Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival featuring Harry Manx, Friendly Rich, Tunnel Six

St. John's, NL July 13-16

BY David DacksPublished Jul 18, 2011

The rime of an ancient Newfoundlander tells of last year's Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues fest sprinkled by a mere ten minutes of drizzle. This year featured a mid-July day with a single-digit high and mid-double digit millimetres of rain.

The tenth edition of the festival got rolling with one of its highlights: Eastern-tinged guitarist Harry Manx. Playing to a nearly over-full house at the Majestic Theatre, Manx charmed the crowd by cracking wise and putting the room totally at ease. His mohan veena, a 20-string Indian-built slide guitar, was hypnotizing. One could see the logic of putting the loud and electric Sisters Euclid on afterwards, but much of the Wednesday night crowd filtered away over the course of the set. When the band's set worked, it was quite imaginative, but the mix was a bit shrill.

The following night, Toronto's Jaffa Road intrigued with songs from their Levantine dub album Sun Place and even more so with new material with stronger guitar riffs and funkier drums. H2 Harkness Herriott duo of guitar and trumpet revealed two excellent musicians and composers in sync within the intimate confines of the Victorian-era Masonic Temple. Later on, above the Rocket Bakery, smoky-voiced Toronto vocalist Andrea Koziol brought intensity to a cover of Bill Withers's "Lean on Me" done in a post-rock arrangement minus a drum kit.

Back at the Rocket on Friday, drummer Mark McLean proved to be one of the best groove-oriented musicians of the whole festival, though his complex songs often defaulted to schmaltzy interludes. The second festival highlight was the always-anarchic Friendly Rich. This show should have been epic in the rainy, drunk environs of George Street's Rock House, but the sparse crowd was a letdown. The band knocked out a bracing combination of Tom Waits, Mike Patton's rococo Italian pop stylings and wicked New Orleans second-line drumming. Rich playfully harangued members in the crowd one by one to get them dancing. Local keyboardist Mark Bragg and the Claws kept the angularity going with accordion, eccentric arrangements and the inclusion of a "Stroh violin" with a trumpet-like bell attached for amplification.

The final night of the festival featured Kenwood Dennard, who had appeared in the festival's first edition. This set represented everything that gave fusion a bad name in the first place: excellent musicians with no sense of restraint, songs that were merely vehicles for showing off and multiple keytar atrocities. Dennard was obviously a master of the kit, but wasted no time in giving 200 percent at all times.

St. John's Greek band the Lost Bouzouki were refreshing by comparison despite tuning problems. When it comes to rembetika, sometimes misnamed "Greek blues," tuning problems are actually an advantage. Uzume Taiko from Vancouver were down to a trio, which affected the complexity of their original takes on Japanese drumming. A modernist piece did not require the same kind of precision and was a swinging highlight.

In terms of precision, the festival's winners were Tunnel Six. The sextet played highly detailed songs with effortless grace. This might have been the best out-and-out jazz at the festival, and the audience was really into it. More bands like this would be a great way to go for this diverse, solidly attended festival in years to come.

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