Now in its fourth year, Pop Montréal has quickly become one of Canada’s premiere music events. In a city overrun by festivals, this week-long proceeding is a unique force, bringing together music, film, and art in one of North America’s most culturally diverse cities.
By luring big names, Pop Montréal surveys the progress of international culture while also showcasing Montreal’s rich musical landscape, one that, in the last year, has started to receive major stateside press. This year, Pop Montréal’s organizers brought together an eclectic group of artists ranging from Nas to Neil Hamburger, alongside a serious smattering of local talent.
With the majority of Montreal’s premiere venues situated in the beautiful Plateau neighborhood, I endeavored to cover the festival on my own, hopping from venue to venue, trying to take in as much as humanly possible. I avoided the truly large shows in an attempt to catch some of the smaller bands making waves, the names in a city that the whole world seems to be watching.
I was unfortunately absent for the final day of the festival, but, as I would quickly find out, five straight days of shows is more than enough for anyone. I quickly learned from this, my first massive festival experience, that schedules will be broken, stamina for both work and concert-going is in short supply, and sometimes you find surprises in the most unlikely places.
OPENING BASH: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27:
On paper, Pop Montréal’s opening bash looked like a winner. Promising “crazy guest DJs” and a headlining gig by indie rock pop star du jour Annie, it’s surprising that this show ended up being so dull.
The first problem was the location of the venue: housed in the middle of a strip mall just outside of Montreal’s Rosemont neighborhood, Theatre Plaza is a great venue that is unfortunately set in the wrong place. Pop Montréal’s decision to launch the festival here, miles away from the festival’s heart, kept walk-in traffic away and discouraged attendance by out-of-town press who might not feel comfortable venturing from the city’s hub.
I secretly hoped that the festival organizers had snared some Ninja Tune DJs (whose offices are located in Montreal) for the “crazy guest DJ” spots, or even managed to lure Royksopp into spinning (they just recently completed a brief North American tour with Annie).
Instead what greeted my ears was one of the worst DJ sets I’ve ever heard. With audible, long pauses between songs, obvious cueing, awful transitions, and a truly baffling song selection (ranging from weird post-rock to Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder), this wasn’t the party-pumping set one would expect to build anticipation for one of the underground’s hottest pop stars. It was a great relief when the bands started, finally getting those awful DJs away from the decks.
Dragonette walked onto the stage, each member dressed in white, and proceeded to rock through a blasé set of derivative ‘80s rock/pop. With songs addressing such topics as, um, “audio/visual” (but pronounced VISH-U-AL) and seducing someone’s boyfriend, Dragonette had all the danger of a VH1 special. Artificial and predictable, it’s not that surprising that the band spent the summer opening for Duran Duran.
After another half-hour of the DJs spinning a truly head-scratching selection of music, Annie made her way on to the stage. Accompanied only by a guy on mixing boards and another playing percussion and guitar, it was mostly up to Annie to win the crowd.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite up to the task. She strutted across the stage in high heels while drinking a glass of red wine. The classiness ended there. Behind the microphone, Annie seemed a pop star in training. For an artist who is huge in her native Norway, she displayed a curious lack of confidence, struggling with a paper-thin voice that barely reached the breathy heights of her CD.
Playing a total of eight songs, her set was disappointingly short, and left much to be desired. As she and her band left the stage, and the lights came up, the crowd slowly filtered out; only a few made stops at the merchandise tables. I glanced at my watch: it wasn’t even midnight. It was a surprisingly quiet start for a festival with potential to make such big noise.
DAY 1: WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28
This, the first proper day of the festival, taught me one thing: schedules are made to be broken. I started my evening at Divan Orange, a small restaurant-by-day-venue-by-night where local promoter Mandatory Moustache was hosting local acts. I had come to catch Cavelle, but due to a cancellation, Kickers were taking their place.
