Having spent the better part of 15 years as a freelance music writer, working in perpetual solitude, the restrictions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic were fairly easy to come to grips with. I consider myself fortunate in that respect. Because my day job was deemed “essential” I’ve been working throughout the entire lockdown of 2020, and since my wife and I do not have children – only a perpetually happy and yappy little pomeranian – we were able to adapt to the situation as well as anyone could ever hope for.
Still, though, the feeling of cabin fever during the ensuing brutal Western Canadian winter – trapped by a devastating blizzard on the first weekend of November and never mentally recovering for the following relentlessly cold five months – was a challenge, especially when the ache to hear live music kicked in. By the summer of 2021, it had been 18 months since I had witnessed an actual group of musicians performing on a stage alongside fellow music nerds. Pre-pandemic, I had taken the act of attending a concert for granted, and a year and a half later I was starting to miss it in a huge way.
Of course, it didn’t help that our American friends to the south were already back in the swing of things, attending mass events in spite of some ominously low vaccination numbers in some states. Canada has taken a much more cautious approach, and although restrictions have varied from province to province, most venues were reluctant to stage concerts without proper safety precautions. So while Americans attended festivals, arena shows, and packed club shows with increasing regularity, it was impossible for Canadians not to feel just a little envious.
While the safety and logistics of international artists performing in Canada is still a tangled mess of bureaucracy and policy, music festivals in Canada have been forced to get creative, and among the most creative is the Festival de musique emergente, or FME for short. Held every Labor Day in the small Northern Quebec city of Rouyn-Noranda, FME is a remarkable success story, having steadily become one of the most consistently strong, not to mention friendly music fests in the country over the last 19 years.
Situated in the mining region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue, 400 miles northwest of Montreal, Rouyn-Noranda is a former copper mining town that wraps around the western shore of the pretty Lake Osisko. Visually it’s an endearing study in contrast. The ominous old mine looms over the north end of the town while eyes are drawn immediately to the boreal scenery: the coniferous green, the sapphire blue of the lake, and the ancient grey bedrock of the Canadian Shield.
Rouyn-Noranda’s city centre is a quirky mixture of smalltown Quebecois and continental Europe, where depanneurs, trendy shops, bistros, and 24-hour poutine joints share space. The outdoor patios on Avenue Principale joyfully exude a cosmopolitan feel, while nearby street signs indicate that snowmobiles are allowed on certain streets in winter. In keeping with such charming disparity, the central hub of the festival is so lavishly decorated that you have to be reminded that you’re standing in the middle of the local curling rink.
Toss in the smalltown hospitality of the locals, who love to throw late-afternoon cinq a sept parties on a regular basis, and it’s easy to see why FME attracts a large number of urban music enthusiasts from the south. The convivial atmosphere has a way of warmly wriggling into your heart before you get into the music that’s in store.
In past years FME’s lineup has been a wildly eclectic array of popular music, ranging from indie rock, to folk, to hip-hop, to electronic, to art-pop, to extreme metal, and everything in between, from Quebec, Europe, America, and English Canada. Having staged a stripped-down event in 2020, featuring limited capacity and social distancing, that successful experiment, not to mention the presence of the covid vaccine, convinced FME to expand its scope to very nearly the size of previous festivals. Only this time, all artists would be coming from Quebec and Canada, and true to form, the 2021 lineup was simply dazzling, reflecting the breadth and quality of post-millennial Canadian music.
The five central venues aptly reflected the eclecticism of the festival. Located on a peninsula jutting out on the north shore of the lake, the “Poison Volant” (“flying fish”) is a cutely designed outdoor venue featuring terraces as well as cleverly situated mushroom-shaped tables on the lawn to encourage social distancing while maintaining a party atmosphere. Much more formal and ornate, the Roman Catholic Église Immaculée-Conception offers a gorgeous and quieter setting for the more singer-songwriter-oriented artists.
The cozy Cabaret de la Dernière Chance is the most intimate venue, a bohemian bar hosting several eagerly anticipated showcase performances. The larger Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda was the busiest venue of the festival, home to the more boisterous rock and hip hop concerts, while an entire city block was cordoned off for the Scène SiriusXM, an outdoor dance/electronic venue that pulsated with music and energy late into the evenings.
Just how FME managed several thousand attendees, artists, and staff safely, in the midst of a fourth wave where the delta variant was threatening to upend all the work the province had done to flatten the curve, was the picture of efficiency, a marvel to witness. Quebec’s vaccine passport system is by far the most thought-out and seamless in Canada, with near-universal public compliance. At one central location, festival-goers were required to present proof of vaccination and were given a wristband to wear for the weekend, which would grant them access to each venue and ensure public safety throughout the festival. Coming from Western Canada, where opposition to vaccine passports is rampant and extremely vocal, it was staggering – and encouraging – to see the public embrace the greater good rather than selfishly defend “individual choice”.
As appealing as the festival’s setting is, as encouraging as the safety precautions were, it all paled in comparison to the quality of the music on display. For someone just getting back into the swing of things from a concert standpoint, it was dizzying right off the bat and didn’t let up for four days.
Day One, on Thursday, 2 September, immediately got off to a roaring start, led by two past winners of Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize. The iconic Lido Pimienta headlined the Poisson Volant with a colorful, exuberant performance of her Afro-Colombian synthpop, supported by the equally ebullient sounds of budding Montreal DJ Gayance, past Polaris short-lister Pierre Kwenders, and Toronto-based Filipino synthpoppers Pantayo, another Polaris-nominated act.
Over at the Église Immaculée-Conception, Toronto’s No Joy performed their dreamy, hushed shoegaze while Montreal’s Laurence-Anne delivered her understated, Feist-inspired music to a hushed crowd. The highlight, though, was at the Petit Théâtre, where 2020 Polaris winner Backxwash played a highly anticipated set of her intense, industrial-tinged horrorcore. Supporting Backxwash was none other than Canadian hip-hop royalty Cadence Weapon, who would go on to win the 2021 Polaris Prize a few weeks later. His understated performance emphasized his perpetually clever lyricism and extremely versatile flow, not to mention his lovable humour and biting social commentary. Bilingual Haitian Montreal rapper Maky Lavender was arguably the biggest revelation of the fest, delivering a high-energy set featuring highlights from his excellent recent album On Est La!
Punk and post-punk dominated Day Two, first at the Cabaret de la Dernière Chance. Toronto riot-grrrls Bad Waitress celebrated the release of their outstanding new album No Taste with a raucous set that found a neat balance between the militant punk of Bikini Kill and the massive tones of Babes in Toyland. Meanwhile the whimsically named Toronto foursome Ducks Ltd. played a taut set of Buzzcocks-derived post-punk, accentuated by jangly Rickenbacker guitar and rich vocal harmonies. Back at the Petit Théâtre The OBGMs, riding a wave of hype surrounding their recent album The Ends (another 2021 Polaris short list title) played a very loud, very intense set alongside Montreal indie rock stalwart Paul Jacobs.
Day Three was all about variety, not to mention rain. The esteemed Martha Wainwright along with Julien Sagot (formerly of 2010 Polaris winners Karkwa) charmed the audience at Église Immaculée-Conception, while shoegaze veterans the Besnard Lakes cranked up the volume at the Petit Théâtre alongside Toronto kraut-garage rockers Yoo Doo Right and the self-styled “mocassin-gaze” of Ojibwe artist Zoon, another 2021 Polaris nominee (notice a pattern?). Outside at the Poisson Volant, electropop singer-songwriter Sophia Bel and the enormously fun psychedelic disco outfit Barry Paquin Roberge barely staved off the rain, but by the time electronic innovator Marie Davidson took the stage alongside backing band L’Œil Nu, the deluge was in full gear. Still, Davidson and the band gamely embraced the chaos and churned out some fittingly atmospheric electro-rock that felt equal parts My Bloody Valentine and Kraftwerk.
FME’s closing night focused on two wildly disparate shows. The Poisson Volant featured popular mainstream Quebecois artists Louis-Jean Cormier (also formerly of Karkwa) and Marie-Pierre Arthur, the dulcet tones echoing throughout the city. Conversely, the Petit Théâtre was all about the metal, as Quebec’s legendary Voivod came out of pandemic hibernation to unleash a career-spanning set that proved yet again why they’re one of the province’s most resilient and vital musical acts.
Having covered music festivals for many years, yours truly is no stranger to the relentless pace, but coming on the heels of 18 idle months at home listening to albums and watching the odd livestream, FME was a shock to the system, but a much needed one. To be out with people, hearing familiar music and discovering new artists, was a welcome respite from the monotony of pandemic life. And seeing it executed safely was the most positive takeaway, with everyone not only accepting the precautions but embracing them, a concept that is foreign in such fourth wave disaster areas as Alberta and my home, Saskatchewan.
On that last night, strolling back to our hotel in the crisp midnight air, on our way for some late-night takeout poutine and beer, dance music echoing in the background, my wife and I passed some anti-vaxxers staging a protest. There were three of them; three sad, pathetic, brainwashed people, cold, alone, demoralized, with no audience to proselytize to, while the rest of the attendees were fully vaccinated and enjoying life, doing their part to bring a sense of normalcy by going out and safely having fun. We walked into Chez Morasse – home of the best poutine in Canada, trust me – showed our vaccine passports, got our food, and proceeded to party well into the night, still giddy from four days of incredible music.