For my first visit to Canada last week, I was lucky enough to step into the open-minded, culturally rich, diverse and tolerant city of Montreal. Immediately struck by the melange of North American and European influences, not to mention the Francophone Quebecois individuality, I felt at home immediately.
In 2016 Pop Montreal celebrated its 15th year as a not-for-profit, defiantly independent and beautifully curated festival in the very heart of the city. It is primarily all about music, but visual art, film, food and fashion also feature heavily in a packed programme that runs from Wednesday until Sunday. Although strewn across the city throughout various pubs, clubs, halls and theatres; the main central cluster of venues and shows take place in and around the Mile End area.
Its lattice of streets, parks, bars, coffee-shops, boutiques and infamous bagel bakeries may be colonised by the ubiquitous hipster in regulation beard and skinny jeans; but has a really cosy, casual feel rather than one of exclusivity or one-upmanship. Just walking around the city itself was a treat.
My festival was busy, but here are 10 observations and discoveries I made along the way…
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Riding high on the acclaim that has met her new album ‘My Woman’, the indie songstress of the moment stepped up to the plate for an extremely confident, crafted and classy show in the Rialto Theatre on Friday night. Released from her previous lo-fi, grunge-inflected incarnation she now fronts a be-suited 6-piece band and came dressed in a gold dress and sculpted hair. Her raw, heartfelt voice topped a hot-shot band and brought to mind a 1960’s rock’n’roll or soul review – it was a total triumph.
All music nerds love an anomaly or oddity, don’t they? An outsider with a strange but unique story? I certainly do. In 1980 Chandra made an EP of propulsive, funky, minimal post-punk music at the age of 12 years old(!) backed by a group called The Dance, who had been associated with John Cale and Philip Glass and were firmly ensconced in the NYC arts scene. Appealing to a small but knowing audience today, 36 years later she has returned to the songs as a woman in her late 40s backed by a dedicated group of fan musicians from Toronto.
The songs sound as fresh, naive and extraordinary today as they must have done then. I can only assume LCD Soundsystem are big fans, and The Avalanches certainly are, having sampled her and used her music in mixes. Although all new to me, I am now both educated and converted having watched her show at La Sala Rossa on Friday. I bought the vinyl too.
Pop Montreal has an excellent booking policy and is extremely well planned each year. As well as a wealth of new music and emerging artists across genres from Quebec, Canada, the USA and beyond; the festival has also hosted some of the all-time greats including Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Giorgio Moroder, The Sonics, Beck, Arcade Fire, QOTSA, Billy Childish and many more.
This year was no different with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, synth pioneer Wally Badarou, Canadian skate-punks SNFU, pub-rock legend Wreckless Eric and psychedelic art-terrorists Psychic TV all rubbing shoulders on the bill. Pop Montreal may not yet be quite as well renowned as SXSW, but it has just as good taste!
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Another living legend, at the age of 70 years old, filmmaker John Waters really should be taking it easy and sitting on rocking chair somewhere. Not a bit of it. Taking to the main-stage in the Rialto on Saturday night, the ‘Pope of Trash’ talked fluidly in what one could only call a stand-up comedy routine for an hour and a half, before taking questions at the end from the audience. Cutting, controversial, honest and utterly hilarious in equal measure, Waters regaled us all with his life-story as well as insights about every one of his infamous, schlocky films along the way. I haven’t laughed as much in years… It was a revelation, and one of the best spoken word performances I have ever seen! Catch him if you get the chance.
Let’s Eat Grandma
One of the most divisive new UK acts in recent years, and a band who’ve certainly have the ‘marmite’ tag attached to them; the jury is definitely out on the rather wonderfully named Let’s Eat Grandma. A duo of teenage girls from Norwich, they manage to wrap up classical, electronic, progressive and primitive elements into a strange other-worldly concept all of their own, topped by nightmarish fairy-stories and lysergic lyrics. Seeing them for the first time in the Bar Le Ritz P.D.B venue, I was rapt and enjoyed every second of their performance art – like a teenage Coco Rosie, in many ways. If you’re looking for musicians with character and imagination, you’ll love them as I did. And if they do happen to progress even further as they should do; we may have talent of Kate Bush proportions on our hands.
One of the most joyous performances of the week came in the form of power-pop purveyors Partner, who smashed the Divan Orange venue on Thursday night in front of a small but dedicated, pogo-ing fanbase. From the backwater town of Sackville, the duo have been crudely but honestly described as the ‘lesbian Weezer’, and that comes pretty close. The songs are anthemic, the guitars totally shred and the lyrics are fun and at times hilarious. Check out ‘The Ellen Page’, ‘Personal Weekend’ and ‘Hot Knives’ online for proof, and watch out for a debut album of slacker, stoner, gay, Canadian hits in the near future.
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Montreal music takes up most of the booking at ‘Pop’, as you might imagine, but a group which grabbed me at the Piccolo Little Burgundy venue on Wednesday night were She Devils. Initially enticed by their name alone, I was drawn in further by their sample-delic collages and dreamy, seedy pop. Imagine Dirty Beaches and Julie Cruise with more than a heavy dose of Lynchian melodrama in to the mix, the duo of singer Audrey Ann Boucher and tech-operator Kyle Jukka managed to evoke heartbreak, melancholy and rock’n’roll sleaze. I was hooked. Their debut EP is FREE on Bandcamp if you fancy a listen.
Susan Rogers Interview
As well as immersing myself in the showcase line-up each day and night, I was asked to take part in the ‘Pop Symposium’ conference of panels, talks and seminars, delighted to be asked to interview Susan Rogers. Although that name may not immediately ring any bells, here is an astonishingly talented woman who’s had a vibrant, creative life as a producer, mixer and recording engineer for decades.
Most notably she worked as personal recording assistant to Prince during his most fertile period, including the albums ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Sign of the Times’ and more. Hearing her incredible stories, her wisdom, wit and energy was inspirational. As a woman of 60 years old, she is now an acclaimed academic dealing with psycho-acoustics, music perception and cognition – surprisingly as fascinating as her myriad Prince anecdotes. What an honour to meet her and chat.
The Seth Bogart Show
One of the many things that impressed me about ‘Pop’ and Montreal in general was its inclusivity. It’s obviously an extremely LGBT friendly city, with righteous, sensible politics worn on its sleeve. Who better to camp it up in electro-punk style on Wednesday night then, than the one and only Seth Bogart. Known primarily under his ‘Hunx and His Punx’ moniker, his lo-fi multimedia solo show is something to behold.
Films, ceramics, make-up, costume changes, karaoke and plenty of choreographed mayhem were the backdrop to his outlandish vision. The bastard child of John Waters, Pee-Wee Herman, Gene Vincent and Marc Almond (or something!?) his exuberant headline slot was a fine introduction to his twisted, glamorous, off-kilter world.
Club Lambi on Thursday night enticed me to the ‘Hand Drawn Dracula’ label showcase and an introduction to the Toronto indie underground. I am aware of some of their roster already, but was particularly impressed by the gothic, post-punk of Vallens. Keeping the David Lynch theme running, they are named after the Dorothy Vallens character in ‘Blue Velvet’, also coincidentally my favourite film of all time.
The brainchild of Robyn Phillips, the band use melody and dissonance, piercing guitars and impassioned vocals to make a sound akin to Siouxsie & the Banshees or Los Angeles’ X. The show was taut, moody and full of dark promise as they brought tracks from their excellent debut album ‘Consent’ to life in front of us.
What’s more, Vallens were one of the seven acts on this list of 10 to feature women up front. Another gratifying achievement for the festival, and for equality at large.
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Pop Montreal has been a revelation and well worth the jetlag. If you’re looking to visit, or even play at, an international showcase festival of quality and stature, but want something smaller and more epicurean than the behemoth of SXSW in Austin Texas, then this could be for you. It really is a fantastic setting for it as well… I’m glad to say I’m back in the city soon too, and already looking forward to M For Montreal in November.
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Words: Vic Galloway