Sunday, June 25, 2006

Concert: Jesse Cook, June 24, Winnipeg

Jazz Winnipeg Festival
Jesse Cook / Kyle Riabko
June 24, Winnipeg
Burton Cummings Theatre
Winnipeg, Canada
sold out: 1646

As I was walking to the Burton Cummings Theatre, I couldn't help but notice the number of couples heading to the venue, hand in hand. Usually, I don't see any hand-holding as fans head off to the rock and pop concerts that I have attended lately. This was going to be a prime romantic date night for many fans, no doubt.

MC Lisa Best mentioned that they had a special treat for us and we quickly became a soon-to-be nationally televised audience for a performance by Winnipeg's Easily Amused, a pop duo consisting of Keith MacPherson and Renee Lamoureux. MacPherson was a contender in Canadian Idol and they were being recorded by CTV for broadcast on the show. The song didn't make a lasting impression on me, but MacPherson was lively and fun. Whether or not he becomes the next Canadian Idol, I believe he impressed the audience. I'm also going to track down their CD, Simple Stuff.

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Easily Amused

Kyle Riabko is only 19 years old, but has been performing for half his life. The young blues-funk rocker puts on one heck of an energetic show. Like with the case of many artists, however, bringing his act to the next level where he can make a strong impression in the public's consciousness due to his songs and not due to his age, may be a while away yet. You can't help but root for a guy who tries so hard and who carries himself as a seasoned professional. His style of music would no doubt appeal to fans of blue collar music, such as Jeff Healy, among others, but what launched Healy's career into the stratosphere back in the late 80s wasn't so much his gee-whiz phenomenal virtuoso guitar playing - the best new axeman since Stevie Ray Vaughn, many people said, but his fantastic songs on his debut album. Songs like Angel Eyes and Confidence Man were distinctive and memorable. There are lots of great instrumentalists out there, but what elevates some into the national spotlight, are the songs. I haven't heard any of Riabko's CDs but if he played his best songs last night, he's still short of some truly memorable material. Easily Amused's Renee Lamoureux providing backing vocals on several songs.

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Kyle Riabko

Forty-one year-old Jesse Cook is one of the world's most beloved flamenco acoustic guitar players and performers. His show began with an exotic, middle-eastern sounding number, rich with atmosphere. It sounded like something you could hear on a movie soundtrack. His band consisted of a new drummer, percussionist Art Avalos who also employed a stand-up drum kit, Collin Barrett on electric bass player, violinist Chris Church a second acoustic guitarist in the form of Nicolas Hernandez. Cook spoke to the audience frequently, but usually did so with a touch of nervous humility.

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Chris Church, Nicolas Hernandez, Jesse Cook

The performance was flawless, with song after song of beautifully played music being rolled out one after another. Early in the set, Cook played two new but as yet unnamed tracks and was open to song title suggestions from the audience. The first song was melancholy in flavour and after they finished it, someone called out "Winter in Winnipeg" as the suggested title. This earned a lot of laughter from the crowd. Much more laughter ensued when it was suggested that to do a song title like that justice, you'd need an entire boxed set of music, given the long winters we have here. After each new song, he also motioned his arms up and down like a scale, to visually ask the audience to weigh in with their opinion, which, naturally, was totally in favour. Cook had them eating out of the palm of their hands the entire evening, but no one seemed to mind.

At one point, percussionist Art Avalos began to slap away at the box he was sitting on which resulted in an unusual solo of sorts. The box was miked for amplification and he played like a regular instrument, save for the last moments when he used the heel of one of his shoe to complete the solo. Needless to say, there was much applause. All the players were great, in fact. The violinist added an extra dimension to the sound. There appeared to be, to my ears, an unseen keyboardist offstage. While the violinist played, there was an obvious and long sustained bass note that didn't come from the 6-stringed bass guitar. That sound added bottom end and just made the violin's sound to appear to be very cinematic and ever so exotic.

How do you value music that is breathtakingly beautiful, flawlessly played and achieving thunderous applause, yet is difficult to tell apart? I could have sworn that the opening, catchy and distinctive notes on the first song he played, reappeared twice again in the set. When it's tough to tell the songs apart, suddenly, in my opinion, I'm at a crossroads. Either all the songs are easy to distinguish if you are a real fan and possess all his CDs and I'm simply not familiar enough with his recorded collection or, the amount of creative songwriting that goes into the music is actually dismally low, yet due to the attractiveness of the sound, this is easily overlooked by the audience. The material, for me, made me imagine a cookie cutter formula meant to generate songs. If there's little distinction between the compositions, then one must conclude that they are, in fact, not as strong as they could be and the music is, essentially, pretty sonic wallpaper.

During the first of the two encores, the group stood at the front edge of the stage with the drummer, percussionist and bass player hand-clapping, the two guitarists playing unplugged (which quieted down the audience significantly so everyone could hear) and the violinist, Chris Church, singing. It was a refreshing change of pace and resulted in possibly the strongest applause all evening. The band played five songs for the encores and could have easily played longer, if they continued to meet the audience's demands for more.

Despite my misgivings about the lack of distinction between the songs, or compositions really, Jesse Cook and his band put on one heck of show and more than gave the audience their money's worth. He's off to the Montreal Jazz Festival next week to film a live DVD.

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