Jamaica Jazz And Blues Festival 2015 | Event Review

Music is among the things that Jamaica is best known for in the world – both as creators of it and as consumers – so you know that a premiere musical event such as the Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival is a noteworthy. As it happens, the Festival is also a big deal to travelers and musicians from all over the world. January 29-31, 2015 welcomed the 19th annual such festival to the Trelawney Stadium outside of Montego Bay. The festival is particularly well known for the variety of music offered and for its ability to attract VIP headliners. Past stars have included Celine Dion, Gladys Night, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, and Michael Bolton. This year the main attraction was Mariah Carey. Each of the three nights had a particular flavour, with some surprising highlights and lowlights in store for the crowd of more than 20,000.

Thursday night was soca/reggae night, with a special tribute to international reggae legend John Holt, who passed away late in 2014. Holt’s career began in the rocksteady era of the late 1950s/early 1960s, produced 50 albums, and forever elevated the Jamaican music scene. The homage to this grandfather of Jamaican music included diverse performers including Josey Wales, Errol Dunkley, George Nooks and many more. A small but spirited crowd appreciated the young developing artists who kicked off the festival as well as the celebratory tribute to Holt’s music.

The second day of Jamaica Jazz & Blues Fest, which featured the headline act, should have been the highlight of the weekend. Perhaps the pounding rain that delayed the start of the evening’s performances was an omen. The crowd arrived early with rain ponchos, golf umbrellas, and a willingness to wait hours for Mariah Carey.

The early acts, once the weather lightened, were enjoyable: a borderline-country guitar and voice performance from Roy McGregor and smooth lover’s covers from Miguel Antonio were indicative of the variety of music that qualifies as ‘jazz and blues.’ The Silver Birds Steel Orchestra took the stage and immediately boosted the energy in the damp crowd. Their music was as entertaining as their accompanying acrobatics, choreography and contortions. Saxophonist Artuto Tappin made instrumental music fun and wowed the crowd with his special guest Simona, a 10-year old Kingston girl with a huge voice who sang “Many Rivers to Cross.” The final pre-headline act was Richie Stephens, who took the crowd to church, to the dance floor, and back again. He moved smoothly from sexy, let-me-make-love-to-you jazz to ‘skatic’ – a frantic, fun marriage of ska and EDM with some fancy dancing on the side.
As Stephens finished the stadium field was filling up, and the happy crowd were on their feet dancing, cheering, and ready for the night’s superstar. A fun, party atmosphere developed. The food booths had line ups of people excitedly chatting, and a DJ filled the air between bands to keep the energy high. It would prove a Herculean task.

The way in which Jamaicans cherish powerful singers such as Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey has surprised me, and I was looking more forward to seeing the crowd response to Mariah Carey than I was personally interested in hearing her sing. Despite a completely undressed stage, more than an hour passed between Richie Stephens’ exit and Carey’s much anticipated grand entrance. However, she didn’t make it through the entire first song without seeming lost, stopping to catch her breath, and laughing “It’s okay, this is like a rehearsal for us.” You could feel the energy shift in the crowd, and the resentment.

A Jamaican concert audience is an informed and passionate audience. They know the music; they are used to great performances; and they are used to being appreciated. With her first interactions Carey began to alienate them. Her show continued to limp with forgotten lyrics, songs interrupted to discuss her ill-fitting gown or limp hair, comments that meandered, and multiple lengthy costume changes. At one point Carey stopped a song and said “I’m just being myself up here, if that’s a problem, well, I dunno, is that a problem for anyone?.” It was a problem.

People paid money – quite a bit of money – to see the diva live. They waited up to 6 hours. Carey had never performed in the Caribbean before, so there was a large contingent in attendance from other islands. They did not get what they paid for, at least from Mariah Carey. Muttering from the audience included jokes about Carey’s mental health, questions of her sobriety, repeated statements about wanting their money back, and a mom consoling her 10 or 12 year old daughter. After 40 minutes of poorly chosen songs poorly delivered, people begin to leave, walking out in a growing stream.

There was one last chance for Mariah to build good will with the crowd when she asked what they wanted to hear. The repeated answers of “Hero” and “Butterfly,” however, were not what she wanted to sing. Instead she ended with a song she’d never sung in public. Carey’s performance should be on an episode of “What Not to Do.” When she finally wrapped up, she left the stage to the barest of polite applause.
Morgan Heritage, who closed the night, were handed over a wet and disgruntled crowd after 2:00 am. When they rains began again people had had enough and exited en masse. It was an unfair set up for a classic Jamaican roots reggae act.

The final night of Jamaica Jazz Fest was clear and dry, ran smoothly, and presented professional musicians who showed respect for and joy in their audience. Canadian group MAGIC! brought high-class & high-energy and were thrilled to find that the audience was familiar with their music beyond the last summer’s breakout hit “Rude.” One jazz fest veteran said he was impressed with their entire set, and particularly liked that lead singer Nasri came right down and interacted with the crowd. MAGIC! combines pop energy, a reggae beat, and clever story-telling to pull in the crowd, and in return gets waves of energy and appreciation.

The only notes I have for Charlie Wilson, former lead singer of The Gap Band and another multi-decade performer is “Charlie Charlie Charlie please don’t stop!” The rest of the audience felt the same way, and it is unfortunate that a festival setting doesn’t allow for encores. The crowd was up and moving for Charlie Wilson in a way they never had the previous night.

For me the highlight of the weekend was the two final performances, which took me straight back to high school dances, fluttering hearts, and trying to record songs off the AM radio. I hadn’t realised how much Peter Cetera had influenced my idea of love, life, and music until I heard him sing my entire adolescence on stage. After 40 years in the business, Cetera still has one of the smoothest voices and most sincere deliveries in music. His set included hit after massive hit from either Chicago or his solo career. When the entire press pit is smiling, singing along or dancing, you know you’ve got a star on stage who takes care of the people supporting him.

Cetera was followed by The Pointer Sisters. While they might now more accurately be called The Pointer Sister, Niece and Grand-Daughter, the songs were the same, the sound was the same, and the fun flowed off the stage. “Automatic,” “Fire,” “Slow Hand” (which is still stuck in my head three days later), – once they start singing, you realise The Pointer Sisters have more hits than you may remember at first mention. Ending with “I’m So Excited” and “Neutron Dance” truly sent the crowd away smiling.

Next January will see the 20th running of the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, and it will be spectacular. The festival – with its one stage, massive screens, food booths and marketplace – is a simple concept delivered well. Logistically, the only real nightmare was getting out of the parking lot at the end of the night. In spite of a number of security and police personnel being present, there was little to no guidance in the lot itself, and cars attempted in every which way to get some sort of advantage towards the gate. Otherwise, the facilities were adequate, the food offerings diverse and relatively fairly priced, and there were no major technical glitches, and being amongst a knowledgeable Jamaican crowd is a great experience for any music lover. Book now – you will not want to miss Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival 2016.