Pop Montreal 2011 in Review

Joseph Sannicandro / October 4, 2011
Photo by Joseph Sannicandro

Pop Montreal

The 10th (10e to you Francophones) edition of Pop Montreal has come to a close, and somehow it seems most appropriate to recap the festival as a whole, despite the lack of cohesion. The festival has really grown since its humble beginnings in 2002, as the 101,000 strong turnout for Thursday’s free Arcade Fire show demonstrates. For those of you not in Montreal, the festival is akin to NYC’s CMJ Music Marathon, in which shows are staged as consecutive showcases that pass-holders can wander in and out of, as opposed to big festivals with centralized activities or stages. In addition to the big name events (Arcade Fire, Chromeo) there were also dozens of small events enabling pass-holders to pop in and experience music they wouldn’t normally seek out. As usual these acts of discovery rank among my favorite moments, however many folks seemed to agree that the ‘middle-tier’ showcases were lackluster this year. Many of these shows that seemed to most excite potential festival-goers were local artists who play in town fairly regularly, and for me at least this made the festival feel less exciting and urgent. Still, this is a somewhat minor grievance,  one I’ll chalk up to growing pains. Pop has become something of an institution, and an important part of Montreal’s youth cultural landscape. This is to say nothing of their consistent (and growing) year-round programming. At the end of the day, Pop Montreal is still a vibrant, diverse festival that emphasizes talent from Montreal and across Canada, and this should be cheered.

The festival’s other events, such as Art Pop, Film Pop, Puces Pop, Fashion Pop, and Kids Pop are often overshadowed by the music, yet these offerings have continued to get stronger each year. The Pop Quarters this year was the largest space I’ve seen in my three years of attending Pop, with 2 rooms for symposia, as well as over a dozen art and film exhibits. The festival did feel very decentralized to me, without the convergence point that Espace Reunion (Little Burgundy Pop Loft) fulfilled in past years. At the end of the night, I knew I could head up there and people would be there (not to mention tacos). This year Eglise St. Edouard was meant to fill this role, however the artists scheduled to play there were either not enough to tempt me to head up there, or else the show conflicted with something more worthwhile.

Photo by: Joseph Sannicandro

Wednesday 21 September

The festival opened strong on Wednesday, with fascinating symposia and a mixture of high-profile shows (such as the sold-out Arcade Fire show at the Metropolis) and a variety of other options.  Luckily it was a beautiful fall day, so traveling across the Plateau from venue to venue was an enjoyable part of the experience.

Cave and Liturgy played strong sets at Il Motore, following local openers Aim Low, playing a sort of shoegaze-leaning drone, and Brooklyn’s psych-sax-whatever PC Worship. Cave have been generating some buzz lately, though I’ve tended to ignore them because I always hope they will be Cave In. (One of my unconscious biases is neglecting to check out  bands with names similar to bands I already like. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson with Braids…) Still, their reputation is well deserved (even if their keyboard player seemed to be channeling some sort of cross between Zach Galifianakis and Richard Simmons). Liturgy’s live set  impressed me as expected, though this was mostly a result of my standing in awe of drummer Greg Fox’s undeniable talent. Without gimmicks or unnecessary flare, the man played a non-stop set of incredible precision and intensity on his stripped-down drum kit, though it did seem to lack any real joy. I may be reading too much into this in retrospect, but after the show I learned that Fox will be departing Liturgy following this tour. (Read his statement and listen to his solo project GDFX here.) Unfortunately the group performed as a trio, as apparently their second guitar player was unable to gain entry into Canada. Despite this, their set was tight, showcasing some aspects of their music that perhaps otherwise would be more difficult to tease out. Some young kids convulsing arrhythmically tried in vain to start a pit, an ongoing disruption that was something of a dampener. Ah, well.

I made it to Club Lambi in time to catch most of Asobi Seksu‘s set, which was, as expected, the perfect antidote to come down from Liturgy. Oddly enough, Liturgy will be touring with Asobi Seksu (and Boris) this month. Isn’t that just  the strangest tour bill you’ve heard all year….

Photo by: Joseph Sannicandro

LITURGY // RETURNER from Panorama Programming on Vimeo.

Thursday 22 September

The Arcade Fire’s free show  was clearly the main event of Thursday night, and allegedly drew 101,000 attendees to the Quartiers des Spectacle in downtown Montreal. In order to really play up the “we-love-Montreal” angle, each of the openers were also local talents. Kid Koala warmed up the crowd, many of whom seemed to funneling in while he was spinning, before the local Francophone group Karkwa stretched their anthemic, arena-friendly rock to the growing and appreciative audience. If you’re into conventional, melodic, unoffensive radio-friendly rock, than you could certainly do much worse than Karkwa, whose smart songwriting and catchy anthems recall Bryan Adams at his cheesiest. Of course the masses came out that lovely night to see Arcade Fire, the group that has done the most for Montreal in recent memory, making the city proud with their well-received, Grammy and Polaris Prize winning third album, The Suburbs. The stage was flanked by two screens showing live footage, while one large screen and two smaller screens were arranged above the band, playing various footage recalling the themes of suburban living, nostalgia, and classic cinema motifs. There was a noticeable lag between the sound and the video, though this may very well have been caused by the distance between the band and myself. The band played a solid, enthusiastic set which was broadcast live via SiriusXM radio. The inter-song banter was mostly rambling and inarticulate, though earnest, yet the point was clear: this band loves Montreal, and do better playing songs than they do making small talk. The set drew on each of their three LPs, including the rarely performed “Speaking in Tongues,” the apt “No Cars Go” (it was No Cars Day) and classics like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up.”

Frankly after maneuvering through such a large crowd for a relatively long show, I’d had my fill for the day. Despite the tempting dance parties going on that night, I decided to save my energy for the weekend.


courtesy of Pop Montreal

Friday 23 September

Friday night’s schedule presented some tough choices for many fans, particularly as Adam & the Amethysts, Miracle Fortress, Death Grips, Dirty Beaches, R. Stevie Moore,  Dark Dark Dark, and Purity Ring all more or less overlapped. I decided to check out Mozart’s Sister, Born Gold, and Miracle Fortress at the Mission Santa Cruz to see what all the fuss was about. Born Gold, formerly Gobble Gobble,   played a high-energy set that had the crowd going nuts. Nonetheless, I was utterly unimpressed. The trio play a sort of “party rock,” like a poorly done LMFAO, but by white kids. I get the impression that ten years ago these guys would have been playing whiny rock, but now have become something like tween music for kids in their 20s. The vocals seemed unnecessary, as did 2/3 of the band for that matter. But again, the audience really enjoyed it, and those two superfluous members dancing kept the crowd’s energy high. I began to think that I listen to too much electronic music, too many DJs, and the disconnect was my own. Miracle Fortress was just as big a draw, and though the energy wasn’t quite as high, the audience was behind him. Essentially the solo project of Think About Life‘s Graham Van Pelt, Miracle Fortress merges guitar drones, loops, drum machines, and vocals. Though I admit I find the studio material appealing, live the sloppy electronics and really poor vocals did nothing to encourage me to stay.

I’m glad I left when I did, because I ran over to HOHM and caught the end of Mr. Pauer‘s set, as he handed the decks over to Soundway Records Miles Cleret, whose rare DJ set in Montreal was utterly mind-blowing.  Mixing sweet tropical sounds together into dance-floor ready sets, drawing on lesser known genres from Trinidad, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Benin and more. Soundway Records has been releasing superb compilations for years now, well-curated and well-researched testaments to forgotten musical movements in the global south. Cleret expertly and economically mixed Latin American rarities with Afro-funk and other surprises, and the crowd responded with furious dance floor escapades. The crowd wasn’t nearly as big as this set deserved, but this is often the injustice of playing a large, diverse, spread out festival.

Head over to Soundway’s web site to listen to some outstanding mixes and maybe pick up some of their fantastic releases.

Photo by: Joseph Sannicandro

Saturday 24 September

Saturday night was equally busy, and after my disappointment at staying in one place too long the night before, I decided to move around more in hopes of catching another surprise gem of a performance. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see Laura Marling, especially in a venue as lovely as the Corona Theatre. Marling was as endearing as one could hope, competently playing her tunes and engaging in stage banter at a much higher level than any 21 year old has a right to. Her band included drums, upright bass, banjo, mandolin, flugelhorn, cello, guitar, and keyboard, adding arrangements that accentuated Marling’s sophisticated folk. Her set drew on her 3 full-length albums as well as her various EPs and at least one new song. Though she didn’t attempt to speak in French, her expressed desire to do so was adorable. Here’s her video covering Canadian rock legend Neil Young‘s “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Way across town, at O Patro Vys, I witnessed Canadian indie rock mainstays By Divine Right demonstrating just how innovative and original their take on rock can be. Not only that, the set was fun, intimate, and care free. As tempted as I was to stay and witness Sheezer in all their glory, Gary Lucas‘s Captain Beefheart Symposium beckoned. Back in the mid-70’s Lucas was just a young fan of the Captain, but by 1980 he’d joined his reformed band, touring and recording with one of rock music’s great unsung geniuses. Lucas went on to play with Jeff Buckley (and many, many others,) and his own band Gods & Monsters. He has been recognized and critically acclaimed for his jaw dropping guitar talents, but has continued to work as an evangelist for the uncompromising artistic power of  Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Since the Captain passed away last year, Lucas has been touring his Symposium to re-awaken interest in this cult figure. The Symposium was held in Cinema L’Amour, one of Montreal’s beautiful old theatres (and currently a porn theatre). Lucas opened the midnight session with a monologue about Beefheart and his own involvement with him, before showing a ~30 minute reel collecting videos from various moments in Beefheart’s career spanning from the mid-’60s to Beefheart’s retirement from touring music in 1982, at which time he shifted focus to his painting. Beefheart not only approached music unconventionally, but lyrics and poetry as well, bringing the same odd-ball sophistication and humor. Special guests including Dan Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, Chloe Lum of AIDS Wolf, and Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara honored us with their spirited readings of some of Van Vliet’s work.  Each brought their own personality to the reading, and though the men did commendable jobs, it was nearly impossible to top Chloe’s sexed up book reading from the floor. O’Hara’s indescribable performance did just that, however, with the added bonus of being accompanied by Lucas on guitar.Lucas then finally graced us with his virtuosic playing, interspersed with more stories, and sent us out with “Evening Bell.”

courtesy Pop Montreal

Sunday 25 September

As is now a personal tradition, I slept too late on Sunday to make it to Piknic Electronik. Sunday is an appropriate day in the festival to take in some of the non-musical events and chill out, so I spent the afternoon picking up sweet finds at the Record Fair and admiring the locally crafted goods at the Puces Pop fair. That night, Canadian ambient artist Kyle Bobby Dunn traded in his laptop for string arrangements of his work at Le Divan Orange, a suitable minimalist close to a busy week.

More photo sets and material from the festival will be up soon.

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