Report: Pop Montreal 2011

 

September 21-24 in
Montreal, the ten-year-old music bash celebrated home grown talent.

 

 Text/Photos by Michael Toland

 

Music festivals proliferate around the globe at an almost
alarming rate, with only the best-known getting the most press. This means that
many festivals get overlooked in the glut. In the case of Pop Montreal, that’s a shame. No spring chicken (the fest turned
ten this year), the festival offers not only a smorgasbord of bands, but also
art shows, panels, films, a record show and the backdrop of the spectacular
city of Montreal. Even better, the music lineup is probably 95% Canadian, giving
heavy support to its homegrown music – both Anglophone and Francophone. If
anything, Pop Montreal recalls the early years of the more celebrated South By
Southwest, when the focus was local and success hadn’t yet stuck in its throat.
It was a privilege to be invited to sample the 2011 edition of the festival for
four of its five days, in which we concentrated on Canadian music exclusively
(with a couple of exceptions, detailed below).

 

 

 

 

Wednesday 9/21/11

 

A rescheduled flight meant arriving in Montreal several hours later than planned and
missing the opening ceremonies. But it was still enough time to hit a club –
specifically Divan Orange, the kind of dive bar found in any city in the world,
thus a good first choice for a stranger. Our arrival coincided with locals No Joy hitting the stage, a
particularly well-timed moment. (Bass Drum of Death was scheduled, but the Mississippi band was denied entrance into Canada.) The
co-ed quartet wasted no time ripping into its melodic acidcore. Lathering
simple rock/pop riffs in enough distortion and effects to choke a dustbuster
and reverbing the vocals into incomprehensibility, the band made mincemeat out
of songs from its new LP Ghost Blonde,
sounding like a mid-80s SST band after overdosing on mescaline. The group lived
up to its name with its members’ collective uncommunicative demeanor, but there
was nothing dour about its performance. No Joy simply came out, did its thing
with all the intensity it could muster, and left the stage in a haze of
feedback.

 

After No Joy’s set, the club was instantly packed to the
gills for the next act: Japandroids.
The talkative Vancouver duo was miffed that their friends in Bass Drum of Death
couldn’t get into the country, pleased that No Joy filled in on short notice
and happy to see the eager crowd, and the pair’s exuberance was evident in its
unbridled attack. The rush of energy blowing off the stage stimulated enough fist
pumps, singalongs and slamdancing to incite an outdoor festival crowd. That’s
not to say the ‘droids’ songs were running on fumes – every number had strong
tunes and clever lyrics to recommend it, and the band knew how to play with
dynamics so it wasn’t simply one punch to the face after another. Alternating
between dependable crowd-pleasers like “The Boys Are Leaving Town” (from the
debut Post Nothing) to new songs like
“Evil Sway,” Japandroids conjured the garage-anchored ghost of noise pop titans
like Hüsker Dü like Flip Your Wig came out yesterday. Travel fatigue demanded an early night, but being blasted
back out into the street by the likes of Japandroids meant enough of a second
wind to get home safely.

 

 

 

Thursday 9/22/11

 

While music is the main component of Pop Montreal, it’s not
the only one. Comfortably ensconced in the funky old multi-story building that
serves as the festival’s headquarters was This
is Art Pop
, three floors of paintings, comics, films and installations. The
centerpiece of the exhibits was The
Raincoats Adventures
, a series of paintings by each member of the legendary
British postpunk band, augmented by short films about the band. Fellow traveler
Nick Blinko, of contemporaries Rudimentary Peni, was represented by Skeleton Scratches, a series of drawings
of skeletons, from the representational to the abstract.

