MusicFest Vancouver: La Bottine Souriante reboots with flair
The Tower of London has a long history of spectacles, some quite grisly, but the ancient castle isn’t usually the venue for a show featuring a Canadian band. However, three weeks ago, Quebec’s La Bottine Souriante played there on a stage set up in the former moat—now a strip of lawn between the forbidding walls.
The 11-piece folk-based band was the only one from this country to perform at the River of Sound, part of the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Several stages were set up across town, each one featuring world-music bands from a different continent. It was enough to make even La Bottine’s most seasoned performers nervous, but according to Benoît Bourque, despite both the occasion and the location, the ensemble managed to keep its collective head.
“We made a point of saluting Bradley Wiggins, the English cyclist who had just won the Tour de France,” says the singer, dancer, and bones-rattler, from his home near Montreal. “It was a truly amazing gig. The audience really got into the spirit; they were in the open and it was a lovely hot day.”
La Bottine, founded in 1976, bagged the prize gig on the strength of last year’s release Appellation d’origine contrôlée, which ended a long recording hiatus for the band. The title is a familiar term for wine-lovers, of which there are a few in the ensemble; it’s a certification given to the specialty products of a particular area, such as Champagne. La Bottine’s distinctive vintage is a blend of traditional Québécois songs and tunes infused with elements of salsa, funk, and New Orleans–flavoured jazz,
The critically hailed album marks a relaunch for the band, with a new frontline of players, all of whom sing lead—Bourque, guitarist and mandolinist Eric Beaudry, and twin fiddlers David Boulanger and Jean-François Gagnon-Branchaud. Bourque is also liable to jump into the audience to lead a dance. A veteran who cut his musical teeth as a teenager in the great folk revival of the ’70s, he encapsulates his experience of playing in La Bottine as “back to the future”.
“La Bottine has been a reference point for many, many people, though for me it wasn’t an influence but something that was in parallel. Now here I am, after all this time, playing in a group that was started by people of my generation. I’m very comfortable here—there’s a vision of métissage, of mixing things up, that really connects with me.”
Despite many changes of personnel, La Bottine has always maintained its quintessential drive, based on foot percussion rather than drums. “The band has never had a kit-drummer,” Bourque stresses. “Even with the brisk pace of the tunes, they were always really well adapted for dancing. The swing may be spiced up by Latin rhythms but it’s still the same—Québécois, typical kitchen-variety, just a bit more refined.”