Montreal is a confident city. It’s comfortable in its own skin and knows itself well as a place where the fluidity of culture, music, art, food, fashion and language is central to daily life. It’s a city that is both chic and down-to-earth, reflects the best of both Europe and America and understands that dichotomy well.
Yet one Toronto friend of mine rather scathingly referred to it as the ‘Berlin of Canada, where rents are cheap and everyone is an artist’… Well, what’s wrong with that? Suits me just fine.
I’ve had the good fortune to visit the city twice in as many months for the Pop Montreal and most recently ‘M for Montreal’ festivals - maybe a little indulgent, but also incredibly inspiring. I’ve experienced a wonderful music-saturated, Francophone baptism and been welcomed with open arms into a vibrant melting pot that simultaneously bristles with socio-political awareness, hipster style and a sense of laissez-faire calm. I like it here.
Between trips, the city’s legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen sadly passed away of course. Cohen’s death has cast a shadow across his home city and a vigil outside his old apartment continued to show reverence to his legacy and influence as a songwriter and poet. During this second visit of mine it was strangely uplifting to see the local musicians cover his music, grieve and celebrate simultaneously. If anywhere truly mourns his passing it is Montreal, and the city dealt with it with respect and generosity.
M For Montreal took place from November 16th – 19th and saw a motley crew of artists, delegates and punters running from showcase to showcase across the city in search of new music from Montreal, Quebec, Canada and beyond. Smaller, more locally sourced and micro-curated than the previous Pop Montreal; it was focused on panels, seminars and discussions by day with music in its myriad venues by night.
A buzz from start to finish, here are 10 highlights…
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Wednesday night’s headliner in the spectacular Rialto Theatre in Mile End was a recognisable and respected name and, although I had been aware of her for many years, I had never actually seen her LIVE. As a fan of her father Loudon Wainwright III - and knowing her brother Rufus, of course - I found Martha to be a different animal altogether. Wild, untamed and impulsive, she tottered between French chanson, Dylan-esque folk and impassioned Patti Smith style rock’n’roll. She forgot lyrics, danced erratically, chatted incoherently and yet was utterly engaging and enthralling.
With a voice of honey, she’s a natural performer and I was hooked… I would now urge anyone to go and see her, given half a chance. Not only were her own songs excellent, but she covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ as an homage to him and as tribute to the city’s collective sense of loss.
Thursday saw the main gigs take place between the downtown venues Club Soda and Café Cleopatra; the latter being a strip bar not usually used for music but one that suited the eclectic array of artists well. FRIGS (yes, it means the same thing in Canada!) opened the show and displayed themselves as a truly odd entity. Based in Toronto, and coming from a small DIY community scene, they play an off-kilter, post-punk, sludge rock that draws comparison to Killing Joke, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey and even has elements of black metal.
I’d seen them at Brighton’s The Great Escape festival in May, but they’ve come on leaps and bounds since. Singer/guitarist Bria is a force of nature with formidable attitude, stage presence and a blood-curdling, guttural scream at her disposal. Using it whilst standing on a table above terrified festival-goers sipping on their cocktails was a definite highpoint. We need more women like her in indie-rock right now.
If you’re looking for the next poster-boy of retro, psychedelic, 60s-tinged rock’n’roll you could do worse than investigate this man. A gifted guitarist and songwriter with a complimentary backing-band and an obvious admiration of Abbey Road Beatles, Michael Rault has a Lennon-esque quality to his voice and is totally at ease with a descending chord sequence.
I met him at SXSW 2015 and happily bought a clear vinyl release of his on the notorious Burger Records, but at M I saw an artist who has grown significantly. Be aware that Rault is by no means reinventing the wheel but instead building a sturdy, new version of it. And with new analogue-tape recordings coming soon via the renowned Daptone studios in NYC, he may be about to unleash his finest work to date. Nice moustache too!
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On the other end of the spectrum was this man. Once involved in Dirty Beaches and loved by DFA Records; I described him to friends as Serge Gainsbourg meets ‘Frank’ from Blue Velvet. And yet that somehow comes up short. Femminielli is an unhinged, overweight lothario in a stained white suit, no shirt, hanging belly, 70’s shades and badly applied eyeliner! Yes, you read that correctly.
Onstage he was flanked by two transgender ‘little red riding hoods’ in white face make-up, armed with bank of synths and electro-hardware who played an unholy mixture of house, krautrock and (sl)eazy-listening. Then there was the truly disturbing but hilarious stage-show, which was both alluded to sexual violence as well as cabaret and straight-up slapstick. Oh my God, what did I just see…
A Travelling Showcase
When attending the festival, you’re almost constantly in the presence of M For Montreal guru Mikey Rishwain Bernard who acts like the pied-piper leading music fans from one venue to another. On Friday afternoon he literally became a tour-bus guide, taking those who’d signed up on an informal, off-colour, irreverent expedition around the city. Taking in the incredible city view from the top of Mont Royal whilst eating churros and drinking hot chocolate, we then had an excursion to various venues, recording studios and art-spaces to see more music.
Hologramme, a Montreal trio who make live electronica with elements of jazz, post-rock and house were a stand-out treat and I’m about to delve into their CD which I grabbed at the time. A fantastic way to spend the afternoon.
