Dispatch, France: Defying expectations

George Benson
© TW photo by Eric Moya

Destinations editor Eric Moya spent the weekend in Narbonne in southern France as a guest of the Gerard Bertrand winery's Chateau l'Hospitalet, site of the annual Festival Jazz a l'Hospitalet.

"Is anyone a fan of country music?" George Benson seemed to catch the crowd off guard with that question -- understandable, given that the legendary guitarist/vocalist was playing a jazz festival at a winery in southern France's Languedoc region.

I'm a George Benson fan and a country music fan, so his question certainly grabbed my attention. He heightened the intrigue by telling the crowd it was a tribute to someone going through a tough time. Given the jazz tradition of covering tunes from other genres and taking them in vastly different harmonic directions, my mind raced to anticipate what he was going to play.

"Wichita Lineman," written by Jimmy Webb, was a massive crossover hit in 1968 for Glen Campbell, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It's one of my favorite tunes, and once the band launched into the instantly identifiable opening riff, I was excited to hear what new sonic territory they were going to explore with "Lineman" as the template. (Editor's note: Campbell passed away on Aug. 8, shortly after publication of this dispatch.)

It turned out to be a very faithful rendition of Campbell's version -- even Benson's guitar solo, which never strayed far into his signature fluid, bebop-honed licks. And it was amazing. With a touching tribute to someone who is arguably his country-music analog -- two guitar virtuosos who achieved massive mainstream success once they stepped up to the vocal mic -- he defied my expectations.

(If "Lineman" left the crowd a little lukewarm, he more than made up for it, with tunes like "Give Me the Night" and "Turn Your Love Around" bringing them to their feet for his 90-minute set.)

And if there is a theme I can attach to this trip, it was defying my expectations for how a jazz festival in French wine country might play out. Theme nights (gold on Saturday, dark blue on Sunday) hinted at Hamptons/South Beach-style precociousness, but otherwise things felt pretty casual. No elaborately choreographed dinner service; festival attendees helped themselves to a buffet. An array of Bertrand's offerings was laid out on every table, enabling guests to help themselves to whatever variety they wanted at any time.

Festival Jazz a l
© TW photo by Eric Moya

After each night's headliners performed, the party continued well into the wee hours; a cover band Sunday kept the crowd dancing with current pop hits, Stevie Wonder tunes and the like.

And the headline acts weren't for jazz snobs: Norah Jones played on the first night, and I arrived in time to catch Ben l'Oncle Soul, a millennial-age French phenom whose breakout hit "Soulman" evokes mid-'60s R&B. (I may not understand French, but I recognize a Muscle Shoals groove when I hear one.)

As the Languedoc/Occitanie region strives to increase its U.S. visitation and distinguish itself from neighboring regions, those are attributes that bode well. While wine is the principal draw, seasonal events such as the jazz festival and other activities have the potential to expand its appeal beyond wine aficionados, and to enable visitors to interact with the reveling locals. In addition, the unintimidating vibe is a strong advantage as the region hopes to draw a wide array of demographics: millennials, backpackers and so on.

As Benson sings in "Give Me the Night": "You need the evening action/A place to dine, a glass of wine." Seems like a pretty compelling draw.

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