The 30th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival went out as it came in: with fireworks filling the sky over downtown Montreal. This time, instead of Stevie Wonder presiding over the free outdoor megashow, Ben Harper and Relentless7 were closing the festival with their bronto-beat finale, “Serve Your Soul,” while all manner of multicolored rocket bursts spread overhead and some 200,000 people cheered.
There was plenty to cheer about on the ground, too. Harper, playing on the General Motors stage to a city that has embraced him from the earliest days of his career, dedicated the anthemic “Fly One Time to Montreal” to the festival and the event’s co-founder, Andre Menard. The shout-out came roughly at the mid-way point of a hard-rocking show that saw Harper backed by the Relentless7’s classic power trio line-up — an approach that often evokes Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. With bassist Jesse Ingalls, guitarist Jason Mozersky and drummer Jordan Richardson, Harper and his slide guitar made that musical connection explicit when he slowed down “Why Must You Always Dress In Black” and eased the group into the Hendrix classic “Red House.”
During a press conference earlier in the day, Harper identified the first Led Zeppelin LP as his favorite rock album. A faithful cover of “Good Times Bad Times” in last nightâ€™s set list paid tribute to that seminal record, while a version of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” drew the strongest reaction of the night. But it was on the originals that the band seemed to feel most comfortable stretching out, doing a long, slow burn on “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” and letting the momentum build at its own pace during the insistent “Boots Like These.”
“It’s me and you against the world,” Harper sang during the latter song. But with 200,000 ready to join his side on the spot, there seemed to be a fighting chance.