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Surprises from Saskatchewan
The vast majority of music on display was native of Montreal, or Quebec at least, but acts come from all over to play the festival. Saskatchewan may have an enormous landmass but only just above one million people; and yet they’re represented by some great new bands by the looks of things. The Garrys are three unassuming sisters from the province whose surf guitars and three-part blood-harmonies soothed my soul on Friday afternoon. Young and about to record their second album, I could imagine them supporting Seattle surf-rockers La Luz and charming their crowd.
Also from a town of only a few hundred was the modern, electronic psychedelia of Ponteix whose Saturday afternoon set at Casa Del Popolo was ethereal, heartfelt and chock full of sumptuous melody. Syd Arthur, Tame Impala and alt-J all came to mind with songs in both French and English. Search out their ‘J’Orage’ EP online and investigate - one of my favourite groups from the entire festival.
Set-up in 2004 and one of the main creative hubs in Montreal Bonsound is a label, booking agency and Management Company that promotes and encourages the local scene. Their showcase at the Matahari loft on Friday evening saw blues-punk duo Les Deuxluxes kick up a storm. Dressed in a skin-tight silver body-suit, Ana Frances Meyer is an astonishing singer and front-woman who, although actually classically-trained, has a voice that eclipses even Beth Ditto. Les Deuxluxes are sexy, down and dirty fun with a raucous, raunchy debut album ‘Springtime Devil’ that turns up the soul-holler and sets the guitars to stun.
Another young singer-songwriter, banjo-abuser and head-banger signed to the label is the inimitable Lisa Le Blanc. Becoming a bit of a local institution and building a large fanbase across Quebec, greater Canada and into France, her witty, direct, intimate songs blend Americana, folk, punk and garage-rock. LIVE it’s a good-time, thrash-along knees-up with melodies and songs to the front. Ending her set with a light-speed, flailing-banjo version of Motorhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’ was quite frankly awesome! Her new album ‘Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?’ is a blinder too…
Garage Rock’n’Roll Goodies
Although almost the oldest form of popular music around, the tried and tested formula of guitar, bass, drums, keys and a shrieking frontman/woman can still cut to the quick and send shivers down the spine. The OBMG’s (Oh Baby Gimme More’s) are a three-quarter black garage punk band from Toronto who apparently entered people’s consciousness via a beer-sponsored, local talent competition. I can’t see quite how they could have won such a thing, as they are a chaotic punk-rock mess… in the best possible way of course!
With boundless energy, spontaneity, crowd participation and a sense that anything can happen; musically take a pinch of Bad Brains, a soupcon of The Dirtbombs and a sprinkling of the MC5 to make a total racket. They certainly got the juices flowing on Friday night at the Savoy Du Metropolis.
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Six-piece Montreal psych-lords I.D.A.L.G on the other hand, were an altogether better drilled and more focused operation at La Sala Rossa on Saturday afternoon with metronomic drums, gargantuan riffs, wobbly outer-space synths, tambourine violence with a nod to krautrock experimentation and film soundtracks. Their album ‘Post Dynastie’ is a mind-melding journey that is well worth embarking on…
The wonkier, weirder and more discordant of musical textures was also catered for at M For Montreal. Growing up as a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s my ears were attuned to art-punk in all its forms and Toronto oddballs New Fries are one of the strangest bands I’ve seen in a long while. With a propulsive, primal, no-wave aesthetic that reminded me immediately of cult math-noodlers, Life Without Buildings and anarcho-collective Dog Faced Hermans, lead singer Anni Spadafora’s use of scatting, improvising, performance-poetry atop their back-beat of discordant funk and primitive-pop was a sight and sound to behold at Casa De Popolo on Friday night.
Another epiphany was witnessing Fet.Nat, a band from Hull, Gatineau. Their punk-jazz melange conjured up such heroes as Captain Beefheart, Minutemen, James Chance and the Contortions – all good in my eyes. An intense, unsubtle mixture of humour and madness, performance art and hand-written signs, the crowd loved it and I bought some of their vinyl.
Look, you’ve got had more than 10 new acts to check out! My final note on M For Montreal, and Pop Montreal for that matter, must be on the food available in the city. Montreal lays claim to have invented the Bagel and who am I to argue? Whether it’s on Fairmount or St. Viateur the all-night bakeries serve up warm and toasty delights 24/7 with added cream-cheese and other toppings to go. Yum! There is no shortage of other pastry shops either – cakes, croissants and more are a way of life here.
Delicious food is abundant in their Portugal, Italy and China towns and of course the French influence is everywhere, not to mention the myriad diners and coffee-shops where you’re never too far from man-buns and beards, girls with bangs and ill-fitting jeans! To me though, the finest meals I’ve had in years were from vegan restaurant ‘Aux Vivres’ - simply the freshest, tastiest food ever and yet another reason to make the trip to Montreal… Merci et au revoir!
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Vic Galloway presents on BBC Radio Scotland at 9pm Mondays & 11pm Thursdays - you can also hear him regularly on BBC 6Music.
Vic’s book ‘Songs in the Key of Fife’ is published by Polygon - information HERE.
Contact Vic at www.twitter.com/vicgalloway
Photo Credit: Nadia Davoli