Canada celebrates many milestones in 2017 - the country itself is 150 years old, the glorious city of Montreal commemorates 375 years and the international music festival it plays host to each year, ‘POP Montreal’ has just turned… 16.
Over the years, POP has booked exemplary shows by the likes of Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Beck, Nick Cave, QOTSA, Patti Smith, Burt Bacharach, David Byrne & St Vincent, John Cale plus a myriad other up & coming acts. Running from the 13th until 17th September throughout the city and showcasing over 400 acts over the 5 days; this not-for-profit, independent carnival of culture is run by music lovers for music lovers.
My second visit to the festival, navigating its labyrinth of bars, clubs, halls, cinemas and outdoor stages largely within the Mile End and Plateau Montreal hipster areas felt easier. POP is primarily a music festival, but also split into component parts featuring film, fashion, visual arts, flea market, record fair and kids’ activities. Such diversity on display was impressive too, as Montreal prides itself on its multi-culturalism and tolerance. Aside from the Francophone language and European heritage, it’s wonderful to see ages, races, genders and sexualities all mixing freely on the streets and at shows. I was delighted to see so many women onstage and upfront as well. For once it felt like the balance was right.
My Wednesday night belonged to two very different acts. Pierre Kwenders is a Montreal resident of Congolese descent, whose music mixes his afro-beat, disco, dancehall and pop. Launching his new album ‘Makanda’ at downtown’s Centre Phi was a joy to behold. See him tour the UK with Ibibio Sound Machine this year. Hull Quebec’s FET.NAT on the other hand are a saxophone-fuelled skronking beast of a band, fusing elements of No Wave, Post-Punk and Jazz, whilst making the packed crowd at Casa De Popolo pulsate with off-kilter, demented funk.
Thursday I interviewed the ethereal Argentine polymath, Juana Molina as part of the ‘POP Symposium’ conference. Once the most famous comedian in her home land, for 20 years she has forged an idiosyncratic collection of electro-acoustic music over seven albums. Her life story is fascinating and her music a delight. From there it was time for a garage rock’n’roll feast, as local psyche-lords Chocolat opened for the legendary Oh Sees at La Tulipe. Put simply John Dwyer and his twin drummer attack are THEE best LIVE rock’n’roll band on the planet! Tracks from the current Orc album were unleashed next to a sprinkling of last year’s A Weird Exits and older cuts from Dwyer’s 20 year career.
There was a taste of the old and new on Friday. Seeing RZA from Wu Tang Clan play a LIVE score to the original film ‘36th Chamber of Shaolin’ was an astonishing Hip-Hop/Kung-Fu assault in the Theatre Rialto. Local heroes The Dears then played their 2003 album ‘No Cities Left’ from start to finish in the grand settings of La Tulipe. Complete with strings and brass section, the performance proved to be one of the week’s best and showed how strong that album is. Up next was the garage-surf thrills of Vulvets, whose unruly combination of twangy guitars, vocal harmonies and thundering rhythm section introduced me to my new favourite girl-group. Finally, after watching a slew of mildly interesting indie bands I paid homage to reggae dons The Mighty Diamonds. Listening to the sweet harmonies of ‘Have Mercy’, ‘Natty Dread Never Run Away’ and ‘Pass the Koutchie’ was the perfect way to end a night.
More eclecticism reigned on Saturday. Another girl-group Nobro kicked things off in Theatre Fairmount with 80’s hair-metal and kickass Detroit rock in the mix. The cobwebs were most definitely cleared! From there I finally got a chance to see Weyes Blood play the otherworldly songs off ‘Front Row Seat To Earth’, bringing the capacity crowd at La Sala Rosa to its knees. Dreamy support from Montreal’s ggPeach had me drawing comparisons to Sade too.
Montreal’s Duchess Says play a form of outlandish electro-punk, or ‘moog rock’ as they put it. The city loves them and so did I. Unhinged front-woman Annie-Claude Deschenes screamed, stared, spat and crowd-surfed her way through a riotous set that laid waste to the Bar Le Ritz. A quick car-ride to the Piccolo Little Burgundy saw a party performance from reformed local champions, Think About Life before a final stop at legendary local bar L’Escogriffe for some jangly, indie-psyche from No Aloha… and perhaps one drink too many!
On Sunday, POP quietly kept going. I watched excellent afternoon sets by psychedelic Halifax outfit Walrus and some heartfelt, working-man’s rock from Figure Walking, featuring acclaimed songwriter Greg MacPherson. I then ventured to the Cinema Du Parc for an evening showing of ‘On The Sly – In Search of the Family Stone’, a personal 12 year quest for actor turned burgeoning film-maker Michael Rubenstone. With his self-effacing charm and on-screen charisma to the fore, the highs and lows of the music industry and an artist’s descent into addiction and obscurity, were documented with the tenderness they deserved.
As the festival drew to a close, Mount Eerie took to the Ukrainian Federation stage to quietly share his collection of death songs. Concerning the sudden passing of his beloved wife from cancer; it was utterly bleak and harrowing, yet strangely beautiful. Tears were shed as his poignant words connected with everyone there. In need of some lighter relief, the festival’s closing party featured the fist-pumping, political roots-rock of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Their New Orleans swagger and activist anthems provided the finale, with Puerto Rico’s Alynda Lee Segarra the perfect rock-star.
POP Montreal was fabulous from beginning to end once again. But with so much going on, everyone can and does have a completely different festival. For me it has the right balance between the new, the established, the underground and the avant-garde – all set in such a beautiful and inspiring, art-loving and politically aware city. Happy Birthday… Sweet 16!
Listen to Vic's pick's below: