James Bay Week rolled to an end and last night and early this morning with a gala benefit at Paul Saove Arena before about 5,000 people.
The most anticipated star was Joni Mitchell who flew direct from her California retreat to make her first local appearance in years. CHOM-FM carried the grand event live on the radio. But before she arrived there was a seemingly endless parade of local entertainers interspersed by Indian and Eskimo troupes.
Peter Yarrow of the late Peter, Paul & Mary, conjured up memories of the folk protest days of a decade ago with a heartrending version of Blowin In The Wind, Bob Dylan's timeless song. Pauline Julien cranked out her militant chest-pounding chansons. Yvon Deschamps introduced his p'titi monologue with: "For the English in the audience, there will be a ten-minute intermission."
The Prairie Dancers were once again the most popular native group, their brilliantly colored costumes and shrill shouts and pounding percussion excited the audience, which dutifully clapped for the Native Drum dancers and Dog Rib Indians even though their primitive art is so far removed from us.
Claude Peloquin, the notorious local poet, added some words of fire to the proceedings. He read the French version of a speech he had delievered in English the night before. "It's good to protest but it's also good to see reality as stark as it is," said Pelo. "Don't have any illusion! Thea (the Indians) are eating canned beans, Prem, and drinking coke, driving financed Fords and Plymouths and living on Unemployment Insurance; Thea don't go hunting or fishing more often than the whites, the blacks and the greens."
Peloguin was booed and someone stormed the stage. Alanis Obomsawin followed with an emotional rendering of a traditional song.
Finally, Joni Michell came on and did 20 minutes of songs from her recent million-selling albums. She was in fine voice, despite the cavernous acoustics of the arena. No one quite sounds like Joni. She's one of the supreme vocal technicians of the new generation pop singers; her melodies ramble freely, and often beautifully, on and on.
Unfortunately her lyrics are quite often merely prosaic. She sings of personal eccounters, describing them in excrutiating detail. With her long blonde hair and her long blue swaying skirt, she's quite a presence but the songs themselves don't amount to much.
For the audience, though she was on all to briefly. The kids applauded long and hard for an encore but all was in vain. Backstage Joni muttered something to her managers about not liking the feel of her guitar...
Host Jean-Guy Moreau battled the crowd to restore order and introduced the very popular Marie-Claire and Richard Seguin, who promptly went into their magnificent harmonic opus Seguin, Gilles Vigneault did his usual excellent performance, with his parse descriptive lyrics cutting through everything. Willie Dunn then performed a lengthy set devoted largely to protest songs.
And then, closing the show, was an unadvertised guest: Robert Charlebois, rocking with Indian rhythms in Ya si pichou and Wichitai-to. At the end of a very long evening it was Charlebois who lifted the spirits of the place in a grande finale.