During day three of the M For Montréal festival, PopMatters' photographer rides a school bus, eats more smoked brisket than is probably advisable and checks out Montréal's budding Francophone hip-hop scene.
I've heard it said that this year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival in New York felt like an indie rock summer camp. After attending M For Montréal, I now know what that means. Over the course of the three-day festival, the international delegates (that is to say, the group of about 30 festival buyers, agents and journalists who had traveled from abroad to attend) were carefully shepherded from activity to activity by the festival staff. In addition to the showcases there were dinners, happy hours and networking events, all of which were carefully planned and orchestrated by the aforementioned handlers. To their credit, however, the festival never felt like a contrived daycare for music industry insiders. Friendships came easily over the course of three days and even those activities that sounded like tourist clichés on paper turned out to be more than worthwhile. The key was not taking oneself too seriously--something that both the organizers and the attendees seemed to understand instinctively.
Take, for example, the city tour, which took place inside of a yellow school bus on a Saturday morning. Instead of being led by a dry, professional tour guide, the journey was narrated by the festival's booking and promotion guy, Mikey Bernard. Looking like a Cobra Snake-approved L.A. hipster with his ostensibly ironic moustache and fedora, Mikey was the perfect tour guide, injecting each comment with a bit of sardonic wit. He also knew Montréal's indie rock landmarks like the back of his hand: the street where American Apparel founder Dov Charney once lived, the apartment where the idea for Vice Magazine was hatched, the restaurant where Leonard Cohen likes to have his breakfast.
Of course, no trip to Montréal would be complete without a visit to Schwartz's famous Jewish delicatessen, a mainstay of Montréal cuisine for 80 years.
The specialty here is the smoked beef brisket, which is piled high on a two comparatively puny slices of white bread. The meat is rich, hearty and flavorful and almost seems to melt in your mouth--just the thing for a cold Montréal afternoon.
After acquiring enough smoked meat to feed a small army, we headed up to the top of Mount Royal, the hill (once thought to be a mountain) that gives Montréal its name. As Mount Royal is situated just to the north of the city, it offers incredible views of downtown Montréal.
By mid-afternoon, we were on our way toward Les Foufounes Électriques ("The Electric Buttox"), Montréal's most well known and most curiously named rock club, for an afternoon showcase.
First up was Colin Munroe, an Internet sensation turned major label recording artist from Toronto (this year's festival featured a handful of Canadian artists from outside of Montréal in addition to the homegrown acts). Munroe initially became popular though sites like MySpace and YouTube where his self-recorded covers of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" and U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" were played hundreds of thousands of times. Since then, he's gone on to sign a contract with Universal Records, has released a well-received mixtape featuring cameos from some big names (Joell Ortiz, Blaqstarr, Wale) and has toured the U.S. and Canada.
Monroe may be quite accomplished for a relatively new artist but his live show could still use a bit of work. Most of his songs, though carefully layered on record, were recreated live with the aid of only a guitarist and a computer. The end result was that most of Munroe's set sounded awfully thin, a fact that wasn't helped much by his less than confident vocal delivery. Still, he's clearly learned a thing or two about swagger from his buddy Kanye (an early supporter of Munroe), mentioning his record deal with Universal no less than three times over the course of his set. With an ego like that, it's not hard to imagine Munroe ascending to the rank of pop idol faster than you can say "500,000 views".
Next was Radio Radio, a lighthearted, Francophone hip-hop crew with electro-pop leanings. My French isn't great but I was still able to catch a few of their punch lines, for example, a bit about becoming the "nouveau Jacques Cousteau" in song about lounging in a Jacuzzi with some bikini-clad ladies. Imagine a French-speaking version of the Beastie Boys backed by a couple of Ed Banger-esque laptop jockeys and you'll get the basic idea. Nothing terribly groundbreaking but mindless fun, nonetheless.
As I'm sure you're well aware, there's a bit of a running joke about Canadian bands having too many members. Red Mass certainly isn’t doing much to fight that perception. The stage at Les Foufounes Électriques wasn't large enough to accommodate the 10 or so band members who showed up, so a few of them had to hang out in front of the stage--including a kid who was covered from head to toe in gold face paint, wore only a pair of tightie whities and was tasked with playing a cowbell (a homage to Bob Nastanovich, perhaps). Clearly, the band was keen on showmanship; clad in matching red and black outfits, they looked almost like a goth version of Broken Social Scene. Given the nature of their songs, however--short, fairly unremarkable garage punk/Psychobilly numbers--it was hard not to dismiss them as little more than a gimmick group.
Last but not least was Gatineau, a bizarre, Francophone hip-hop crew that filled out their sound with live instrumentation and quirky samples. While one singer was pretty much a straight-up Emcee, the other alternately rapped and sang through a telephone receiver (not unlike the one used by L.A.'s Mika Miko) and doubled as a harpsichord player. Inexplicably, the only band I can think to compare them to is the Eels, which is telling, I think. Yeah, they were quite strange but somehow, I found them oddly compelling.