After a short walk in the brisk cold, we found ourselves at the Cabaret & Studio Juste Pour Rire (“Just For Laughs”), where the night’s showcase would unfold. Sets alternated between two stages in the complex, separated by interludes of five minutes. Much like South by Southwest, which has often been described as a musical version of speed dating, M For Montréal can feel like an event geared toward the attention span impaired. A band performs a handful of songs, you walk a few feet and five minutes later, another band is set in front of you. As you might imagine, this approach has its upsides as well as its drawbacks. If you’re stuck watching an act that doesn’t particularly move you, you’ve usually only got a few more songs to sit through. However, if you really like a band, you’ve got to deal with the fact that you’ll only get to see them play for a few more minutes at most.
First up was Chinatown, a five-piece from the French-speaking side of town. While it’s said that their music combines the French pop of the ‘60s with the indie pop of today, to my ears, Chinatown just sounded like a sub par, Francophone bar band. If I was forced to tell you two interesting things about this band I would mention that:
1.) That singer kind of looks like Ewan McGregor, doesn’t he?
2.) Their guitarist looks, dresses and acts a bit like Joe Perry from Aerosmith. Can’t say he solos like him, though.
Next up was Arkells. Like Chinatown, this indie-pop five-piece seemed to take their cues from blue-collar, workingman’s rock. Unlike bar rock revivalists the Hold Steady, however, Arkells deliver their tunes earnestly, sans the knowing wink that has made the former act a blogosphere darling. Though I can’t say I particularly enjoyed Arkells’ set as a whole, they do have this one song, “John Lennon” that’s terrifically catchy—as a matter of fact, it remained stuck in my head for the rest of the weekend (hit up their MySpace page to stream it). Possibly one to watch.
Right about this time I was struck by a sudden realization. Looking down at the beer in my hand, I realized that all I had been drinking all day long was Boréal Blanche Ale. Boréal is manufactured by Les Brasseurs du Nord, one of the largest microbreweries in Quebec and is sold exclusively inside the province. The reason I had been drinking Boréal all day was not by choice—though it was, admittedly, not at all bad, if a little innocuous compared to brews from some of Quebec’s more adventurous small breweries—but rather, because everywhere I went, it seemed to be the only decent beer available. Later that weekend I would have bottles of Boréal literally handed to me, seemingly at every turn. It is for these reasons that I have decided that Boréal Blanche is, for better or for worse, the Shiner Bock of M For Montréal. Like Shiner Bock at SXSW, at M For Montréal, Boréal flows like water, follows you wherever you go and despite its charms, starts to wear on you by the end of the festival.
Winter Gloves were the first electro-pop act that I saw on Friday night, though they would not be the last. A slinky, bouncy four-piece, these guys have most of the verve and attitude of a dance punk act but tend to lean more heavily on keyboards than they do guitars. As a matter of fact, they often substitute low synth grooves for bass lines, a technique that works surprisingly well in a live setting. Admittedly, they’re not stunningly original or groundbreaking, though they are quite catchy and fun and I would definitely earmark them as one of the better bands that I saw at M For Montréal. Check out “Let Me Drive” on their MySpace page.
Ah, Beast, where do I begin? Perhaps I should start with the following observation: rap-rock is surprisingly popular in Montréal. Kevin mentioned that this may have something to do with the persistent popularity of the sub-genre in France, where it lives free from the stigmas that are so often attached to it here. If you want a taste of what unapologetic, full-on, Montréal rap-metal sounds like in 2008, try to catch Beast live. Though the band—a collaboration between drummer/programmer Jean-Phi Goncalves and vocalist Beatrice Bonifassi, who is best known for her vocal work on the Triplets of Bellville soundtrack—sounds more trip-hop than rock on record, live, the duo adds a full band and backs up Bonifassi’s speak-singing with a far more muscular sound. Though I can’t honestly say it was my cup of tea, judging by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, they’ve managed to build up quite a following in Montréal.
Like the similarly-named Winter Gloves, Woodhands are an electro-pop band that isn’t shy about carting a bunch of synths up on stage. Unlike Winter Gloves, however, they’ve got more of a lo-fi, dance-oriented sound. There’s a bit of slink to their step but they’ve also got that whole Hot Chip-esque geek chic thing going on (check out the lead singer and his keytar, irony, presumably included). While they got the crowd dancing without too much trouble, I found that their songs often veered a bit too close to cookie-cutter electro for comfort.
We Are Wolves might be monopolizing all the attention in the press lately but for my money, CLAASS is Alexander Ortiz’s more interesting outfit. A We Are Wolves side-project of sorts (the bands share two members), CLAASS takes WAW’s post-punk-meets-electronica formula and turns it on its head. The end result is dark yet danceable electro with thick, grimy, live bass lines and an undercurrent of stuttering post-punk rhythms. Unlike most other electro-pop bands who only flirt with dance music while keeping one foot planted firmly in the world of rock, CLAASS’ compositions often bear a stronger resemblance to house music than to guitar pop. With a bit more work, I could see them becoming a Canadian analogue to the Knife or Ladytron. Hands down, my favorite band of the festival.
After the official showcase was through, we were treated to an after party with Misteur Valaire. Unlike the showcase that preceded it, the after party was free and open to the public. Despite the cold, a massive crowd had formed outside of the venue and stormed in at the stroke of midnight, when the doors were opened. I’m not going to attempt to describe Misteur Valaire’s sound (I’ll leave that to Kevin, heh heh) though they seemed to mix electro-pop and jazz with just about every other popular music genre imaginable and had more gear onstage than they could actually make use of during their set (no, literally). Yeah, they were a bit wacky (if the matching puffy vests didn’t clue you in, the synchronized, boy band-style dance moves would have) but they were also fantastic performers and had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand. It was a bit ridiculous, yes but I can think of far worse ways to spend a Friday night than to be standing up on a balcony in a Montréal club, Boréal Blanche in hand, watching a couple of kids spaz out on stage while an adoring crowd absolutely loses it below.