POP Montreal Diary

/// Day Five ///

The final day of POP had an early evening lull, probably to make sure we all had a breather ahead of an earth-shattering performance by METZ. Before we all became drenched in each other’s sweat in the church basement, I had some softer stops ahead of me with Patrick Watson’s “Songs of Darkness” and Moonface.

Watson had The Rialto for the night, and invited a troupe of friends to sing a collection of originals and covers revolving around the theme of darkness. Each song had a revolving arrangement and musicians, but harpist Sarah Pagé, Joe Grass on slide guitar, Becky Foon on cello and bassist Hans Bernhard set the tone of most the show. The gang of musicians took turns leading songs, including Little Scream driving an old Appalachian folk song and L’il Andy covering Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy.”

Then Mirror / Cult MTL columnist Johnson Cummins walks onstage in a wizard costume and we’re all baffled. He announces he’ll be reading spoken word by Bruce Dickenson, and my chuckles reveal my inner metalhead. He goes on to recite Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” with Pagé and Watson accompanying.

“Why didn’t we do this at Barfly?” jokes Cummins.

After that bit of comic relief I’m off to see Moonface, also known as Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade / Sunset Rubdown / Frog Eyes fame. It’s just him and a grand piano, playing his heart out and punctuated by self-deprecating jokes. Krug’s new project is deeply emotional, but I wouldn’t expect anything less.

But the mellow respite is short-lived, as I walk down to Cabaret Mile End to catch part of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. They know their so-straight-it’s-impossible-to-dance-to indie pop songs a little too well, singer Alec Ounsworth looking both bored and tired. He’s been doing this for too long and he seems sick of his own music. His vocal performance is spot-on, but it feels like he’s just going through the motions.

I catch a bit of Thus:Owls’s gypsy-indie flow at Casa before things start to heat up at the POP church. I’m ready for something loud, and the triple-bill punk show to end POP is just how to end this five-day marathon. Calgary’s Fist City warm up the slowly-filling church with simple rah-rah punk rock, and then Crabe makes me realize I need more beer.

Crabe is the first Francophone band I’ve seen in all of POP, and they’re fantastic shitheads. Their show is a raunchy comedy, the singer a young Ian Mackaye in a tye-dye t-shirt and without the talent. It’s doomey, noisey and for all I know they’re making up the songs as they go along. But it primes the mosh pit for METZ, with the duo ending their set by trashing their gear.

It’s a “spectacle de mass hysteria,” in the words of their singer. That’s certainly true.

The church only really gets packed when METZ take the stage just after 2 a.m. and are the loudest thing POP has to offer. I caught the noise trio’s late-night set at Il Motore last year, but since then these guys have exploded. They’re headlining the POP Montreal church, for Christ’s sake. All the hype is due though, because their furious brand of present-day hardcore is some of the best that’s out there.

Since last year their stage presence has skyrocketed, and the crowd eats it up. From the feedback-overloaded interludes to Alex Edkins ending the set with “Wet Blanket,” writhing on the floor with some kid’s jacket over his head. It’s the perfect end to this insane festival. By the second song I’ve gotten socked in the windpipe and someone’s glasses have been stomped. I hear later that someone lost a tooth.

The band does their duty however, bassist Chris Slorach telling the crowd to pick up those who fall on the beer-slicked floor, and urges a kiss on the cheek while you do it. These guys know their sound and after one record they’ve already perfected it.

I don’t stick around for much longer, and decide against asking Brendan Canning what he thought of METZ after spotting him in the crowd hanging with dudes in jean jackets. I came, I moshed, I POP-ed, and now with ringing ears and worn-out shoes it’s back to real life. Writing this final post my foot is still tapping, already anticipating the next show.

/// Day Four ///

The Nymphets get loud at Kathy & Kimmy. Photo Louis Longpré

Korn’s Jonathan Davis is holding a Grimes record on the event poster, but that’s not enough to keep me away from the POP Record Sale in the Ukrainian Federation basement. At 1 p.m. the place is already packed, a vinyl aficionado thumbing through each bin. I stick with the used stuff, scoring a ‘50s Fats Domino LP and some Motown. There are also a few stalls selling cassettes—one revival I’ll probably never fully understand.

After emptying my wallet at the Record Fair, it’s time for some non-POP/off-POP/anti-POP, or whatever you want to call it. POP’s roots are showing at these unofficial gigs, where festival and non-festival bands play and hope the cops don’t show up. And you couldn’t have asked for better weather for a B.B.Q. show.

When I get to The Shrine, Year of Glad are finishing their spine-tingling set. Frontman Alex Bergeron is barely sitting on the edge of his stool, singing impossibly high falsetto. You can see only the musicians’ silhouettes, the single light source pouring in from the small basement window behind them.

Next is Sharing, a two-piece punk band with the same drummer as Kurvi Tasch. They seriously rock, bringing in the crowd with jokes about bears and Alaska.

I had never heard of Foe Destroyer, a Texas-by-way-of-Brooklyn trio that trade instruments and all sing, playing music ranging from punked up distortion to chilled-out. It was the best surprise of POP so far, and it made me seriously regret not checking them out Wednesday at l’Esco with proper sound.

