POP Montreal
Photo: Alan Ranta

POP Montreal International Music Festival 2022

For POP Montreal 2022 over 400 artists and 60,000 fans spread out across five days and dozens of venues across Quebec’s most storied city.

Friday, 30 September 2022

The Musée du Montréal juif (or Museum of Jewish Montreal) has been around since 2010, highlighting the rich history of the city’s centuries-old Jewish community with a notable focus on the impact of the bagel. Unfortunately, they were unceremoniously evicted by developers from their original space in the Vineburg Building in 2020, and it’s taken some time to find an adequate replacement. As such, Joseph Shabason‘s daytime performance was the first thing ever to happen in their new digs.

Shabason announced the news himself, saying he was “christening the Jewish Museum”, before someone asked if it was actually a briss. Whichever way one wants to see it, the Destroyer saxophonist anointed the space with his own brand of ambient jazz in the Jon Hassell vein. Shabason’s grandparents were holocaust survivors, so he gave the performance the depth and consideration it deserved, as a few dozen attendees sat around on the floor or scattered themselves on the twisting stairwell that framed the modest concert space.

Joseph Shabason

Waves of looping, light saxophone with evocative vocal samples and bird song washed over the crowd, while a drummer used brushes to tickle a muted kit, with soft things blanketing the toms and a tiger painted on the kick. Quickly joined by guitarist Thom Gill and bassist Bram Gielen, Shabason noodled on EWI, bamboo flute, synth, and sax. They entranced the afternoon but made a resonant impact with songs like “Broken Hearted Kota”, a song based on a famous Japanese wrestler romance. It had a bit of a false start, but they soon relaxed into the nimble atmospheric wanderer that dripped with lonely feelings.

Later in the evening, after heading to the Rialto Theatre to catch a few minutes of Martha Wainwright, who promised to finish her set when she damn well felt like it, I wandered down to the 500-capacity Théâtre Fairmount to catch the black queer duo Strange Froots. The sparse decor of the venue made it feel like a nightclub halfway through a renovation, but it had amazing sight lines, a wider space than deep with its stage centrally plopped, whereupon Naïka Champaïgne and Mags, aka DragonFroot and PassionFroot, did their thing.

Unfortunately, mercury was still in retrograde, so they had a couple of snags. Surviving a little mic problem here and a little chatty kathiness there, Strange Froots sucked in the crowd more and more as they went along. Constantly teasing each other, the rapport between Naïka and Mags was like hanging out with old friends at a house party.

Performing the first half of their set with only a couple of mics, and Champaïgne playing guitar and looping a little beatboxed percussion, Champaïgne humorously lamented having jazz chords in the beautifully life-affirming pop song “Green Apple”, with its heart-warming refrain “You’re not so alone.” Mags later announced the final guitar number as the last chance for Naïka to impress the ladies so they should get their phones out, much to Champaïgne’s chagrin. They also gave a shout-out to the unceded Tiohti:áke/Mooniyang territories that Montreal is situated upon, real talk on Reconciliation Day.

Strange Froots

After their pal Juice dropped the bass in, the duo just worked their mics, cooing and rocking out R&B and hip-hop flows from their youth. Wearing a sweet afro pick earring, Champaïgne proved to be a hell of a guitarist, and their natural harmonies were captivating, but they could kick it too, dropping socially-aware raps over throwback beats. They formed in 2014, and haven’t played POP Montreal since 2017, but clearly have more to offer.

After that, my evening was all about Deanna Petcoff down at Casa Del Popolo. Founded by the bassist from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and his wife Kiva Stimac, Casa Del Popolo is the wood-paneled half-bar/half-concert nook where Arcade Fire first cut their teeth. I had tried to get into the modest venue earlier in the evening to catch more of JayWood, but the event was oversold. Luckily, the hall had cleared out enough for me to squeeze in later on.

An alumnus of Girls Rock Camp Toronto, Deanna Petcoff spent her pandemic re-evaluating the minutiae of relationships, and came out of it with an album called To Hell With You, I Love You. It’s shockingly honesty and rotten with plucky, alternative riffs, like Alanis Morrissette being reinterpreted by the Strokes.

Wearing a t-shirt that said, “Who the Fuck Is Liam Gallagher”, Petcoff looked kinda like Eliza Dushku if she was playing a young Sheryl Crow in a biopic. This relatively abstract comparison was enhanced by her slow-jam cover of “If It Makes You Happy”, which took on a pace not unlike Ravel’s “Bolero” until the crowd belted out its famous chorus.

POP Montreal

Performing with a guitarist in a Blockbuster Video shirt and a dapper rhythm section, the bassist in dress pants and wingtip heels, they didn’t bother with a proper line check. Instead, Deanna Petcoff and her trio launched straight into “Trash Bag”, and it worked gloriously right off the bat. If the joyous response to her opener wasn’t convincing enough, her lyrical prowess on “Failing Upwards” made me want to buy vinyl, never having heard it before that moment. She blew a verse during “I Don’t Wanna Get Over You”, but a group of ladies near the bar sang it for her, demonstrating how much her confessional tavern poetry had already connected with others.

A patch of pogoing hooligans in the middle of the room was so stoked that they started belting out “Hey” along to the beat multiple times during her set, one instance of which made her laugh out loud. In the middle of “Devastatingly Mediocre”, a song to which she recommended if anyone could relate then they should break up with their partner, the rowdies accidentally smashed a glass near the stage and spent the rest of the song dutifully picking up the pieces with their bare hands. Petcoff was so distracted by the spectacle that she broke a string and had to borrow her guitarist’s spare for their last song. She noted that his strap hung so low, people could finally read her shirt, and self-deprecatingly mused that she could be in a pop-punk band if only she was more talented, but she doesn’t need to be anything more than she is. Whatever she’s doing now is working.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

With blisters mounting, my feet barely carried me to catch Visrei at Le Ministere, a black box capable of holding 288 concertgoers slam in the middle of a former Bank of Montreal. The venue was smothered in acoustic panels, helping its clean, full sound, and it had a high stage and wide floor, providing decent sightlines from everywhere in the space.