 

One of two film installation highlights, The Women of Dr. Phil presented shots of
emotionless female faces in the disgraced TV psychologist’s TV studio – a
commentary on the suburban housewives that made up the show’s audience. Most
intriguing, though was the Marcel Dzama installation, which looped a pair of
the experimental filmmaker’s more intriguing works. A Game of Chess is an avant-garde black-and-white piece that featured living chess pieces, assassination and
silent revolutionary rhetoric in a timeless presentation that could have come
as easily from Ingmar Bergman’s early 60s library as from a couple of years
ago. Death Disco Dance is a color
piece featuring most of the same cast from A
Game of Chess
doing a choreographed dance to a funky percussion piece. Both
films featured outsider ballet and obscure sociopolitical commentary, but you
don’t have to appreciate either to be drawn into Dzama’s bizarre visions.

 

 

 

That evening featured one of the main events of the
festival: a free outdoor concert headlined by hometown heroes Arcade Fire. By 6:45 the Places des
Festivals was already packed, as thousands of people spilled out into the
downtown Montreal
streets. This guaranteed a huge crowd for DJ Kid Koala, who opened the show with three turntables and a mix of
everything from hard rock to easy listening to heavy funk grooves. Playing a
children’s record (“my daughter’s favorite song – she’s three years old”) and
getting half the audience to play “open/close” with it was startling enough,
but Koala’s ability to convincingly improvise along with a Louis Armstrong tune
was mindboggling. He ended the set with “Moon River”
(“my mom’s favorite song”), scratching his way through a sentimental favorite –
all in a koala suit, by the way.

 

Next up was Karkwa,
a Montreal
quintet with two drummers and a widescreen alt.rock sound. Not as bombastic as
Muse or as washed out as Coldplay, the melodic, intense band would probably
find an eager audience on American radio if they didn’t sing entirely in
French. The local crowd was definitely into it – we were informed afterward
that Karkwa is extremely popular in Quebec,
but not so much in the rest of Canada.
The band is building a following in Europe, though, and has played SXSW, so it
wouldn’t be surprising to hear more about them outside Quebec despite the language barrier.

 

By the time a marquee proclaiming “Coming Soon – Arcade
Fire” appeared the audience was well and truly warmed up. Thus the cliché rings
true: the crowd did go wild when the Montreal
octet hit the stage for its tour-ending hometown blowout. “Our hearts are very
full – thank you,” proclaimed Win Butler after the set opener “Ready to Start,”
and the townies responded in kind. No matter
what the tune – tracks from the band’s Grammy-winning LP The Suburbs or older classics like “Keep the Car Running” – the
crowd lustily sang along. There’s nothing like thousands of people moaning
“Whoa-oh” along with “Wake Up” to get the blood pumping in a tribal gestalt
sort of way. It’s impossible to imagine this band every having played clubs –
they seem born to be a festival act. The Fire treated the crowd to “Speaking in
Tongues,” described by Butler
as “one we don’t play too often,” and brought on Dr. Paul Farme from Partners
in Health to talk about something only French speakers understood. The band closed
the show with a sizzling, discofied “Sprawl II,” shooting balloons into the
nearly – but not quite – spent audience. “A Francophone band, an Anglophone
band and Kid Koala,” noted Butler.
“It feels like home.” With arms wide open, hometown heroes and fans embraced on
a grand scale.

 

 

 

 

Friday 9/23/11

 

At the afternoon barbecue at the Notman House (essentially
an adjunct to the Algerian embassy), electro duo UN served as a sort of palette cleanser with their spiky synth
rock. More avant-garde than pop, the pair blasted out steady beats (provided by
a drummer who looked to be all of twelve), programmed bass grooves, simple
keyboard riffs and heavily echoed vocals in a breathless whirl.

 

One might think that a panel entitled A Conversation With R. Stevie Moore would be a font of bizarre
stories and mad ranting. But no – the redoubtable Mr. Moore was nowhere near
the kook his flamekeepers would like him to be. Instead, he came across as a
reasonably sane dude who just likes what he likes (Beatlesque melodies, noise,
silly humor and what he calls “trash music”) and refuses to compromise his
vision. Giving straight answers to equally straightforward questions, Moore chatted amiably
about his career, his methods and his future, which includes more touring and a
collaborative LP with Ariel Pink and Jason Falkner, already in the works. A few
YouTube videos showed how his D.I.Y. ethic extended to music videos as well,
and teased the substantial crowd for his show later that night.

 

Which we unfortunately missed, in dedication to our resolve
to see as much Canadian music as possible. This was not an unreasonable oath,
but tonight’s show strained its credibility. Cagibi, a tiny room in the back of
an equally tiny vegan café, hosted a showcase of bands from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Given that city’s revered place in the indie rock pantheon, thanks to the
mid-90s explosion that produced Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Jale, the Hardship Post and
so many others, one could be forgiven for placing sky-high expectations on the
young bands that took the microscopic stage this evening, and for the
disappointment that resulted.

 

 

 

The evening started promisingly enough with Special Costello. Frontman Jeremy
Costello strummed and plucked chords on his fuzzed-out bass and sang in a
keening voice not unlike Craig Wedren’s, while the guitarist played his amp as
much as his axe. Costello’s songs combined pop melodies with spiky,
unsurprisingly bass-heavy arrangements, giving a postpunk punch to what could
have devolved into whining emo. The set hit an odd high note when the
guitarist’s amp gave out – Costello ably carried both the melodic and rhythm
load alone, leaving the six-stringer’s use to the band in doubt. By the time
he’d set up a borrowed amp, the performance was over and Special Costello had
proven themselves worthy of continued attention.

 

Next up were the charmingly named Old & Weird, and here the show took a turn into the territory
dreaded by rock critics everywhere. Because, quite frankly, this quartet of (very)
young ladies sucked. It was pretty clear before the first song was over that no
one, with the possible exception of the drummer, had been playing their
instruments very long, let alone mastered them, and they were just as obviously
unused to playing and singing at the same time. And it probably goes without
saying that they didn’t play together well – they were too busy trying to get
through the songs on their individual instruments to pay attention to key and
tempo. It sounded like the band’s first-ever gig, even though aftershow chatter
revealed that it wasn’t.

 

That said, Old & Weird drew the biggest crowd of all the
bands that night, including one guitarist’s mother and aunt, who were filming
the performance. Seeing the band surrounded by such warm support makes us feel
like ogres in pointing out the obvious – that the band was clearly not ready to
gig regularly, let alone fill a spot in a festival meant to spotlight the best
Canadian music. Old & Weird are not without talent or ambition – their songs
contained multiple tempos and more chords than most punk/indie bands allow –
but their reach exceeds their grasp to the point of embarrassment. An opinion
likely not shared by the friends or family present, who should just ignore the
preceding two paragraphs and move along.

 

Quivers followed,
and could only look good after Old & Weird. With the usual 2 guitars bass +
drums setup (plus a tambourine player/backup singer who contributed so little
to the sound he must be somebody’s BFF), the quintet of young men essentially
mixed together every cool style of rock that involves guitar interplay – garage
rock, postpunk, psychedelia, jangle pop. Unfortunately, the group was only
about 85% of the way to its intended ambitions, which might have more tolerable
had the weak singing not been so distracting.

 

Quivers was almost immediately followed by howling,
acid-fried garage punk duo the Ether.
Setting up on the floor in front of the stage (despite being the only band who
could have comfortably fit), the singer/guitarist bathed in a sea of reverb and
effects, pushing his playing into outer space and his vocals into
incomprehensibility. While definitely not sounding like the Cramps, the Ether
shared a similar aesthetic as far as stripping everything down to the most
basic riffs and rhythms and adding a shot of wild-eyed mania. The songs weren’t
particularly memorable, but the band’s sonic attack was fairly impressive.

 

Closing out the night was Montreal’s
Crosss (yes, with three S’s), the
lone Montreal
act. The festival literature tried to build this show up as a minor event, as
the apparently long-running combo rarely gigs. That notion was certainly borne
out by the performance – the band clearly knew the songs but just as obviously
hadn’t played together in a while. The group’s bass-heavy psych rock folded in
elements of postpunk dissonance, Black Sabbath riffage and gothic gloom – an
enticing brew made unfortunately bitter by bad singing and more repetition than
was healthy. Loads of promise here, though – if Crosss considers adding a real
singer and playing out a bit more often, they might very well live up to their
reputation.

