It’s been a strange couple of years since the last POP Montreal International Music Festival took place in earnest. While the happening arts concern did manage to continue in some form during 2020 and 2021, they were hybridized versions that focussed on local performers and virtual content. This installment was the first time since 2019 that audiences were treated to the whole megillah, with over 400 artists and 60,000 fans spread out across five days and dozens of venues across Quebec’s most storied city.
Formed by friends in 2002, the non-profit POP Montreal draws in major headliners, yet also hosts a series of free shows. This year, alongside a whole gamut of talks, art installations, film screenings, and the like, labels like Constellation, Royal Mountain, Next Door, Telephone Explosion, Mothland, and Simone Records hosted music showcases. Elsewhere, big-name bookings included Martha Wainwright, Allison Russell, Tortoise, Canada’s Drag Race winner Priyanka, 1970s British funk band Cymande, dancehall legend Sister Nancy, and the last shows of Bran Van 3000’s 25th-anniversary tour for Glee, for which the hometown band played back-to-back nights at the beautifully named Club Soda.
Wednesday, 28 September 2022
While many people probably flocked their way down to Entrepôt 77 for Cymande, legendary funksters who were frequently sampled by golden age hip-hop producers, I posted up at a quaint little upstairs cabaret called La Sala Rossa (aka the Red Room). Built just north of the Main neighborhood in 1932 by Jewish progressives, it has spent the last 30 years as Centro Espagnol’s community center for Montreal’s Spanish population. Upstairs is a mini-ballroom that comfortably holds about 250 people, about half of which made it out to see former Karkwa percussionist Julien Sagot, but the people who were there really appreciated it.
Having amassed a solid solo catalogue of four full-length albums, Sagot has quietly positioned himself as the second coming of Serge Gainsbourg. Performing with drummer Charles Guay, bassist Marc-Olivier Tremblay Drapeau, guitarist Simon Angell, keyboardist Nathan Vanheuverzwijn, and sexy sax man Philippe Brochu-Pelletier, their show at POP Montreal was one of the most personally satisfying events of my entire 20-year career as a music critic.
Starting the show off, Frédérique Roy served up her Lune Très Belle (French for “Very Beautiful Moon”) project as a duet with experimental guitarist Simon Labbé. Taking full advantage of the venue’s baby grand piano, and occasionally switching over to a keyboard/vocoder for more Laurie Anderson-esque numbers, Roy sang along with her sparse, solemn melodies as Labbé droned and flicked his guitar in the spaces.
Sitting in the middle of the floor rather than on the stage, with the crowd hovering around or politely sitting on folding chairs, the duo coaxed every smidge of emotivity as they could from every note, apparent on their faces as they swayed and whistled in the dim space. It was so quiet, you could hear the cash register at the backdoor bar all the way from the stage. I’m sure many will be paying attention when she releases her second Lune Très Belle album, Ovale, through Boiled Records in 2023.
Sliding in second, Pataugeoire (or Paddling Pool) delivered a wonderful transition set of spacey emo-folk. The project of Agathe Dupéré has only been on the Quebec scene for a couple of years, but their sound brought back ’90s alternative rock in a good way. Playing with a guitarist and rhythm section, Dupéré beckoned the crowd closer in order to fill the void on the dancefloor left by the vacated baby grand, stashed away after Lune Très Belle, but they may have bum-rushed it anyway given the fire that followed.
Pataugeoire started off a little slow, with Dupéré’s voice a touch underpowered, and the band a little loose even for alternative, but they tightened up and projected more confidence as they went along. After finishing a song 20 minutes in, Dupéré triumphantly raised her hands like she’d won the Stanley Cup, and by the end of their set, she was yelling it out with the best of them, the whole band playing loudly as they commanded explosive dynamics. Their set was all-rise.
Swaggering out for his headline appearance with his full five-piece band in tow, Julien Sagot somehow managed to follow through with a set that was even better than anything I’d imagined, and I had built him up higher than a golden god in my head after all these years of appreciation from the other side of the country. After introducing his band of merry pranksters, they launched into a scintillating version of “Cendre et Descendre” from his eponymous 2021 album, one of his most Gainsbourgian tunes. Simon Angell took a screwdriver to the strings on his powder blue guitar, eventually snapping one, before picking up a white axe for the smooth transition into “Vacille” from 2017’s Bleu Jane.
Getting back into the Sagot album, Julien picked up a guitar for the sizzling trip-hop crescendo of “Morte Alitée”, which had the room in conniptions, then spent most of “Toc Toc” impishly drinking lager while his band went nuts around him. They played most of his self-titled album over the course of this set, alongside a few highlights from Bleu Jane. While I may not be able to fully appreciate his poetic prowess given the shoddy state of my lapsed grade 12 French, his skills as a showman and bandleader were apparent. His gruff vocal intonations were as gloriously sultry as they are on record, and his band was as psychedelic, jazzy, progressive, and underground as BADBADNOTGOOD and Badge Époque Ensemble combined.
