“I thought Switzerland was supposed to be cold!”
It’s the second evening of the world famous Montreux Jazz Festival, it’s sweltering in the main auditorium, and Nick Cave might have summarised it all in one wry sentence.
Founded in 1967 by a young, enterprising tourist official and music aficionado named Claude Nobs to bring more tourism to his small hometown of Montreux, the festival has since grown into a multi-genre, multi-hyphenated phenomenon about as integral to the history of popular music as much as any festival could ever hope to be – classic live albums have been recorded here by the likes of Miles Davis, Dennis Brown, Nile Rodgers, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Ray Charles.
Spread over 16 days in early July, Clash managed to get over and spend a few days at this year’s edition, which split two ticketed headline concerts each evening with a dozen or so smaller stages and free public bars along the Montreux Riviera (a small corner of Switzerland that was at one point or another the home of Freddie Mercury, Phil Collins, and David Bowie). The festival is city-based, with a classy feel, a storied history, and little to prove apart from its continued excellence. The weather this year also got the memo, and the festival was blessed with beautiful 25 degree days and not a cloud in the sky.
An air of luxury tends to hover over Montreux – partly due to the natural surroundings, as the city adjoins an esplanade overlooking the crystal clear waters of Lake Geneva, with direct view of the gorgeous valleys and mountains depicted on the Evian water bottles (produced just across the lake in neighbouring France); it’s one of the most idyllic and picturesque locations in the world. On the other hand, the event’s overwhelming extravagance probably wouldn’t be possible without its annual co-sponsors, which come with their own particulars – as per, a truly prodigious VIP hospitality village sat behind the main festival building almost entirely desolate and unused, as if the VIPs were so important as to simply have failed to show up at all. Seemingly, each sponsor had its own brand activated luxury bar/experience – including Audemars Piguet (a watch brand whose ‘entry-level’ watches start at ~£15,000 pounds) and Julius Baer (a private bank for high net-worth individuals, who have also recently been implicated in various FIFA-related money laundering scandals).
In fairness, these are all local brands with deep ties in the region – other sponsors included Super Bock beer and the French hospitality company Accor. Switzerland is a country with plenty of wealth and wealth-related industry, and so it might be foolish to blame Montreux for pursuing such partnerships, but ultimately it’s clear that the gleeful local teenagers gallivanting down the busy public esplanade and cruising the free beach bars may not have been the exact focus audience the sponsors a bit further up the hillside were focused on (though they certainly didn’t seem to take notice).
A slightly older, well-dressed and distinctly European crowd that make up most of the festival’s actual paying customers were hosted within the festival’s main building (the purpose built Montreux Convention Center at the heart of the esplanade), enjoying its abundant seating areas, bars, balconies, vinyl room, and a well-stocked gift shop. New this year was also a recently minted NFT collection, although we would strongly recommend the physical festival posters on sale instead, which include decades of famous designs by the likes Keith Haring and Milton Glaser. Within the centre are also the entrances to the two main concert halls; the stunning wood panelled Auditorium Stravinski (no drinks allowed so as not to damage the floor) and the smaller Montreux Jazz lab.
Over the festival’s two-ish week run, the main hall was set to see appearances from a dizzying range of heavy hitters and veterans, the sort of bookings that would make the bloke that sells you overpriced hi-fi products break a sweat (did we mention Harman Kardon was also a sponsor?): Diana Ross, Björk, Nick Cave, John McLaughlin, Van Morrison, Herbie Hancock, John Legend, and one or two other fun curveballs as well, such as the pioneering French fusion band Magma and the sultry R&B star Sabrina Claudio. In contrast, the Montreux Jazz lab downstairs was scheduled for a broader array of innovative younger artists that included Mitski, Fred Again…, Arlo Parks, Tinashe, Stormzy, Nubya Garcia, and Phoebe Bridgers. The two venue split (with tickets being sold separately for the halls each evening) presented a classic juxtaposition – do you go see the veterans with their old-school musicianship and unimpeachable legacies or the younger generation making some of today’s most groundbreaking and genuinely relevant contemporary music?
Luckily for us, Clash got to see a bit of both – Saturday’s mainstage billing saw Australian rockers Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds upstairs in a special live streamed show that typified their gritty punk roots as much as their current grief-stricken introspections and art rock bonafides. Nick Cave has been on stage in one form or another for close to forty years now, and he might be one of the few genuine rock stars working (certainly of his age) who can still make a brooding, edgy performance look convincing, and even natural. Despite the two years off touring after the pandemic, the band’s set was meticulously constructed (with help from multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, a partnership recently documented in the acclaimed film This Much I Know To Be True), alternating between their heavier fan favourites (‘Jubilee Street’) and some of the heartbreaking ballads of recent albums (‘Waiting For You’). Sweat dripped down Cave’s brow and shined through his jet of black hair as he held onto front-row fans for support, seemingly leaning on them as much as they had on him during these morbid past few years.
Downstairs in the Monreux Jazz lab was the young British queer phenom (and critically acclaimed star of It’s a Sin) Years & Years. It might piss off a few rock purists to suggest as such, but Olly Alexander’s youthful pop exuberance felt like a gulp of fresh air following the suffocating grief being projected upstairs. The young star twirled, jumped, and belted; joking with the crowd that when asked how he would make history at Montreux after so many artists had done so before him, he could say: “I’m probably the only guy to play here in leather garter belts.” It’s one thing to bounce along to Alexander’s songs and admire his dancer’s playful choreography, but what’s also striking about his live performance is his real talents as a singer – it’s unusual to hear such soaring vocals coming from such a small frame.
The next evening’s concert in the main hall was among the most anticipated of the whole festival. Björk had been booked three years ago for a special performance in conjunction with the Lausanne Sinfonietta as part of her Björk Orkestral tour, where she’s been writing orchestral arrangements of her songs with, in her words, a “young genius” Icelandic conductor by the name of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason. In practice the show felt like a rendition of Björk unplugged, given that the Sinfonietta boasts only a few dozen violins, violas, and cellos, with not a drum in sight. Though concerts billed like this – ‘Artist X with orchestra’ have become fiercely popular over the years, they arguably tend to be better at drawing ticket sales than producing performances of substance (our apologies to anyone who’s ended up at an Ibiza classics orchestral show).
Björk had personally requested no video to be taken of the performance, meaning the hall’s projection screens were off and those in the back could not enjoy the finer details of her typically outlandish garb. That choice ultimately focused attention on her soaring voice, which has lost none of its snarling power or beauty. Ultimately, few artists could have carried a concert of this nature, and the Icelandic icon might be one of the few exceptions to that rule. Still, seeing a musician with such perfectly crafted and diverse compositions being boxed into purely orchestral arrangements of them felt tantamount to watching Usain Bolt in a walking competition. Lest we forget – this is the artist who made industrial rock heavier than Nine Inch Nails (‘Army Of Me’) and IDM weirder than Aphex Twin (‘Pluto’); the artist who rejoiced in a longstanding musical partnership with the guy who blew up half of the subwoofers of 90s Britain (Mark Bell); and the artist whose most recent album, ‘Utopia’, co-credits about a dozen different bird species. Is it outlandish to have wished for a non-stringed instrument on stage?
Luckily, beats and melodies of a more varied selection were on offer for free outside on the public esplanade until the wee hours; Clash caught a typically eclectic and obscure house set from DJs Sassy J and Palms Trax before opting for ‘El Mundo’, the non-stop latin and reggaeton bar that saw some of the longest queues of the whole festival. A few choice girls and boys near the front busted what can only be described as professional dance moves, as if they had been waiting for their moment all evening, and we were left to remark on our own petrified and inadequate hips, which we’ll presently blame on being born on a nervous and cloudy island.
In the end, as we lazily snoozed on a silky smooth train back to the airport the next morning, we could only reflect on the understated superiority of the whole thing. Forget the old saying about the Swiss that all they’ve come up with in 500 years of peace is the cuckoo clock. It’s nonsense: they’ve also created one of the best music festivals in the world – and if, like much of its usual crowd, you have plenty of cash to spend and a few days to kill, then you have few better choices than to go to Montreux and soak it all in. If only that were true for the rest of us.
Words: Louis Torracinta
Photography: Marc DuCrest