 

 

 

 

Saturday 9/24/11

 

Our final night in Montreal
was spent in the Theatre Rialto, a groovy, wooden-floored theater that usually
housed musicals, plays and revues. Tonight, however, it hosted three Montreal acts and the
legendary Redd Kross.

 

 

 

First up was Cocobeurre,
a dreamy psychedelic pop duo. The headbanded guitarist – who looked like an
extra cast in a 1971-era flick about hippies – lathered his tone in enough
effects to drown a shoegazer band; the cape-wearing singer played electric
piano while cooing in French and English. Unfortunately, her unsteady rhythms
allowed the songs to meander far too much for comfort. The addition of an
actual rhythm section, even if just a percussionist, would do wonders for the
pair’s otherwise appealing melodies – either that or going the full-on ambient
route.

 

Next was the curiously monikered Uncle Bad Touch, a side project of hard rock act Priestess. Outside
of a similar fondness for volume and fat guitar hooks, the two bands sound
little alike – UBT’s psychedelic garage rock was brighter and possessed a
goofier sense of humor than the parent group’s unabashed metal. Whether that
whimsy included the fetching young hippie girl beating the tambourine at stage
right was unclear – she smacked her instrument like a blend of Roger Daltrey
and Valerie from Josie & the Pussycats, but was pretty much inaudible.
(Just as well, since her sense of rhythm was, shall we say, loose.) Regardless,
Uncle Bad Touch showed enough talent, enthusiasm and style to be on the verge
of greatness.

 

Les Breastfeeders came next, raising the performance levels to the point of explosion. Boasting a
garage punk & roll sound somewhere between the Cynics and the Hives, the
blazing sextet – three guitars, bass, drums and a tambourine-wielding wild
thing whose job was to really to go nuts all over the stage and, before too
long, the floor – bashed out a thrilling set full of energy, swagger and hooks.
With a hot-shit Telecaster slinger on lead and the other guitarists basically
doubling each other, the songs pounded right into people’s faces. But the
nimble rhythm section kept things swinging and the frontman’s Francophone rasp
cut through the blare like a scythe. Given that the band’s latest album Dans la gueule des jours (“in the mouths
of the days”) was prominently displayed in every record store we entered, from
the tiniest hole in the wall shop to the two-story HMV, the modestly sized crowd
was surprising, but it was definitely full of loyal fans. Probably the most
exciting set all weekend.

 

Which is not to take anything away from Redd Kross. Reactivated a couple of years ago with the Neurotica lineup, the L.A. rock & roll stalwarts were in
excellent form. Leading off with that LP’s “Peach Kelli Pop,” the quartet
ripped through its patented hard rock/glam/punk/power pop fusion in classic
loose-but-never-sloppy style, as if they were still 20 years old. Perhaps they
were in spirit – brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald both looked shockingly
youthful, and guitarist Robert Hecker had the thin physique and yoga pants of
someone almost disgustingly healthy, though his near-shredding chops bespoke
years of practice and experience. The Kross drew material from across its 30
year career, accenting latter-day numbers like “Follow the Leader,” “Mess
Around,” “Jimmy’s Fantasy” and “Crazy World,” but finding room for a mid-set
group of tunes from its debut Born
Innocent
and its nutso cover of “Blow You a Kiss On the Wind” (from the 60s
TV show Bewitched). The theater was
nowhere near full – odd, given that it had been four years since the band’s
last appearance in Montreal
– but the folks there were diehards, and the band looked like they were having
an absolute blast. Given Redd Kross’s celebration of the clichés and spirit of
classic rock & roll, the set was an appropriate way to close our Pop
Montreal experience.

 

 

 

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