The Canadian summer, it seems, stands in stark contrast to the Canadian winter. On our last escapade to Montreal the city lay submerged in sub-zero temperatures, at one point hitting minus 15 as we attempted to queue for poutine. As our latest flight winds its way into the Quebec region, the sun is setting but the tendrils of a warm, graceful summer are still wrapping themselves around the Mont Royal.
We're here for POP Montreal, one of the city's major music expositions. It's been under way for a number of hours but by the time the taxi winds its way through late evening warmth and deposits us at our hotel there's only one destination in mind: The Sonics. The band virtually defined brattish garage punk during their initial incarnation, when they guzzled strychnine for kicks, libelled women as witches, played 'Louie Louie' with the wrong chords and generally acted like adolescent cavemen in the Pacific North West.
Drawing a packed crowd to Theatre Fairmount, it's clear that the band have lost none of their allure. Ambling onstage in the most unassuming of fashion, these garage rock geriatrics blast out some of the most unhinged, intense punk rock you can imagine. A set peppered with hits – alongside a few well chosen newies – The Sonics wail, curse, scowl and shriek their way through 45 minutes of garage punk heaven.
Exploring the area's 60s underground would become a running theme of the weekend. Montreal's psych and garage scene is blessed with all manner of talent, while a major exhibition of poster art from the mid 60s to the mid 70s sheds light on a fascinating period in which the emerging counter culture fused with the city's own identity crisis as a Francophone community within a predominantly English speaking country.
Day Two opens with a panel debating the future of Canada's ever-fertile music industry, before No Wave icon Arto Lindsay gives a lecture on reading and listening. Clash, though, opts for a conversation helmed by cult songwriter Andy Kim. His most notable work of art? 'Sugar Sugar' by The Archies, a claim to genius if ever there was one.
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POP Montreal hosted a barbecue throughout, allowing for stripped down sets by Montreal acts. Samito matches blues and soul against shangaan while also reflecting his Portuguese heritage, while Country's pared down 80s synth pop veers between the blissed out and the psychotic. POP is, as ever, a beguiling and eclectic beast.
The Reflektor Tapes makes its Montreal bow at the Rialto, but the lure of live music proves to be too strong. Toronto outfit Tasseomancy are quite the charmers, with their flaxen, folk-influenced harmonies veering off into unexpected realms. A curious choice of support, them, for Ought who unveil material from their eagerly awaited second album in front of a packed crowd. The band's live reputation precedes them, with the American-born, Montreal-based group revelling in what is essentially a hometown show.
Fixture Records are, well, a local fixture, having formed during the deep Montreal winter of 2007. The label's showcase is well under way by the time Freelove Fennier venture onstage, but the group bristle with energy. Chevalier Avant Garde have a neat line in synth pop, their crisp songwriting allied to a moody but seductive atmosphere.
Day Three opens to bright sunshine, leading to a ramble around Montreal's downtown area. A student district, endless wandering leads onto the McGill university campus, before becoming distracted by all manner of hootin' and hollerin'. It seems that we've stumbled onto a First Nations pow wow, with members of various clans, sects and families helping to showcase indigenous culture for the benefit of intrigued onlookers. Utterly entrancing, it's only one aspect of a continuing conversation within Canadian culture – POP Montreal also hosts a panel called Indigenous Beats, reflecting the manner in which modern producers from a First Nations background are exploring what it means to be Canadian.
For Esme's peaceful psych kicks off the afternoon, before evening draws in with all manner of clashes. Will Butler performs live, while Tim Hecker hosts an intimate, smog-fuelled show that leaves those lucky enough to be in the audience spellbound. The biggest crowd of the evening, though, falls upon the St. Jean Baptiste church, with disco kingpin Giorgio Moroder in attendance.
