It was a perfect winter night when I arrived at the Lion d’Or. Just below zero, cold enough for thick snowflakes to fill the night without it being too cold to appreciate them. It is at hushed times like those that I truly love Montreal. It was definitely the right mood to be in to hear Mike Rud, Sienna Dahlen, and the rest of the top-notch band perform the entirety of their Juno award-winning album, “Notes on Montreal”. The album is in fact inspired by and based on numerous aspects of the city – different places, authors, musicians.
After a short tune introducing pianist Chad Linsley, bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Dave Laing, Rud invited the Babayaga string quartet onstage and began the first tune in their run-through of the album. He announced that it was inspired by Mordecai Richler, the famed Canadian author born in Montreal. This became a common theme; many of the songs were inspired by Canadian novels and writers, such as the tune “Florentine” with its sensual cello line and almost tango-like rhythm, written with the famous Canadian novel Bonheur d’Occasion in mind. Or the playful piece entitled “Baby”, based on the protagonist of Lullabies for Little Criminals.
Besides making me feel inadequate about the insufficient number of Canadian classics that I have read, Mike Rud’s songs constantly mentioned places familiar to any Montrealer – the cross atop the Mountain, Carré St-Louis, the Plateau, St-Catherine street, Jean Talon market. Notably, an entire song on the album is dedicated to Lafontaine Park. To be honest, part of me wanted to laugh – I mainly think of Parc Lafontaine as the only public place on earth where I have, more than once, stumbled across half-hidden couples having sex. Clearly, Mike Rud has had different experiences in Montreal’s renowned park, and the result is a song that is certainly enchanting. Indeed, the relatively hyper crowd was entirely hushed for this voice/guitar duet that truly brought the best out of the pair. Sienna Dahlen’s voice sounded as precise and clear as a horn, and Mike Rud acted as the perfect accompanist.
I won’t lie, some of some of the tunes took themselves just a tad too seriously for my taste – like “Bags, Clothes, Bottles”, sung from the point of view of a woman who searches through her neighbors’ trash bags, which was accompanied by a string arrangement that one could almost expect to find in a Disney movie.
In fact, the second half of the show did away with the complex arrangements and romantic descriptions, moving instead to a sort of jam session wherein the singer called out tunes on the spot, and the five musicians (the string players had left at this point) soloed expertly over each, including Dahlen. Ironically enough, I believe I enjoyed this part of the show more than the carefully rehearsed first half. By the end of the night, we were all impressed and entertained by the musical expertise and creativity of all of the musicians onstage. I suppose that, though I love Montreal, I just love improvisational jazz even more.
Notes on Montreal is truly an experience in storytelling, conjured up by Mike Rud and his love for this city, transmitted through Sienna Dahlen’s pure tone and backed by truly superb musicians. So don’t let my admittedly low threshold for a certain degree of cheesiness scare you off; this is, in the end, a perfect album for lovers of Montreal.