Concert Date:
October 15, 2009
Clearwater, FL

review by:
Shannon West

photos by:
Cathy Powers

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Clearwater is tucked away on Florida's west coast, east of Tampa and north of St. Petersburg.  Driving over the long bridge across the bay sets up the mood for laid back Florida living and compared to the burgeoning cities that surround it, it does have an old-town feel.  For the last 30 years it has also had a jazz festival that started out with local bands playing off flatbed trucks set up as stages and grew into a world-class four-day event.  Coachman Park is beautiful.  It overlooks the bay, bordered by water on one side and some of the city's showcase buildings on the other.  By mid-October, the mosquito count and humidity have usually dropped and the sun sets over the water around the time the opening acts wrap up and make way for the headliner.  It's a free event, funded in part by the High Note Society, a group organized to support jazz in the area, and other donations and concession sales.  The staff is almost entirely made up of volunteers who take care of everything from backstage logistics to concessions.  The last time I attended, almost 10 years ago, it was a laid-back gig with the crowd sitting on the hillside enjoying the music.  Now it is big and crowded, but it's a friendly enthusiastic crowd, with all ages and lots of families attending. 

This year's festival headliners included Al Jarreau, Chris Botti, Boney James, Les Sabler, Gumbi Ortiz, Brian Bromberg, and the Neville Brothers.  Lured by the idea of Jarreau by the bay and one of my new guitar heroes, Nate Najar as the opening act on a beautiful October evening I made the journey across the state for the festival's opening evening.  My inner spoiled girl hit a wall upon arrival.  When you are covering an event it helps to have media credentials, you can take pictures reasonably close to the stage and usually find a space to sit and pull out your laptop.  Mine had been promised, but somehow disappeared into a cosmic void.  The guy at the help desk waved me away with promises of a meet and greet later, but for now, just go enjoy the show.  And that was the suggestion my type-A brain needed to process and my music fan spirit needed to hear.  Without feeling like I had to get fabulous photos, and no way to take notes beyond a handwritten scrawl, I headed out into the crowd to be a fan instead of working media, and ended up watching the crowd watch Al Jarreau.  I was surrounded by people loving and being loved by the artists on stage.  Beautiful stories everywhere.

I have seen Al Jarreau around 40 times in the last 30 years.  The fact that I'm not bored yet says it all.  He surrounds himself with incredible musicians who turn every song into an experience.  There are songs he has to do - hits from years ago that his long time fans expect - so he reconfigures them.  He tweaks them by changing the rhythm, the harmony, the phrasing, sometimes even the entire context.  He released his first album in 1975 and everyone has their favorites.  The hits, yes, but more significantly the favorites that didn't get played on the radio all the time.  How does an artist deliver the amount of each that will keep it interesting and exciting but still keep the hit-oriented fan or new listener interested?  He scatters some songs into medleys, mixing a few verses and segueing into other songs that would be incongruous in the hands of most musicians.  I wandered through the field packed with people, lawn chairs, and blankets and squeezed close to the fence that separated the VIP area just in time to join the crowd in welcoming Jarreau with a standing ovation.  He opened with "Never Givin' Up," a fan favorite but just a minor radio hit with a sing-along chorus and inspirational lyric that segued into the bluesy soul chant chorus of "Black and Blues."  Then he jumped into jazzier territory as vocalist Debbie Davis, she of stunning voice and striking look, joined him for a duet of "My Funny Valentine."  A couple sitting next to me snuggles and a guy nearby stands up to take a picture and leans on the fence, captivated.  Jarreau starts to tease the audience with the opening notes of "Mornin," now transformed from a cheery little pop song into an invocation.  Jarreau concert veterans raise their hands toward the sky long before band urges them to sing the chorus and "reach out my hand to touch the face of God."  Heading back to earth, keyboard/sax man Joe Turano brings his bluesy- gritty voice to Joe Cockers' part on "Lost and Found" then Al brings out a real gem, "You Don't See Me," from his 1975 debut We Got By.  He introduces it with a monologue about how he was "must have been an angrier man" back then, a distorted guitar line adding to the effect, then he launches into a version just as fired up as the original.  The mood shifts: "After All."  People sing along with the chorus, and the keyboard part.  "We're In This Love Together" - there is a family sitting by the sidewalk, at least four generations, they are all swaying along with the chorus, one woman holding a young child.  When Al starts singing "Fire and Rain," a twenty-something couple hold hands and the guy starts singing along with the chorus, looking straight into her eyes.

There is a video screen halfway towards the back of the field.  People are lined up in front of it, able to view expertly shot close-ups of the people onstage.  I talk to someone who moved from his VIP seats in front of the stage to the back so he could watch the video screen.  "I like watching it on TV," he says.  The depth is a little distorted in the close ups but you can look the musicians right in the eyes.  A scary thought crosses my mind.  What if we end up gathering in concert venues and the band plays onstage while a large portion of the audience migrates to the big screen for a more "enhanced" experience?  Does it alter the experience entirely?  Is that too sci-fi to think about?  "Take 5" starts with the band bending and stretching the introductory notes.  A dad leans against the fence with his two daughters.  One of them picks up a stick and starts scratching out a rhythm of her own, running the stick up and down the wires on the fence.  The band members get to solo and they go off.  First Mike Simmons on drums, then bassist Stan Sargent goes from thumpin' funky to subtle nuance, guitarist John Caldderon steps on stage for some searing riffs the keyboardist Larry Williams joins them and they break into a powerful free form jam that has the crowd on their feet and hands in the air.  Someone points to the video screen where Al is returning, fist bumping the drummer then patting his heart.  Showin' the love!  It's a work night and it's getting late.  Some people start to pack up their chairs and picnic baskets but most of them stop in their tracks when Al begins an almost whispered version of the classic "Midnight Sun."  The moon hangs high, the crowd is hushed and listening.  Then they break into their encore "Boogie Down," leaving everyone dancing and yelling for more. 

Al Jarreau is ageless, he has stayed relevant at a time when much younger musicians are schlepping around hawking oldies sets by acknowledging history but not living in it.  He knows that a segment of the audience wants to hear the hits, but he doesn't do a "greatest hits" arena show.  He has a symphony program and a jazz program he has done with big bands, and a whole catalog of albums to pick from.  He mixes radio favorites, fan favorites, some of the more progressive songs from his catalog, some straight-ahead jazz and who knows, maybe even a little classical.  In the process, he creates a musical conversation with the audience that can make a big spread out field feel like an intimate club.  More than that, he makes the people who are experiencing it feel like more than an audience.  We become a gathering of friends who at least for two hours or so have something in common that transcends age, generation, color, nationality, or any of those other barriers we throw in front of ourselves.  That's why you always meet people who have traveled to his concerts and that's why I was willing to drive eight hours to this one.