[1 December 2008]
Due to scheduling conflicts, I arrived in Montréal late on a Thursday night, a full day after events editor Kevin Pearson had touched down. As such, I missed the first day of the festival, not to mention a few swanky dinners, courtesy of the festival’s organizers. Luckily, there was still plenty left to be seen, heard and tasted in Montréal and I was determined to make the most of my weekend in the world’s second largest French speaking city.
Coincidentally enough, I was born in Montréal, though my family left Canada when I was just a few months old. Though I had made a few trips back as a child, this would mark the first chance I would have as an adult to explore the city in earnest. As such, my trip was filled with a peculiar sense of nostalgia; fleeting moments of recognition in a city that I knew almost nothing about.
Our home base, the fashionably minimalist Opus Hotel, was located at the intersection of two of Montréal’s great thoroughfares, the Boulevard Saint Laurent and rue Sherbrooke. Boulevard Saint Laurent is apparently referred to as “the Main” by locals, as the street serves as the dividing line between the Anglophone and Francophone parts of town. Leonard Cohen owns a nondescript grey stone house about a mile from the Opus, not far from the corner of Boulevard Saint Laurent and rue Marie Anne (the latter street, apparently, serving as the inspiration for the song that bears its name).
Even though I arrived after midnight on Thursday, Kevin managed to coax me into going out to a bar (okay, I admit, it didn’t take much coaxing) with him and a few folks he had met at the festival. We ended up at Korova, an upstairs hipster dive on the main drag that somehow felt both authentically divey and authentically Canadian. The DJ spun great tunes (‘50s and ‘60s pop 45s, mostly), the bartenders poured St. Ambroise brews from Montréal’s own McAuslan brewery and practically everyone danced themselves into a sweat as the moose heads mounted on the wall silently observed the proceedings.
The next morning, I hit the streets, walking around in the Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods and snapping photos intermittently. It was windy and bitter cold and I felt the need to duck into a shop every few minutes just to keep my extremities warm.
I wish that I had had more time to explore the city’s record stores but due to my busy schedule, Inbeat was the only one that I made it in to. The store seemed to be geared toward DJs, stocked almost exclusively with 12” singles spanning various genres of dance and electronic music. The staff here was quite friendly and kept suggesting records that they thought I might like.
When visiting a new city for the first time, I often pay a lot of attention to the graffiti. Good graffiti (by which I mean graffiti with artistic merit, not just tags sprayed on a wall in a slapdash manner) is often a sign that a city harbors a vibrant youth culture. From the little that I saw, Montréal seems to have more graffiti—both in terms of quantity and quality—than most other North American cities. To me, this signals that Montréal’s residents are involved in a dialog with their city and feel empowered to ‘talk back’ to the urban spaces that they inhabit.
Though you probably can’t read it given the small size of this photo, the text above the purple panther head reads “WE DON’T PLAY GUITARS”. I thought that was a nice bit of foreshadowing, given the nature of some of the bands that I would see over the course of the next two days.
When I stopped to observe a street artist painting the awning of a restaurant, he immediately struck up a conversation with me and even invited me to have some frites with him at a local pub after his work was done. I wish I could have obliged but I had to hurry back in time for the day’s first showcase. Based on my experiences there, I would say that this sort of friendliness is to be expected in Montréal.
Heading down to the three-story Bar St. Sulpice for the showcase, I was treated to a classically wintry urban vista. The trees along rue Saint Denis were strung with blue lights and the street sloped downward as I headed East, seemingly leading to the front door of a small church.
Here we see M For Montréal founder and artistic director Sébastien Nasra kicking off the night with a toast to all parties involved.
Friendship was the first band to play the unofficial mini-showcase at Bar St. Sulpice. An overly dramatic, chamber-pop four-piece, their singer’s lyrics and delivery reminded me a bit too much of the Dashboard Confessional school of emo-pop.
Emilie Clepper, on the other hand, was hands down one of my favorite performers of the festival. Apparently, she split her time between Austin, Texas and Montréal growing up and it shows. She plays endearingly quirky country-rock ballads that ably walk the line between sad and sweet. Her nasally vocal delivery recalls Joanna Newsom and while occasionally grating, her vocals largely compliment her songs quite well.