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Montreal’s Clay and Friends pack party vibes for free jazz fest show

In a programming coincidence — or a passing of the torch — the band will play 24 hours before local icons Bran Van 3000.

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Mike Clay had an epiphany back in 2019, in the middle of carnival in Sau Paulo, Brazil. A couple nights before, he had stepped on stage at a local bar for what he hadn’t realized was an impromptu audition for the band he was now playing in, as part of a roving “bloco” sound system atop a bus, surrounded by “100,000 people, as far as the eye can see.”

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They were Brazilians of all backgrounds, all social classes, who shared one thing in common: the music.

“All these people, in a confined space, this giant crowd,” Clay recalled, “singing (along to) every single song, all day long. It goes to show how important music is for them. … It brought me to tears. I had never seen anything like that.”

The memory continues to inspire the Montrealer as he writes, records and performs with his fun-loving funky pop band Clay and Friends.

“I try to carry that with me,” he said. “Whether we’re playing France, Germany or Italy, our goal with the music we play is that we want it to resonate.”

It resonated in mid-June, when Clay and Friends played two sold-out nights at MTelus to launch its first official full-length album Agua Extend’eau. Originally, they were just supposed to play one night. But tickets went so fast, they added another, which got snapped up too. For an independent band, figuring things out on the fly, it was a dream come true.

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“It was absolutely unreal,” Clay said, “to have 5,000 people (over two nights) pay to come see us, and sing every song. I crowd-surfed half-naked on a boat, halfway across MTelus.”

In any other year, that might be a crowning achievement. But on Thursday, July 7, Clay and Friends will play the day’s final set on the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s main free outdoor TD Stage, at Place des Festivals, 24 hours before iconic Montreal party band Bran Van 3000 does the same.

Call it a programming coincidence, or a passing of the torch. Unbounded by genre and with an infectious dedication to spreading the good vibes, underpinned by an unfailing commitment to groove, Clay and Friends are fast becoming our city’s new leaders of multilingual musical mayhem.

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The new album’s lead single Bouge ton thang — check out the hilarious music video featuring Quebec actor Didier Lucien as a man possessed by the urge to do as the song says — rides a bouncing disco bassline and an irresistible hook that is a solid contender for anthem of the summer.

The rest of the eight-tune, 25-minute release slaloms through a variety of rhythms and styles, from funk to soul, jazz, hip-hop and samba, all united by Clay’s butter-smooth vocals and whimsical delivery.

“You’re talking about us being a party band,” he said, “but there’s something so deep and meaningful in all our songs. When you’re at a good party, you’re completely yourself, you’re lost in the moment, completely alive. That’s what our mission is, at the end of the day.

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“Whether people are listening to us alone with headphones, in front of the mirror, with friends on the dance floor, road tripping or studying, if they can feel like themselves and be alive, our mission is accomplished.”

The thematic thread connecting it all may be found in the doubled-down reference to water in the album title. In his stream-of-consciousness, intuitively philosophizing way, Clay makes a connection to the things that are important in life.

“When you move, you sweat or you cry,” he said. “Water is a big part of you. I love dancing, partying, sweating and drinking — water and colourful substances. In the band, we’re all fans of feeling alive.

“Our mantra is, ‘Drink some water, call your mom.’ It sounds superficial, but the first thing you do in the morning is go to your phone, check your email; the first thing you should do is breathe, have some water and check in on how the people closest to you are doing. The through line is being in tune with yourself, staying hydrated and connected, and inspiring the people around you.”

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Clay and Friends has existed in its current formation since 2017. Things took off in 2018 with the bopping, globe-trotting single Going Up the Coast (which has garnered over 13 million streams on Spotify), included on the 2019 EP La Musica Popular de Verdun.

It was a fitting introduction for a singer who developed his interactive approach to music while travelling. In 2012, instead of going to law school, Clay filled a backpack, grabbed his six-string and bounced around Australia for two years, where he used his quick wit to entertain.

“I started freestyling in the street with my guitar, rapping about the people walking by,” he said. “It gave me the ability to model myself after whatever was going on around me. In Clay and Friends, we’re all bouncing off one another.”

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The band is filled out by Adel “Poolboy” Kazi on drums and beatboxing, Clément “Pops” Langlois-Légaré on guitar, Pascal “Killah B” Boisseau on bass and Émile “Alvaro” Désilets on keyboards. On their previously-released EPs, the band often created or refined songs live, by jamming out their ideas and seeing how crowds reacted in the moment (as on Going Up the Coast, as the crowd can be heard singing along, halfway through).

The pandemic forced them to turn inward, and riff off one another. Which makes the result all the more satisfying on the new album, as they finally get to perform the songs in front of audiences, and see reactions in real time.

“I’m ecstatic to go on tour to Europe in August,” Clay said. We’re doing massive shows. I’m really happy. We’ve already got so much music in the bag, it’s like, ‘OK, what’s our next move?’

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“I want to be playing Japan in 2023. How can we achieve our goals of world conquest? This is one step in the right direction.”

AT A GLANCE: Clay and Friends performs a free outdoor show, Thursday, July 7 at 9:30 p.m. on the TD Stage as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. For more information, visit montrealjazzfest.com

tdunlevy@postmedia.com
twitter.com/TChaDunlevy

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