Amidst their rendition of “Fraulen”, Philippe Brochu-Pelletier blasted out an insane sax solo, as Sagot shoved his vocal mic into the bell of Philippe’s horn for further amplification, while Nathan Vanheuverzwijn teased haunting Mellotron sounds from a Nord keyboard. For their lengthy closing rendition of the title track from Bleu Jane, Angell made his guitar sound like mbira (thumb piano), while Charles Guay and Marc-Olivier Tremblay Drapeau delivered the downtempo grooves essential for the show’s unwavering perpetual motion. I would fly back to Montreal at the drop of a hat just to see that show again.
Thursday, 29 September 2002
Acting as the main concert hub for POP Montreal, Rialto Theatre was constructed in the 1920s with an exterior based on the Paris Opera House, and a lush interior designed in the style of Louis XVI. Rialto operated as a cinema until the 1990s, but after a couple of decades of an identity crisis, it was bought by a philanthropic couple who were determined to preserve its unique architecture while raising its status as a cultural hub. Naturally, such an ostentatious setting was the perfect place to see the Linda Lindas, a quartet of teenage girls who sing high-energy pop-punk songs about cats and racism.
Before the Lindas took the stage, though, pop-punk princess Sophia Bel dressed up for the occasion. She looked like a prom queen in her flowing purple dress, complimentary mesh arm sleeves, and dramatic make-up. Her band stepped up too as her guitarist/keyboardist was also wearing a purple skirt, as did the bearded, faux-fur hat-topped banjo player who popped up onstage a couple of times. Together, they played as well as they dressed, with depth and flair.
Her style came off somewhere between Metric and early Avril Lavigne, polished songwriting with a little edge. Though she played acoustic and electric guitar during the set, two of her biggest moments came with her just singing. She bounced around and joyfully squeaked a lively version of “I Don’t Need My Space” from her 2022 album Anxious Avoidant, and later nailed an upbeat emo take on Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” that sounded like No Doubt circa 1995.
Nurturing that spark, the Linda Lindas were cute as all get out, but these kittens have claws as they tend to rock a style more punk than pop. The teenage Los Angeles quartet –drummer Mila de la Garza and her sister/guitarist Lucia, their cousin/bassist Eloise Wong and friend/guitarist Bela Salazar– mine the lamentations and exhilarations of growing up, hence the title of their 2022 album Growing Up. Yet, showing they are not the type to mince words, they went viral performing a song at the Los Angeles Public Library called “Racist, Sexist Boy”, which is about a racist, sexist boy.
Sharing vocals, their set delivered on all of the promises made by their library and subsequent Jimmy Kimmel buzz. They kicked ass, but they gave themselves the space to not be perfect. Their blessedly awkward banter couldn’t have seemed less rehearsed, particularly Lucia’s brace-smacked musings about whatever came to mind, yet when they played, they’d often drop into power stances and synchronized moves like they were ZZ Top at the Forum. They’re as slick as they wanna be.
Whenever a song needed a pissed-off death growl, they’d employ bassist Eloise Wong as the lead singer, fanning the riot grrrl spark across generations, yet she had whiskers painted on her face like a kitty. She crushed their take on “Racist, Sexist Boy”, dragging that dumbass who crossed her through the mud across the world, and she looked adorable doing it.
The eldest of the group at 18, guitarist Bela Salazar moshed around during their surfy, savage feline ode “Nino”. She grabbed a handmade sign from the crowd that said “Vive les Linda Lindas” and leaned it against their drumkit for the duration of their set, taking it with them as they left the stage. They seemed to enjoy the event as much as we did, with Lucia noting how grateful she was to be able to play live music again.
As much as “Racist, Sexist Boy” was the song that made them, the biggest response from the all-ages crowd arguably came during “Oh!” The opening song from Growing Up is such a naturally shout-along song, as much as anything the Ramones ever wrote, so it didn’t take much to coax the audience into belting out the hook with them.
Their cover choices were on-point too, as they delivered fierce takes on “Tonight” by the Go-Gos and “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. They know their history, and they are filling a niche that few else can. The kids are alright.
Amusingly, acting as the Linda Lindas stage tech, Bobb Bruno of Best Coast looked a bit like a tennis ball boy. He ran out a couple of times to fix errant mic stands mid-song, before returning to sit politely at the side of the stage and nod along. It’s nice to know they have such support on the road.
After the Linda Lindas, I swung down to the Diving Bell Social Club, a little 200-capacity storage room on the third floor of a sports bar that was turned into a community art space in 2018. There I caught a good amount of JayWood, the pseudonymous project of Winnipeg’s Jeremy Haywood-Smith.
JayWood jangled out the finest of indie-alternative psych-funk bedroom pop, much of it drawn from their 2022 full-length Slingshot. Their simmering heat filled the muggy room to perfection, with eccentric, upbeat bumps somewhere between Toro Y Moi and Connan Mockasin. At the end of their set, Haywood-Smith announced they were about to play their last song, and an exasperated gentleman in the crowd yelled out “Nooooooooo!” Before following through on his threat, Haywood-Smith humorously responded, “He needs some milk.”