Depending on who you ask, the free Aretha Franklin concert that the Toronto Jazz Festival brought to David Pecaut Square on Friday night was either a remarkable success or a resounding failure. There were 18,000 people in attendance, and no shortage of opinions. Nobody seems to have any issue with Ms. Franklin, or her opening act, local band Jordan Johns and The Blue Angels. If anything made Friday night feel like a party, it was the musicianship. The problem seems to be two fold; if you are going to tell people you are throwing a "street party" it had better feel like a party and if you promise them a free Aretha Franklin concert, they had better be able to hear Aretha Franklin.
Hundreds of concert goers who had the foresight and time to line up and obtain wrist bands were able to experience the show up close and in person inside the big white tent. To accommodate the thousands who came expecting an outdoor show and were disappointed to find the diva in a tent, the festival set up a "big" screen. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the people in attendance could see the screen. This wouldn't have been met with such disdain if the audio outside of the tent was sufficient. Sadly, at one point, both Aretha and the horn section were drowned out by a car radio, somewhere near Simcoe Street.
The last time Aretha Franklin performed a free show in Toronto it was on an outdoor stage in front of Holt Renfrew. It was a much smaller production (no band, just a piano) and a shorter show (maybe six songs) but the production was far superior. Something is out of whack if a department store is putting on a better show than a twenty five year old music festival.
The first lesson is for the Toronto Jazz Festival:
Torontonians are clearly inspired by your programming and want to take part in this festival. You're doing something right. Next year, try again, take the training wheels off and really put some muscle into the production values. Try to keep the talent out of the tent, bring them outside where everyone can see. Invest in some bigger screens and most importantly, provide the listeners with something to listen to. I'm loath to bring up Montreal, but it's worth mentioning that they've been getting the big, free, street party right for years now. What are they doing that you're not?
Lesson number two for the Toronto Jazz Festival:
Parties require atmosphere. Pipe some music into the crowd during the pre-show (the silence was deafening). Hire some street performers to come in and entertain the crowd while they wait. Better yet, put some local jazz talent on the outdoor stage! Partner with some businesses who want to provide thousands of potential customers with free samples. You can't count on the audience to create the party atmosphere all by themselves.
With all that said, the party guests are responsible for creating some of the fun as well. If you threw a party and things weren't perfect, it would be incredibly rude of your guests to stand around, arms folded, tweeting about how much your party sucks. Here are some big Street Party / Free Concert lessons for audience members:
- lower your expectations
- be flexible
- bring a chair, blanket or cushion
- make the most of it - bring friends, a deck of cards, a book
- have a plan B, if you're not enjoying yourself, get out of there!
- always remember, this is FREE!
While I was walking around, observing the crowd before the show started I realized what a wonderful example of Toronto's citizenry had been gathered. We were there in numbers, a lot of us. Young, old, every race, music fans and curiosity seekers alike. The evening may not have been perfect, but it was inspiring to see so many people having a great time together. We'll get better at this Street Party thing Toronto. Practice will make perfect.