I’m able to catch part of Victoria’s Freak Heat Waves before leaving, joining a crowd that’s clearly into it. The basement is packed, and the guitar work is more impressive than I’d expected from briefly listening to them the week before.

Leaving The Shrine my head is pounding, probably due to loud bands and that tasty St- Ambroise IPA (I feel you, Josh). Time to find some more festival fun along the Main.

First I’m led to Divan Orange for Milk Lines. They play bruised, drugged-up country, which is my kind of hoedown. The loud music immediately makes me feel better. I’ve become a live music junkie over the last few days—the only way to stop my head from pounding is to take in more shows. The two singers/guitarists have corn-coloured hair, she’s in a flowery dress and he’s rocking the classic blue jeans and T-shirt. They sing in simple unison, overtop of distorted guitar and well-placed twang.

The Worst Drummer of POP Award goes to Toronto’s HSY, who does little more than bang the floor tom while the band churns out heavy, one-note post punk at Club Lambi. Their new track “Cyberbully” had a simple-but-killer guitar line, and was for sure the heaviest thing I’ve seen so far at POP. But the garbage drumming stopped me from getting into it.

Then it’s another night at Casa for another Broken Social Scene member. Brendan Canning’s new band is playing their first show to a packed room, and his humility shows. Placing setlists and tuning his guitar, I think at first he might be a roadie. He’s shaved off his iconic beard to just handlebars. The band sounds alright, but it’s clear that this is their first show. They’re all a little stiff, and the opening numbers are all pretty slow. It’s nice indie music, but I want something louder to end my night, so I leave about halfway through.

You can find Kathy & Kimmy pretty easily because it’s the only place on Beaubien with a crowd outside. Local trio The Nymphets are just starting when I get there. It’s garage rock played by people in button-up shirts, in a sauna of a venue under blue light. They play furiously, and those who know them better sing back to them. My new normal is LOUD, and I expect METZ to raise my threshold even higher for Day Five.

/// Day Three ///

AroarA play to a packed Casa del Popolo. Photo Stacy Lee

Day Three started with an afternoon at Divan Orange. The early POP shows are always an interesting dynamic, with those looking to get a head start on their drinking and those still moving in slow motion from the night before sharing the venue. Valleys played into that middle ground, with mid tempo synth-driven jams gentle enough for those hungover but still lively enough to bob your head to. The last I heard of Valleys was that they had expanded into a trio, but it seems things have shrunk down just to Marc St. Louis and Tillie Perks again. The pair have been playing together for close to eight years, and their chemistry satisfied both those sitting in a state of hungover agony and those standing with a beer in hand.

Then it was up to the Mile End, where Soldout was playing at the Empire Exchange vintage store. Despite the mellow atmosphere and their god-awful band name, Soldout did their best to engage the packed store with their dancey electro tunes. Singer Charlotte Maison demands your attention, rocking a jean jacket and Raybans like half the crowd wishes they could. I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but they had me moving—even though we were in a clothing store and the sun was still out.

The evening was dominated by Casa del Popolo, where there was a showcase for the POP-affiliated Club Roll Records. Look Vibrant were on first, and they were clearly excited to be onstage.

They were all smiles, with the two-piece of Matthew Murphy and Justin Lazarus now including a bassist, second guitarist and a drummer hunched over the kit like a young John Bonham Jr. The fun they were having on stage was contagious. Look Vibrant are a very new band, and their unpolished set was made up for in the energy and sheer catchiness of their songs. Their two-song Plateau cassette is a far more fuzz-laden affair than their set at Casa, which was noise pop with a heavy emphasis on pop. But it was thoroughly entertaining, and every song felt right. There was nothing dense to process, just a fun little set from a new band on the scene. It’ll be interesting to see how the duo’s sound grows now that they have a full band.

The best set of the night came from Ottawa’s Hilotrons at Cabaret Mile End. I arrived to an 11-piece band, which was a total shock, since The Hilotrons have normally played with a more standard rock setup. Their groovy indie pop was made larger than life by three percussionists, slide guitar and the occasional sousaphone, but things never felt overcrowded (although it’s likely one or two members could be dropped without a noticeable change in sound). Singer Mike Dubé stood in the middle of it all, resplendent in his sweat-soaked green Captain Kirk t-shirt. They’re one of the few Ottawa bands that non-Ottawans are familiar with, and despite the sparse crowd everyone was digging it.

Then it was back to Casa for the Club Roll showcase headliners, AroarA. Made up of Ariel Engle and Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman, there was more than a little witchiness in their set, their druid drone intertwining with electric guitar. The two became less stiff by the end of their set, but they never fully won me over. Maybe it was Whiteman’s supremely cheesy guitar solo, or the general lack of dynamics. Either way, it kind of put me out of the rock and roll mood. Shows on Van Horne and Beaubien suddenly seemed much further away, and beers and friends at Casa became far more appealing.

