Despite this year’s early cold snap, thick snow, icy pavements and sub-zero wind-chill; Montreal is most definitely the place to be in November, if you want to surround yourself with like-minded souls and embark on some essential new-music discovery. The passion and dedication to the arts in Quebec’s bohemian epicentre is breath-taking, and certainly warms the heart and soul, laughing in the face of the outside conditions. Venues, nightclubs, bars, galleries, record shops and community spaces are officially actioned and activated so you can dart around the city from Downtown to the Plateau, Mile End to Little Italy. Music ebbs from every nook and cranny…
Montreal of course combines the best of European chic with a little less North American bluster, proudly flying its Francophone flag high. Whether singing in French or English however, the scene here is strident and individual, eschewing both the mainstream and hipster homogenisation. They do things differently in this city and it’s evident at every show. With no shortage of music events in the calendar, they flaunt their scene for good reason. M For Montreal took place from November 16th – 19th, showcasing a diverse and distinct range of talent from its own doorstep, Quebec as a whole, the further reaches of Canada, and even overseas from as far away as the Czech Republic and Wales.
As well as around-the-clock LIVE music, there were panels, seminars and discussions by day; the highlight of which was a conversation between Sub Pop CEO Megan Jasper and KEXP radio stalwart Cheryl Waters – both heroes of Seattle’s recent musical history. Throw in a three band gig in a 1950s style bowling alley, a magical musical mystery bus tour, the nearby Jean-Michel Basquiat x Seeing Loud exhibition and the concurrent M Pour Mundial world music festival… and the city crackled and fizzed like no other!
After myriad lockdowns and being unable to attend festivals like this, I’ve picked my favourite seven new music highlights from my trip for Clash and said a few words. Once I’d done that however, I suddenly realised – completely unintentionally – that all the acts were all women or female-fronted. More proof that M for Montreal is leading the charge, pushing the boundaries and enacting genuine inclusivity on its line-up. Read on…
- Afrikana Soul Sister
First stop was a detour of sorts, pulling into Mundial Montréal; the sister event of M, both are produced by Avalanche Prod, with Mundial taking place in parallel to M For Montreal during the same week.
We’re able to catch an extraordinary set by Montreal’s own Afrikana Soul Sister in the Cabaret Lion D’Or. Their hypnotic and propulsive style of modern Afrobeat combines LIVE drums, bass and congas with whirring electronics, synthetic strings and Malian-Canadian singer Djely Tapa’s expressive vocals taking centre stage.
She has already won a Juno award as a solo artist and now a Felix award for the band’s excellent ‘Kalaso’ album. Lifting the spirits and sending the crowd into a dance and a dervish was the best way to start my week.
- Witch Prophet
Ayo Leilani goes by the name of Witch Prophet – a queer artist, producer, singer and songwriter based in Toronto. She reflects her Ethiopian/Eritrean ancestry and her daily life through R&B, trip-hop and electronica with soulful vocals upfront and her wife Sun Sun’s beats holding it down below.
In Le Ministere on Saint Laurent, she showcased new single ‘Energy Vampire’ featuring tapper DillanPonders as well as prime cuts from her Polaris Prize nominated album ‘DNA Activation’, creating a haunting, immersive and laid back vibe.
- Bibi Club
Bibi Club were an instant shot in the arm for me, with their cascading indie-pop taking in Stereolab, The Durutti Column and even early Cardigans, using drum machines, chiming guitars and lo-fi keys.
They describe their sound as ‘Living Room Party Music’ and those crammed into Le Ministere were certainly treated to an intimate and intense show, as the duo of Adele Trottier Rivard and Nicolas Basque (also in Plants & Animals) cut loose with tracks from their ‘Le Soleil et La Mer’ album to roars of appreciation. A moody and sultry affair, Bibi Club also have the songs to match.
- Ariane Roy
Looking for a new Francophone star? Well, Ariane Roy should be right up there nowadays.
Slinky soul, tight new wave and progressive pop entangle in a sound that shows off Roy’s suggestive, moody vocals and shredding guitar work. With a stunning band at her back, perfect harmonies and a comforting sense of confidence in every move and note she makes; this is exquisitely crafted pop played with passion, poise and skill.
Her album ‘Medium Plaisir’ is a classic in the making as the melodies and lyrics match the production, somehow landing that sweet spot between mainstream and edginess. Her set at Cleopatre – usually a strip club – was a revelation!
On Mikey Rishwain’s mystery musical bus tour, which ambled around Montreal showing off oddities and curiosities of the local scene – including venues, coffee shops, record stores and the Mont Royal itself – we landed at an arts space called NOMAD for a gently psychedelic set from local indie-pop, freak-folk ensemble Vanille.
Coming on like the Wickerman Film soundtrack meets Belle & Sebastian meets The Free Design; Rachel Leblanc and her trio invited us into their world of freewheeling baroque pop and very lovely it was too.
- Magi Merlin
Alt-R&B, house, drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop and traces of Motown pepper the recorded output of Montreal singer and songwriter, Magi Merlin. LIVE however, accompanied by her beat-maker and bass-monster Funkywhat, the performance became more like a full-on rock show and once again the inauspicious confines of the Cleopatre club shook its collective booty.
Tracks from her current ‘Gone Girl’ album and a version of new single ‘Dolla Bill’, complete with guest vocals from local soul legend Fernie, ensured the sweat trickled down the walls and the back of our shirts.
- Grim Streaker
Of all the shows I saw over the entire week in Montreal, this was in absolute pole-position for me. Mothland are creating a mini-revolution in Quebec and the word is quietly creeping around the world. They arrange festivals, events and LIVE shows as well as release lots of quality music on their fairly recently established label. This is the true sound of the Montreal underground, with psych, drone, shoegaze, post-punk, hardcore and occasional splashes of pop thrown together in a maelstrom of lysergic love.
Of all five superb acts at their showcase – including Priors, Absolutely Free, Gloin and Crasher – it was Grim Streaker that stole the limelight and hit hardest. Going from motorik groove to all out punk rage, encompassing angular post-punk and obtuse experimentalism; they made Dry Cleaning and Yard Act look like amateurs, as front-woman Amelia Bushell stared out the audience in what looked like a state of genuine, demented distress.
Check out their recent ‘MIND’ EP and marvel – quite simply, my new favourite band on my new favourite label!
With a steady flow of bagels, beer and poutine at the ready, ‘M for Montreal’ once more delivered a soundtrack to a city in love with creative expression across divides and differences. Watching both visitors and locals soak up these performances in equal measure, at a time when LIVE music and touring could well be in danger post-pandemic, was such a release and an absolute pleasure… Merci beaucoup Montreal!
Vic Galloway presents on BBC Radio Scotland & BBC Sounds at 8pm Mondays & 10pm Wednesdays www.bbc.co.uk/vicgalloway Find him on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook.