DAY 2: THURSDAY SEPTEMEBER 29
My original plan for Pop Montréal’s second day was an ambitious one; I’d catch seven bands spread out over at least three venues. But then a nasty cold front descended upon the city, forcing me to change my plans accordingly. I had to go to La Tulipe, a venue on the edge of the Plateau neighborhood to grab my press ticket for the sold out and greatly anticipated Antony & The Johnsons show. Instead of walking a half an hour in the bitter cold from La Tulipe to the first venue on my schedule, only to head back later, I decided to settle for the evening in a cozy corner at the front of the venue’s balcony.
Elizabeth Anka Vajagic
Kicking off the evening was the surprise opener Elizabeth Anka Vajagic. Playing guitar and accompanied by a cellist, Vajagic’s beautiful voice quickly filled the theater. Her darkly colored songs—which borrow heavily from European folk traditions—were mournful, moving, and powerful, the perfect way to start off a chilly night. Her set began to overstay its welcome though, and weaken as more loosely structured songs attempted to trade simply on the quality of Vajagic‘s voice. Overall, Vajagic is blessed with both the pipes and vision to make some major waves. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened yet.
To be honest, the real reason my initial plans had me running all over the city, was because I was trying to avoid sitting through CocoRosie. I’ve tried to digest their childlike, ear-bending freak-folk to no avail and I just don’t understand the love these girls have gotten in the press. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t get up on stage and deliver one of the finest shows of the entire festival - in fact, it was also one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
On stage was an odd assortment of broken gadgets, a harp, a piano, and the girls joined, by a third member who handled sampling and human beatbox—yes, human beatbox. The sounds came together beautifully and the voices, usually pitched right into the listener’s ear drums, were much more palatable live. The Bjork-like shrieks and operatic tendencies of the duo came off as carefully realized. Instead of seeming intentionally pretentious, the group delivered an emotionally balanced performance.
In an even more impressive feat, CocoRosie‘s entire set was synched perfectly with a visual presentation that mixed everything from hand-held home movies to a televised gymnastic routine by Natasia Liuken. These added an extra dimension to the songs.
In this setting, the group’s artfully skewed pop takes on a different shape and form. The vulnerability, emotion, and desperation hidden beneath their cracked voices came shining brilliantly through. The set was punctuated by a cover of Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On” that twisted the R&B into a creepy catcall. It finally morphed into a song of female sexual empowerment, highlighted by the group chanting “We don’t like it/ Eat my pussy right!”
Finally, it was time for newly crowned Mercury Prize-winner Antony & The Johnsons. Who would think that a man behind such dour (and beautiful numbers) as “Hope There’s Someone” and “River Of Sorrow” can be such a charming, funny performer? Offering less of a recital and more a gathering of friends around piano, Antony took graciously long pauses between numbers, making up ditties on the spot based on odd, playful catcalls from the audience (a more moving song about parsnips, I shall never hear).
Backed by a string trio and a bass player, Antony‘s set moved at a gentle canter. Although he already had Montreal in the palm of his hands, Antony won them over again with a stirring cover of Leonard Cohen’s “The Guests”. Later, he brought a very drunk CocoRosie back on stage to join him in a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”. This cover properly exposed the song as a desperate plea of desire and longing, a sentiment lost in the original version.
It was a beautiful concert experience, one in which Antony, seemingly without trying, bonded with his fans and shared with them a whirlwind of emotions. When it was over, I stepped back outside into the cold and, warmed by Antony’s still lingering voice, hailed a cab and headed home.
DAY 3: FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 30
Friday evening I made my way up to Montreal’s working class Rosemont neighborhood. In an unassuming club between uniform stores and diners, The Forms were setting up for their third Pop Montréal appearance. Two years ago, on the heels on their well-received debut Icarus, the band—at the time a quartet—played a killer set. Last year, problems with the border police meant only half of the members were able to make their way to Montreal, leading to an impromptu set by the band’s equally excellent side project, the Desert Fathers.
This year, the band returned with a slimmed down, but powerful trio. Live, the Forms stretch out the lean songs from their debut to almost epic length. This said, they still retain the intricacy and urgency of the tunes. Unlike so many “math rock” bands that spend too much time trying out different time signatures, the Forms place importance on finding a groove - their style doesn’t come at the price of accessibility.
Despite a half-empty room, the band tore through an amazing set, with more than a handful of jaw-dropping moments They threw in a couple of new tracks and ended with their drummer beating his kit until it tore apart. It astonishes me that the group’s debut and killer live show haven’t gotten them bigger attention. But hints that their next release might be on a more established label foretell a bright future for this group, one of the best up-and-coming rock bands around.
I jumped back on the metro, and headed back to the Plateau to close out the evening at the Three Gut Records/Monitor Records showcase. As I walked in the doors of Petit Campus, Toronto singer-songwriter Gentlemen Reg was closing off his set. The few songs I saw were enough to make me want to check him out next time he’s in town.
Jim Guthrie followed with an all-too short set of made-for-FM songs. Although he faced a setback—he left his guitar in a Montreal cab earlier in the week—he worked well with its replacement, delivering a solid performance. Already a Montreal concert favorite, his set was a fan’s dream including “So Small” and “Time Is a Force”. On his own, as with the now defunct Royal City, Guthrie has proven himself as one of Canada’s most lyrical and engaging songwriters. His set played to all his strengths with a homespun sincerity that can’t be taught.
Closing the night were the latest members to the Monitor Records roster, Big Bear. As they stacked their amps across the stage, people backed away from the stage suspiciously. And when the group launched into their stellar set of technical metal, the room cleared.
Led by singer Jordyn Bonds—don’t let her ordinary indie rock hipster look fool you—she strapped what looked like a hockey pad to her thigh, and wailed on it with a tambourine through every song. The guitarists played tight, sinewy, math-metal around her ear-shredding screams, while the rhythm section locked it all together, keeping the showiness at bay. The band deserved better and with the right crowd—one that enjoyed metal—they would’ve slayed.
While I understand they are part of the Monitor Records team, Cass McCombs would’ve worked better alongside the likes of Jim Guthrie and Gentleman Reg. But, for the dozen of us who stuck around, Big Bear was a welcome night-cap.