/// Day Two ///

Colin Stetson is a force of nature. Photo Susan Moss

POP invaded my afternoon with some casual Art POP, which I had pretty much all to myself on Thursday. A projected Minor Threat concert, spooky sounds and what I can only describe as a Videodrome installation were set up at Quartier POP. A projection of a woman walking through the building with an electromagnetic sensor gave impressions of a ghost hunting for other ghosts. All around creepy, and now I’m craving a killer POP Halloween show.

Later I trekked over to the MAC for a special Suuns performance featuring Radwan Moumneh. I had known better than to try to catch Braids at the Q show at Olympia, and figured this would be a safer bet. But the MAC has strict fire codes, and they were at capacity. Hearing “Music Won’t Save You” from outside the museum’s basement black box venue felt pretty appropriate.

I did have tickets for Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson, so a stop at Barfly along the way back north seemed in order. Fredericton’s The Trick was playing to a handful of people, with an unflashy new wave feel to his sound. Hecker was starting any minute though, so I didn’t stay for more than a song.

It was pitch black around Tim Hecker, all the better to swallow you whole with. He played cuts off his forthcoming record Virgins, out next month. Without the headlining spot the crowd didn’t give him the attention he deserved, but the sound was incredible.

I used all my good metaphors for Colin Stetson when I saw him in April, but this time I was only a few feet away from the force of nature, sweat and saliva dripping off him as he rocked back and forth, belting out his sax masterpieces. Stetson took a couple months off after breaking bones in his hand, but you’d never know it from his performance. It did prevent him from playing new material, but the promise of new stuff is amazing on its own. The third New History Warfare record built on the last two, his virtuosity with both the giant bass sax and alto expanding beyond comprehension. What remains to be seen is if his body can withstand his ambition.

As good as experiencing Hecker and Stetson at The Rialto was, something more rowdy was in order. I knew that Viet Cong at L’Esco would fulfill every such desire. The place was packed and sweaty, and as Viet Cong took the stage the crowd oscillated from mosh pit to waves of unintentional shoving. It was a packed punk show, and I expected no less. Viet Cong tore through their set, playing songs from their cassette to start things off before switching to new material. By the time they reached their last song, with a working title sharing the name of their current tour mates, Freak Heat Waves (turns out they named it "Bunker Buster"), the place was ready to burst at the seams. Their garage punk fury won everyone over, and I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.

After Day Two, things are ramping up. After all, we’re just now getting to the weekend. But I’m ready for another night of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ venue-hopping at POP—which sometimes means you end your night at Chez Claudette with bands from the SappyFest showcase (check out Mouthbreathers at Brasserie Beaubien).

/// Day One ///

It feels like Friday night at Casa Del Popolo.

Bands greet each other warmly and the place is nearly full. “Montreal’s greatest guitarist!” exclaims one dude outside Casa as the apparent prodigy walks his bike down the sidewalk of St. Laurent Blvd. There’s a buzz in the air; everyone knows we’re just getting started.

No Magic is playing when I walk into Casa’s backroom venue. They’re backed up by the guys in Look Vibrant. The jovial sound matches the mood, and reminds me of what Destroyer sounded like 10 years ago. Weird glowing syringes rotate on this strange contraption beside the singer strumming an acoustic guitar, who the Internet leads me to believe is from Brisbane, Australia. I don’t really get it, but I like it.

The crowd is digging it, although the band competes with conversation — but that’s more indicative that it’s a Casa show than the band’s failure to captivate. It’s early in the night, and we’re all just getting to know each other.

In true POP form, I’m attempting a Wednesday-night venue hop, so Sala Rossa across the street seems like the obvious next stop. I’ve also made it my mission at this year’s POP to try to find a black sheep musician playing onstage with a PC, instead of the ubiquitous Macbook. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Empress Of are setting up as I pass through the sweet smell of tapas and get into Sala’s second-floor concert hall. They’ve apparently given up on having on-screen visuals during their show, as the sound guy is standing on a ladder in the middle of the venue turning off the projector.

But they don’t need it. Lorely Rodriguez’s emotion carries the performance without the accessory, dressed like a hip Elaine Benes with the kid from Dazed and Confused on keys. She’s either incredibly genuine or a stellar actress, because every modest dance move and quick jump to her console adds to the show.

She almost apologizes when she admits her band is based in Brooklyn. It’s incredibly endearing to hear her say things like “cool” and “okay” through her heavily-effected mic between songs.

She plays lush, slow-to-mid-tempo jams backed up by a solid rhythm section. And she has a great voice, using all the effects as an esthetic approach rather than a crutch. Apparently every song is a new one, and after this performance I’m definitely going to keep listening.

The next stop is Petit Campus, where The Legendary Pink Dots are playing (News editor Andrew Brennan’s POP Pick). As I climb the stairs off Prince Arthur, there are concert-goers mingling about, smoking, laughing before the band starts up. All pretty run-of-the-mill, except everyone’s over 30.

They’ve been around since the ’80s, so that explains the average age of attendees leaping up about 15 years at this particular show. They play rich, slow ambiences with Edward Ka-Spel speaking and singing in meditative tones. You can barely see the guitarist, the stage is so shrouded in fog and darkness. The venue becomes a sauna, though, and honestly I’m bored after a few songs.

Tomorrow’s highlight will probably be Colin Stetson, but I’m ready for anything.

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.