Sweat is literally peeling down the walls, with Montreal's reputation as disco's second city clear in evidence. The set itself is almost indescribable – a bizarre fusion of EDM and chart pop, filtered through with the odd guilty pleasure. It's unrelenting, at times entertaining, at others infuriating but always engaging – whether it's clapping his hands in septuagenarian delight of wheeling up a Britney Spears track Giorgio knows how to work a crowd, if not a cross-fader.
Viet Cong have once more found themselves embroiled in controversy surrounding their name, and the band's set has a genuine sense of bite within it. Rarely talking to the crowd and never directly referencing the bad winds surrounding them, the group pack a visceral hate into the material from their debut album. Finishing with a wave to the crowd, by the time morning comes news has already broken – Viet Cong are no more, their moniker to be replaced following a period of introspection.
Day Four leaps into action with a visit to a carefully curated record fair, reflecting local dealers and some vital Montreal imprints. The city's vinyl scene is blessed with a number of fantastic shops – or stores, as North Americans would have it – but special mention should be made to Phonopolis, Discques Beatnick, Paul's Boutique and Soundcentral, though, for excellent service and an impeccable selection.
POP Montreal's broad selection of musical conversation continues, with an open form on the ethics of independent music and a tit-a-tat between Tim Hecker and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie from Stars Of The Lid – all fascinating. Mild High Club entertain onlookers at the POP BBQ, while the lush ambience of Gianna Lauren's set at Divan Orange leaves a lingering impression.
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Toronto powerhouse Arts & Crafts has brought its roster over to the East Coast, hosting a special showcase at Theatre Fairmount. BADBADNOTGOOD cohort River Tiber impresses with a drifting, downbeat fusion of jazz-tinged beats and indie rock songwriting, while Win Win's curious hyper-modern pop is certainly worthy of further exploration.
Absolutely Free, though, come close to stealing the show. A whirlwind of psychedelia, Krautrock and other far out sounds, their lengthy, frenetic, circular jams recall the more groove-laden moments from the Neu! and Can catalogue. The Cribs take to the stage for their first Montreal show in almost a decade, the Jarman brothers humble to a fault as they play what essentially amounts to a greatest hits set.
Reaching back into their catalogue, the trio are clearly having a whale of a time, reacting to the sweat-fuelled mesh of moshing limbs down the front. Pulling out the odd B-side and rarity, the trio invite Lee Ranaldo onstage for a rare live version of 'Be Safe' – ending in caterwauling feedback and Beat-inspired spoken word. The funniest part? Babes In Toyland have just arrived and, having finished their set up the road, begin to catcall Lee Ranaldo from the front of the stage, to his curiously hilarious discomfort.
The final day, though, can't quite match the previous temperatures – literally or figuratively. A hike up Mont Royal finds the air beginning to sharpen, with the underlying threat of autumn's gaze now becoming rapidly clear. The line up, too, is rather less intense, allowing for more space to tread leisurely between venue to venue. Thurston Moore heads up an all-star line up of left field figureheads performing in aid of climate change groups, while Echo Beach deliver an enthralling, somnambulist set of post-shoegaze beauty. Stars Of The Lid then follow, drifting into perfect Sunday evening ambience as the Texan project cross swords with a string quarter. Twinkling, neo-classical beauty, a clear harbinger of the Erased Tapes stable.
Montreal remains, though, the clear star of the show. The city's small but incredibly intense creative community bunker up in the winter months, battling the extreme temperatures to sketch out plans for the summer ahead. Then, when the melt comes, they spring into action, forming all manner of bands, groups, projects, collectives. It's little wonder no one wants to leave – Godspeed You! Black Emperor own one of the more prominent POP Montreal venues, while various Arcade Fire projects pepper the bill. Indeed, Win Butler attends a few shows, hanging outside venues, chatting to fans. It's this sense of re-investment, of giving back that seems to make Montreal such a hotspot, such a focal point for creativity within the arts.
Well, that and the gorgeous summers.
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Keep in touch with POP Montreal HERE.