Montreux Jazz Festival review: Loyle Carner and Nile Rodgers are on excellent form amid the Swiss alps

Closing weekend opens with thunderstorms and ends in blazing sunshine

Roisin O'Connor
Monday 17 July 2023 13:14 BST
Loyle Carner raps his way through themes of fatherhood, loss, identity, racism, and ennui at Montreux Jazz Festival 2023
Loyle Carner raps his way through themes of fatherhood, loss, identity, racism, and ennui at Montreux Jazz Festival 2023 (Thea Moser)

There’s a running joke about the lack of jazz and blues artists booked to play Montreux Jazz Festival, with pop, indie and rock acts all materialising on the lineup over the years. But tell that to this year’s performers, including Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa and Marcus Miller, or to any of the younger talents who use the genres as a blueprint for their own work, and you’ll likely end up with œuf on your face.

For two weeks each year, the postcard-pretty town of Montreux is transformed into a sort of Neverland for musicians. Surrounded by the dramatic peaks of the Swiss Alps and overlooking the glorious blue waters of Lac Léman, this year’s festival hosts artists from Bob Dylan to Lil Nas X. The musicians play across multiple stages, including the storied 4,000-capacity Stravinsky Auditorium and the intimate Miles Davis Jazz Lab.

The closing weekend opens with thunderstorms and ends in blazing sunshine. On Friday, Buddy Guy – one of the greatest guitarists of all time – shows what we’ll be missing when he stops extensive touring later this year. At 86, the eight-time Grammy winner is still an astonishing sight to behold, and not just because he’s wearing dungarees over a polka dot shirt. Fond of hamming it up, he plays the guitar upside down, with a drumstick, by thwacking it with a rag, and then with his teeth (where do you think Jimi Hendrix got it from?). He teases his audience with the intro to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” (inspired by their own Montreux visit in 1971) and brings out Joe Bonamassa for a cover of Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 track “Cheaper to Keep Her”.

At the Jazz Lab, British singer Olivia Dean charms with her whimsical take on soul and Motown. Her voice flits between a smoky croon and fluting falsetto, on songs such as the wide-eyed “Dive” and the vulnerable “UFO”. Fresh from his guest appearance with Elton John at Glastonbury, US artist Jacob Lusk leads his band Gabriels in a so-so set, where the funky squish of “Angels & Queens” – the title track from their debut album – doesn’t quite translate to the live experience.

Loyle Carner is the headlining highlight of the Jazz Lab on Friday, suited and booted with his own band (“we wanted to make an effort for Montreux,” he tells the audience). Hopefully primed for a Mercury Prize nod later this month with his third album, Hugo, the 28-year-old sounds wise beyond his years as he raps his way through themes of fatherhood, loss, identity, racism, and ennui. Like Guy before him, Carner is a fan of the chop-and-change set. One moment, he is rapping seamlessly over a bristling rendition of “Hate” and the next, he’s performing a poem a capella.

Closing night of Montreux Jazz Festival 2023 feels like one big party. Mark Ronson has curated his own band, featuring US rapper Lucky Daye and singer Yebba (the latter delivers Amy Winehouse’s vocals for renditions of “Valerie” and “You Know I’m No Good”). Meanwhile, over on the Stravinsky, Nile Rodgers is on particularly excellent name-dropping form as he rattles through a joyous set of his greatest hits, from Chic’s “Good Times” and “We Are Family” to Beyoncé’s “Cuff It” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”. It is a telling testament to Montreux that at least once during their set, every artist makes sure to express their gratitude not only to the audience but to the festival itself.

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