Featuring Victoria of now defunct post-rock group Letlowns, Kickers picked up where the last band left off. Usually a trio, this performance found the group pared down to two members as the keyboardist couldn’t make the gig on such short notice. But it hardly seemed to matter. Victoria and drummer Anne played a kickass set of serpentine guitar licks and thunderous rhythm that placed the group somewhere between the Monorchid and Fugazi. Most impressive were the brief improvisations that found Victoria and Anne bobbing, weaving, and reading each other on stage in some kind of math-rock boxing match. It was a remarkable set by a band that deserves a ride on the wave of Montreal craze. I guess it should be mentioned that Kickers are an all-female group, but when the music is this potent, gender doesn’t really factor in.
Next up were Telefauna. With banks of synthesizers stretching across the stage and a half-dozen members, it was clear the audience was in for something special. And indeed we were. With freewheeling pop melodies and wide-eyed delivery Telefauna‘s Elephant-6 style whimsy was endlessly refreshing. Mixing video game bleeps, hip-hop beats, and vocal melodies, the group tapped into something special. Unfortunately, they are still finding their voice and many of the songs teetered on the border of novelty.
Midway through their set I left and headed over to a small bar a few blocks over where French rock group Gwenwed were scheduled to play. As I waited patiently for the group to start, I watched the various members clamber onto the small stage and tune their guitars for nearly half an hour. Regardless, the already packed venue ate up every minute of the actual set. Stealing from the early ‘90s playbook of groups like Weezer, Gwenwed’s distorted, goofy pop-punk sound had the room buzzing.
Later, I hightailed it to La Sala Rossa where Enon and a smattering of guests were playing one of the evening’s larger shows.
La Sala Rossa is one of Montreal’s best venues. With an amazing Spanish restaurant downstairs and venue that holds about 250 people upstairs, it’s the perfect place to catch a meal and then see a show. As I walked into the concert space, I felt I was taking a step back in time. On stage Brooklyn’s Tomorrow’s Friends stood, with enough long hair, tight jeans, and frills to dress the cast of “That ‘70s Show” for an entire season, Tomorrow’s Friends‘s extended Grateful Dead-like jams were absolute snores—I wasn’t the only one who thought so. On stage left, one of the band members sat perfectly still and for each song hit the tambourine against her leg - either too bored, too stoned, or too cool to care. She never sang, acknowledged the crowd or even her bandmates, instead opting for a Zen-like solitude until the unraveling guitar solos and incense-infused meanderings came to an end. For the most part, the audience watched Tomorrow’s Friends with a patient indifference, leaving a discernable gap between band and crowd.
It was now approaching midnight, and I correctly guessed that the band would take a long time to get their gear off the stage. I headed downstairs to the restaurant, and had a cup of coffee, to stay awake.
The coffee finished, I headed back upstairs just as City Field were getting ready to start. Boasting members of Soaking Up Jagged, the Sweet Tenders and most importantly, the Super Friendz, the crowd was definitely excited to close the aforementioned gap. Keen, goofy and infectious, City Field rocked like the B-52s, with snaky, surfy guitar licks and considerable melodic charm. The band would be advised to work out the kitschier elements of their repertoire—the attempt to pass out tambourines to the audience during their last song (a gimmick already patented and used to greater success by the Constantines) fell flat. But City Field still hold a world of promise in their rough-around-the-edges pop.
The last time I saw Enon was about two years ago, at the very same venue. Setwise, the band stuck largely to material from 2002’s critically acclaimed High Society and 2003’s somewhat disappointing Hocus Pocus.
Enon find themselves at a critical crossroads. Their electronica tendencies and quirky brand of rock ‘n roll split the band in two, breaking up the seamless whole. The more beat-oriented tracks, usually sung by bassist Toko Yasuda, stand completely at odds with John Schmersal’s wiry punk songs. The effect is somewhat jarring, and it’s difficult to see what direction the band will take next. Which ever way they go, their cover of the Angry Samoans’ “Lights Out” suggests that the rock ‘n roll, for now, is here to stay.
Enon’s set was tight, brief, and to the point, yet strangely unsatisfying. These songs are at least two years old, and Enon really need to spice up their repertoire with something new.