared at Pub Saint-Alexandre: a seven member Irish group called Dervish. These magnificent seven scored in ballads, rousing reels, and even a touch of the blues. They could be The Chieftans of the next generation!
Our last night in Québec City was, perhaps, the most exciting--and definitely the longest--of the entire expedition. It began with Soraya Benitez, a Venezuelan woman who settled in Québec. Earthy, sensual, and powerful, this heart-stopping performer was one of the few entertainers who provided a solo star turn in the festival's outdoor cabaret-style space, backed by a large band. Later that night we stood for over an hour and a half in the crowded Clarendon jazz club to hear Spanish flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler (later joined by an accordionist) give an exquisite example of his art. Subtle yet deeply emotional, he offered one encore after another to a grateful audience.
Soler finished playing at 12:30am. We hadn't packed, our train was leaving in the morning, but we couldn't stop; not yet. At 1:00am, guitarist-singer Takashi Hirayasu from Japan was playing at the Pub Saint-Alexandre. He was joined, to our delight, by the musically inexhaustible Bob Brozman. A day earlier, Brozman had lent his talents to a mediocre Québec blues band and lifted them to the stratosphere. He had raced off from there to play with his old pal, the world famous accordionist Rene Lacaille, at two late-night gigs. On this occasion, he essentially switched roles with Hirayasu, who first demonstrated his ancient three-stringed Japanese instrument, then played Spanish guitar while Brozman provided a sweet Asian sound on his slide guitar. And then the evening really took off as Rene Lacaille showed up to join Hirayasu and the Bob Brozman Trio.
Lacaille brought his entire band with him. In the course of one extended song, five performers climbed up on stage and jammed with the five who were already there. At close to 3:00am, these 10 musicians from all over the world played the most culturally diverse rendition of "Stand by Me" you will ever be blessed to hear--and, in French-speaking Québec, the audience sang along in English. It was the perfect finale to the night and the ultimate topper to this amazing festival.