To make a truly reductive comparison, Corneille is Quebec's answer to John Legend. A singer-songwriter of Rwandan descent who moved to Montreal in 1997, he is one of the few, if not only, francophone soul artists in this province, complete with a large band and equally large stage show. To open the 21st edition of les Francofolies, he welcomed guests from the multicultural community of Quebec musicians.
The night opened with one of Corneille's big hits, "Ensemble," delivered with fantastic sound and groove by the tight band led by guitarist Andy Dacoulis. Corneille followed it up with one of a handful of tunes from his forthcoming album that he sprinkled throughout the set. They were all good tunes, if not as memorable as some of his earlier hits, and sometimes stalled the momentum of the night.
The first guest was multifaceted Luck Mervil, performing a duet on "Africain à New York," a rewrite/cover of Sting's "Englishman in New York." It worked surprisingly well, with a driving highlife beat courtesy of drummer Sam Harrisson, Denis Chiche on percussion and J-B Carbou on bass. Quebec hip-hop group Sans Pression followed, with Corneille singing their hooks and the MC hyping up the crowd.
After a couple more Corneille-only tunes, guitarist Lokua Kanza came out on stage. Corneille was quite candid about the influence Kanza has had on him musically and personally, opening doors for his own success in Quebec. Kanza's emotionally charged, keening tenor was showcased on "Wapi Yo." Marie-Luce Beland, a young singer I had never heard of, came out and performed two songs and was trying her damnedest to bring some life into the crowd. Her delivery and stage presence reminded me a bit of Divine Brown, with a swaggering kiss-off in "Je ne t'appartiens pas." After Corneille took the momentum down a gear again with the slow jam "Le bon Dieu est une femme," the energy rocketed up with compa legends Kassav'. Fresh off their closing show for Nuits D'Afrique, the crowd went crazy for their three-song set, including their ubiquitous Afro-party staple "Zouk la se sel medikamen nou ni."
A couple of more slow tunes from our evening's host, and the night ended close to two hours later, with "Les marchands de rêves" (the title track of his last French album) and "Parce qu'on vient de loin" (his breakout hit). It was here that the John Legend comparison bore itself out - fronting a choir and all the invited guests, hints of gospel and the complete R&B tradition were present in the tunes and in Corneille's slightly weathered tenor. There's very few artists in Quebec doing what Corneille is doing - in some ways he's more aligned with the Toronto R&B scene of Jully Black, Divine Brown and Jacksoul, and for that I applaud him. The band (rounded out by keyboardist Alister Philips and MD/guitarist Andy Dacoulis) was uniformly superb, with a horn section featuring Ron DiLauro on trumpet. If the show had been shortened by half an hour and had three less ballads, it would have been a truly incredible opening show.