During the course of the year, there is no city on earth that can match New York for variety of cabaret entertainment; but, for a week and a half in early July, Québec City in Canada suddenly becomes the cabaret capital of the world. During this picture postcard city's Summer Festival--in addition to all sorts of open air concerts featuring rock, fusion, techno, et al.--an astonishing number of cabaret-style venues offer everything from Cubano music to jazz, both indoors and out. During the festival, the real language of this French-speaking city is music, and there is plenty of it. More to the point, the world-class quality cabaret offered here is refreshing, original, and exciting. And there isn't even a two-drink minimum!
The historical and geographic gateway to North America, Québec City has been the object of conquests by the French, the English, and the Americans. This year, beginning on July 4, it has been conquered by musicians from all over the world. Our favorite battlefield thus far (the Festival continues through July 14) is the Pub Saint-Alexandre; we find ourselves here at the end of almost every night, listening to the likes of slide guitar sensation and festival favorite Bob Brozman, Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeff Lang, and the blues/gospel band The Campbell Brothers.
Brozman, about whom we've written before, is a guitar guru and a talent magnet; during the festival, he is often joined on stage by some of the most celebrated guitarists in the world. This year, Lang, another extraordinarily gifted Australian, jammed with Brozman in the intimate environs of the Pub Saint-Alexandre to thrilling effect. The wildly theatrical Brozman finds his perfect complement in the subtle delicacy of Lang's artistry. For us, Lang is one of the new discoveries of this year's festival. He plays the acoustic guitar and has gained worldwide acclaim during the last decade; he also has seven CDs to his credit, one of which we now happily own.
Another favorite act at Pub Saint-Alexandre is The Campbell Brothers, who specialize in "praise music." Coming out of the gospel tradition, they fuse blues with a holy roller style of performance that puts the spirit back in spiritual. An American group that tends to play a bit too loud for our sensitive ears, they are nonetheless soul-stirring and exciting. Most of the guys in the band are, indeed, brothers, aided and abetted by a cousin or two. Their female vocalist is Denise Brown, who is not a Campbell but is surely related by music: She wails! By the way: The Pub Saint-Alexandre does have a token cover charge, but anyone who has visited Feinstein's or the Oak Room in New York will laugh at the cost. And, once you get into the club, there's no minimum!
Another Québec City spot, this one specializing in jazz, L'Emprise du Clarendon has no cover charge but insists you buy one drink; no hardship there. It was at the Clarendon that we caught Habana Sax, a Cubano group featuring four sax players and a drummer. Habana Sax's playful "choreography" and joyful style had the place packed beyond capacity; even the sidewalk outside the club's big bay window was crowded six-deep with people listening to the music waft out into the night air. Less exciting was Italy's Filippo Gambetta: An accomplished accordion player, backed by violin and guitar, Gambetta was nonetheless bland. Tellingly, his set was one of the few times at the club when we were able to catch an act while seated at a table, rather than having to stand.
A new festival venue called The Periscope often presents alternative music acts. We caught a hot French group called noJazz that played The Village Vanguard in New York not long ago. Essentially an instrumental ensemble featuring an exceptional young trumpeter along with an impressive saxophonist, a nutty keyboard player, a drummer who doubles on guitar, and a turntable artist, noJazz is an exciting group that cannot help but impress with their musicianship and sense of creative vitality, even though they are not to our particular tastes. The buzz on the group is that they're going to break out big time; based on the audience reaction at Periscope, we wouldn't be at all surprised if that's exactly what happens.
In addition to the variety of indoor clubs (more to come on that front in our next column), the Québec City Summer Festival boasts an inviting, outdoor cabaret-style venue. Situated at the foot of the Saint Jean gate, the Metro Place has a large stage facing an open square filled with tables and chairs. Waitresses sell beer to patrons who listen to one act after another, all afternoon and evening. The audience overflow (and there is always overflow) is accommodated on the concrete staircase that leads up to the Montcalm Palais and upon the parapets of the Old City gate. It's here that we heard the exciting Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks and the stylish Rosenberg Trio, whose members emulate the music of Django Reinhardt.
To hear music at Metro Place and all the other outdoor venues (except the cabaret-style spots) for the length of the festival, all you need do--other than get yourself to Québec City as quick as you can--is buy a button they call a macaroon, which costs about $6 U.S. and gets you into every outdoor event. That makes this festival the best live music bargain in North America and, arguably, the world.