Our stylish neighbors to the north give a spectacular party every year, and we are all invited. The last weekend in June and first week of July always brings us to the Montreal Jazz Festival. We love skipping the promiscuous display of red, white and blue at home and are ecstatic to be going rogue.
In the upscale province of Justin Trudeau, musical surprises abound. With over 500 concerts over 10 days, the festival is a world of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, world music, and electronica. On June 28, Seal, the man with the velvet voice, will start the festival on a soulful note. And yes, that’s George Thorogood and the Destroyers headlining July 1 with a roaring Rock Party that promises to be a festive smash.
Peace and Love
Imagine thousands of peaceful music fans in the heart of downtown Montreal on the Place des Festivals, closed to traffic. From intimate venues to enormous open-air events, the festival brings an unforgettable array of musical joie de vivre!
Along with finally learning the words to O Canada, I look forward to the following artists among the astonishing performers for 2018:
Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and the Flecktones; Betty Bonifassi with Ex Machina in a theatrical odyssey inspired by African-American slave songs from the ’30s; trumpet virtuoso Chris Botti; Dee Dee Bridgewater, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and Tony-winning actress; François Bourassa, amazing jazz pianist from Quebec; Geoffroy, compelling new Montreal talent; straight-up jazz from the UK’s GoGo Penguin trio; Herbie Hancock, pianist, bandleader and composer who played with the Miles Davis Quintet—jazz royalty; the versatile Holly Cole whose repertoire includes jazz, show tunes, rock, and country; the amazing Leslie Odom Jr., fresh from his Tony Award winning performance in Hamilton, who will likely bring the house down. Have you heard his take on Autumn Leaves? Germany’s Max Richter whose haunting minimalist jazz compositions keep me awake at night; one of music’s premier talents, Ry Cooder, who began in the blues and just keeps moving forward; and Snarky Puppy, a Brooklyn-based fusion jam band combining jazz, rock and funk. And this just in: Ani Di Franco on July 4th!
Free For All
There are also hundreds of free concerts. In 2017, personal highlights included Montreal’s own Betty Bonifassi singing the blues with guts and grace. Pokey LaFarge, riled up and better than ever, with Riot In The Streets and Something In The Water. And around midnight, Guy Belanger’s harmonica wails across the Place des Festivals, drawing me through the sea of people like a magnet — so accessible, and so free.
We dormez bien in the heart of Montreal at the Trylon Apartments on Rue Sainte-Famille. Our studio apartment on the 22nd floor has sweeping views of the city, and is a cozy place to call home after a day of world-class music and bright sun. We sit on the deck and count the stars. If it’s a particularly late night, we watch the sun come up over North America’s most stylish and convivial city.
Townie breakfast favorites include quirky La Crepe 2 Go on rue Bleury, a small space with big flavors. Our nearby boulangerie on Sherbrooke has beautiful breads, bagels, and croissants. Try a baguette, sliced — a Montreal courtesy.
If you don’t want to stray from the Place des Festivals, there are a range of epicurean choices, high and low. We always enjoy Nyk’s, a charming and informal city classic with garage-style windows open to the street. We share a few messy skewers à la crevette with local brews — small or large, red or blonde. No serious decisions, here.
An upscale new addition to the Place des Festivals is city stalwart, Blumenthal. With plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, confident and creative cooking, plus crazy-good poutine and tartare de saumon, we do not have to be coaxed.
Lac Brome duck salad with fresh farm egg is locally sourced, unctuous and beautiful. We continue with pieuvre grillée, grilled octopus, with lentils and curry butter. Gorgeous! Each dish, down to the smallest garden pea, knocks our socks off.
We prolong the magic with a bright passion-fruit tart — two forks, please. The Lady Liberty torch of browned meringue adds irresistible 4th of July irony. The brasserie menu is French, accessible and delicieux — highly recommended. Reserve a table at Blumenthal and arrive hungry.
Art for Art’s Sake
We always amble down Sherbrooke to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The sprawling space, designed by Montreal’s own Moshe Safdie, is expansive and filled with light. This is Safdie at his most suave — another soaring space designed by one of the world’s most inspired and inspiring architects.
At this summer’s compelling exhibition, Mnemosyne, the present meets the past through art — old and new — a smart choice for our seemingly rudderless era. Put on your free headset and go with the flow as Mnemosyne creates a dialogue between the antique and the avant garde through diverse artists, like …
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (above); Salvador Dalí; Sigmund Holbein; Claude Monet; Pieter van Roestraten; Jacques Sablet the Younger; Jean-Joseph Taillasson … and more.
The exhibition extends a colorful invitation to build bridges between contemporary art and art of the past. Curator Geneviève Goyer-Ouimette says, “It provides viewers of all ages a place of gathering, discussion, reflection and bursts of laughter!” Don’t miss it.
As always, art makes us hungry. We cruise rue Crescent, one of Montreal’s great dining districts, for a meal at L’Academie which we remember from its early heyday as an informal BYO culinary school. We share a plate of moules frites in creamy leek and wine sauce. Yummy. Best of all, it’s still BYO. Bring your Musée de Beaux Arts ticket for 15% off!
Don’t miss our favorite Montreal neighborhood, Griffintown. Historically a working-class stronghold, this rapidly gentrifying hunk of Montreal still feels accessible, within reach.
We sun ourselves in sling chairs along the Lachine Canal as local families chatter in French. We doze, dreaming of Canadian citizenship. Look out, Justin Trudeau.
We visit Atwater Market for fresh veggies, local duck terrine, smoked meat, stinky cheese, ice wine, and local flowers. Atwater is bright, convivial and fresh as morning.
The convivial Burgundy Lion Pub has cold Sarah Cole cider and Burgundy Lion ale. Try the signature cod cakes with lemon aoli. Sit outside or in — the Lion rocks a pub lunch.
Last but not least, we pay our respects to Montreal’s favorite son, Leonard Cohen — beloved songwriter, world-weary poet and reluctant performer. We have our city map and Cohen’s biography to help us find the ultimate tribute to the late great one. We ask around. Locals insist that we look behind Moishes in the Plateau, Cohen’s old hangout.
Voila! This craggy and moving portrait towers over the grubby parking lot. There are dumpsters and graffiti, too, but I don’t think Leonard would mind.
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Don’t miss the 39th edition of the Festival International de Jazz Montreal. Pay your respects to Leonard while enjoying a world-class array of magical jazz in all its forms. You will find the hospitality of our partying neighbors to the north unparalleled.