In between promising the audience home cooked Cajun food, hugs and kisses, singer Lillian Boutte made the all those attending on Saturday night pledge to go home and tell ten other people about the inaugural Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. I am attempting to go one better and potentially notify all Bristol University students of this sterling event which, if it continues in coming years looks set to become a highlight of Bristol cultural events.
The festival was set in the spacey confines of the Colston Hall which, thanks to its dramatic rejuvenation in recent years, is rather different to the venue I witnessed The Strokes and others play in as a teenager. Due, at least in part, to a formidable list of event sponsors (including the Arts Council England and Bristol City Council) the festival included both free and ticketed events. The free events were held in the foyer of the building and frequently ended with the performers taking an informal procession up through several floors. These free events, and the various food stalls and bars, were what really contributed to a ‘festival’ atmosphere. It also prevented the audience from consisting only of middle aged (mainly male) attendees reliving the jazz hay day of the 1960s and is a good reason to try to pop in during next year’s proceedings as the music on show was generally of the more accessible, swing-dance-with-a-cider variety that is attractive to more that just hardened jazz fans. Additionally, many of the performers of the ticketed and un-ticketed events swapped places at various times, with even the esteemed Pee Wee Ellis putting in an appearance in the foyer on Sunday afternoon.
Of the ticketed events that I attended, the unarguable star performer was Lilian Boutte. Physically diminutive, the New Orleans vocalist brought the crowd to its feet and ridiculous smiles to everyone’s faces during both her own show on Saturday and Pee Wee Ellis’s on Sunday. Unlike the mass-appeal generating Clare Teal (who preferred a more directly deferential approach), Boutte convincingly got away with gently teasing and flirting with Ellis throughout the festival. Standing tall and looking like he was born in a suit with newspaper headlines round the crib, Ellis does not look like a man who would take teasing from just anyone. Boutte probable gets away with it because she is not only the possessor of a heartbreakingly astounding voice, but also almost comically personable. Her warmth and repeated promises that her mother will willingly cook food for each and every member of the audience, should they ever be in New Orleans, is exactly what was needed to gently coax the Radio 4-friendly audience into relaxing and even moving (tapping feet, bopping heads and eventually swinging around the bottom part of the auditorium during her last number).
When speaking to my grandmother the other day, she greeted some familial good news with the sentiment ‘it is so nice to have uplifting news at this time of the year.’ It is equally good to have access to such thoroughly soul-thawing and mood-elevating live music at this usually rather flat time of year. Here’s to hoping it becomes a constant in the Colston calendar…