The solo project of Donavan Nguon, Visrei sang and played electric guitar while his laptop ran through previously arranged electro-pop-rock progressions. His voice sounded vulnerable, a bit like Robbie Hart performing too soon after getting left at the alter in Wedding Singer, but he mostly sang with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, eyes-closed performances tend not to be super engaging for the audience, and the attention afforded to him early on devolved into louder chatter as the room filled, but his music was nice enough, if endearing.

POP Montreal

Switching tones entirely, I wandered down to catch four local bands at L’Escogriffe Bar Spectacle. Founded in 2000, it’s a delightfully trashy little spot with bathrooms that may not have been cleaned since it opened, where one could theoretically scrape back archeological layers of stickers and graffiti to determine its age like a tree. This is the kind of space where you can practically smell the musical innovation. It had a stated capacity of 250, but with the low ceiling and low stage, it looked more like a comfortable capacity in the 100 range. It certainly had tons of character, a ridiculous amount of fog, and a super cool backdrop with ambient lighting.

The first record store that I visited in Montreal was Atom Heart, a relatively small but well-curated store that’s been around since 1999, and the extremely friendly clerk there insisted that Sun Entire was the best band in town. Upon his recommendation, I chose to forgo the legendary Tortoise at Rialto and found a seat right by the low stage at L’Esco to have my mind blown as thoroughly as the soles of my shoes several times over.

First up were Cobra & Vulture. They put out an album called Grasslands in 2013, then petered out. Thankfully, they used their pandemic time to reconnect and start recording again, dropping Vesuvius at Home in 2022. Typically known as a trio, the dual guitars of Erin Ross and Amber Goodwyn with drummer Jeremy MacCuish, they performed with David Krajic adding tambourine, synth, and bass. Krajic has been part of all their recordings, so he’s basically the fourth member of the band.

They were a little uncertain at the beginning, including a false start to monster jam “Prairie” from Grasslands, but they ended up being way more on than off in their delivery of such challenging post-rock Canadiana. Their interlocking, angular riffs and vocal harmonies couldn’t be easy to replicate live, sounding like Fleetwood Mac went math-folk, and it’s a bizarrely captivating sound to hear click.

Max d Tremblay

Following a slick set of melancholic pop-rock by Max d Tremblay, who brought a plaintive progressive style vaguely like Explosions in the Sky went emo, Sun Entire appeared in their entirety, and instantly became one of my new favorite things.

Formed in 2020, this trio based out of Les Studios Bakery in Montreal was fresh, like baby fresh. At the time of this performance, Sun Entire didn’t even have a song streaming anywhere. Yet, they had enough practiced material to fill out a half-hour set, and what they were playing was so insanely killer it felt like the second coming of Portishead. Their dynamic was just so perfectly trip-hop, with atmospheric Adrian Utley guitar, tripped out Geoff Barrow beatsmithing, and haunting Beth Gibbons vocals. June Moon played the role of Gibbons, Nico Serrus was the Utley, and Ivann Urueña scratched Barrow.

Sun Entire had a little something else to them beyond the obvious Portishead too. June Moon’s intonations brought to mind CocoRosie; their beats had a touch of glitch in there like a spookier edIT or early Machinedrum with more of a grandiose Massive Attack vibe, while the guitar occasionally delved into shoegaze territory. With their Canadian angle, they also brought to mind the tragically under-appreciated likes of Del Bel, Evy Jane, and Sissy.

Sun Entire

They only played five or six tracks in their half-hour set, but most of them made me want to tattoo Sun Entire on my forehead. If they ever put out an album, I might do it myself. I wasn’t there to witness Portishead at the Roseland Ballroom in 1998, but I can say that I got to sit in a dusty, floral print ’70s easy chair, rest my feet on the stage, and absorb the entirety of Sun Entire at L’Esco in 2022, and that’s something I’ll cherish to the end of my days.

Matching the mind-blowing magnitude of Sun Entire, Tinkertoy Fog Machine looked and sounded like they regularly hotbox the TARDIS. The mutant psychedelic project helmed by Tyrin Kelly and Kai Thorpe only had a couple of singles out at this point, so their set came in at a brisk 25-minutes, including a cover. Thankfully, they do have their sights set on an eventual full-length as the taste they gave me that night only aroused my appetite.

With Kelly drumming and Thorpe on bass, joined by the guitarist in the mist Will D’amour and synth wizard Jake Wynia in a Six Million Dollar Man jumpsuit, they were practically poured out of a bronze age comic book where flower power hit the nitrous in more ways than one, and somehow mutated super awesome powers. Kelly and Thorpe met in an Ottawa high school and moved to Montreal in 2017. That’s when they count the beginning of Tinkertoy Fog Machine, a project dedicated to analogue sound in the production of warped, lysergic jams that betray the influence of bands like Black Moth Super Rainbow, the Flaming Lips, Black Bananas, and early Tame Impala, murky psychedelia that sounds like it was conjured from the ether rather than recorded.

Tinkeytoy Fog Machine

Before the end of their tauntingly brief set, Thorpe somewhat exasperatedly questioned, “There’s one more song that we are going to play right now, okay? Do you care? Does anyone care?” Well, once the word gets out, a whole lot more people are going to. As POP Montreal demonstrated through its thoughtful, diverse, and exceedingly excellent programming, this city is clearly one of the most impressive cultural hubs in the country, if not the world, and they don’t tend to keep their best artists secret for long.