I’m not qualified to say that Pop Montreal is the best pop-music festival in the world. But, with that out of the way, let me tell you: Pop Montreal is the best pop-music festival in the world. It’s all these things: stubborn, intimate, jubilant, open, nostalgic, forward-looking, spontaneous, intricate, fanciful, bizarre, sincere, imperfect, and cool. Though Pop may disappoint industry honchos and glassy-eyed party zombies, if what you seek is a great, wondrous celebration of music, well, please come to this city for five days in October and we’ll lend you a bike.
The reason I’m not really qualified is that I’ve never been to North America’s two bigtime festivals. New York’s CMJ I imagine in terms of guest lists and magazine mixers, sponsor-strewn lofts and a million mediocre indie rock bands. As for SXSW, in Austin—well, mostly I imagine sunglasses.
But when you think of Pop Montreal imagine these things: leaves turning color, late-night walks, hip-hop in church halls, folk songs in Portuguese social clubs, children learning how to swear in Yiddish. A hundred and fifty shows with 350 artists, groups of every stripe and scene, curated by a bunch of ambitious, fanciful dilettantes.
They even flew Burt Bacharach in on a chartered jet. The aging songster is not an obvious co-headliner for Nick Cave, Ratatat, Akron/Family, and Wire, but that’s kind of the point. Pop is more influenced by whim and curiosity than by orthodox scenesterism. Yes, Arcade Fire pal Final Fantasy is playing—but it’s at Cinema L’Amour alongside Socalled, who is doing a live rockabilly soundtrack to a vintage gay porno.
It’s not just music. Film Pop screens music-related movies, like an award-winning Arthur Russell profile or the new Silver Apples documentary (followed by an actual Silver Apples gig). Art Pop gives illustrators equipment to project drawings over bands like Brutal Knights and An Albatross. Sister Nancy’s giving a lecture; so are Jem Cohen and Lydia Lunch. And in a school gym there are a few dozen kids getting serenaded by local talent. The whippersnappers spent the weekend building a punk-rock cardboard version of Montreal—and learning Tuvan throat singing.
So, although you can streak across the city on a rented bicycle, hopping from small club to big club to church basement, catching Canada’s next hundred indie hopes, you can also just sit put: forgo the Dears, playing at the Masonic Temple across the city, and see what weirdo marvel has been programmed right here.
My 2008 Pop began the way all festivals ought to begin: at the Montreal Pool Room, eating poutine, i.e., hand-cut fries decked with cheese curds and gravy. This was the official festival launch, with press and delegates packed into a diner known not for its billiards but for its steamed hot dogs. People here have been eating these steamed hot dogs, known as steamés, since 1912. Because it’s unseasonably cold, I gorge instead on poutine. I also eat Ritter Sport chocolates, because these are free. Over the next five days, attendees of Pop Montreal grow intimately familiar with every flavor of Ritter Sport. Very few like the one called Joghurt.
Before long, I’m in the pews of the Ukrainian Federation, a hall halfway between high-school auditorium and Mennonite church—and owned by an actual federation of Ukrainians. They let Pop borrow it sometimes, spiting city planners who want concerts to occur only in downtown concert halls where the seats are numbered. I’m here on the tip of a Parisian friend. “You must see Colin Stetson!” he told me earlier, half a steamé in his mouth. “You ’ave to!”
Stetson’s a small guy with the build of a welterweight boxer. He’s toured with Beirut and Arcade Fire and indeed looks like he could rescue Win Butler and Zach Condon if they ever got stuck in a tree. Stetson plays saxophones. This is kind of like saying whalers ride boats. I’ve never heard the guy before, but within moments of his putting reed in mouth I am saucer-eyed. Stetson plays sparkling cascades of notes, soft and overlapping, the stuff of looper pedals and sequencers. Only he’s not using looper pedals or sequencers: just his lips and tongue. He circular-breathes and so the songs never stop. He adds clicks and thumps and what sound like drumbeats, only it’s just his tongue on the reed. Noises come from nowhere as he takes deep, deep breaths, finishing each piece covered with the sweat of a marathon runner. Later, he plays a bass saxophone, a sax as big as he is, and I think of Fitzcarraldo pulling a steamship over a mountain. Stetson sounds a foghorn note and my skull rattles.
Instead of jumping ship to go see Vetiver or Katie Moore, I sit patiently through Krista Muir’s singsongy set, waiting for Baby Dee, a singer-songwriter from Ohio who Bonnie “Prince” Billy recommended to Drag City Records. Finally, Dee emerges, enormous and shy and boisterous, playing songs on harp and piano that are either rib-cracklingly vaudeville hilarious or heartbreakingly sunrise beautiful. “I’ll smile a sky from east to west,” she sings, in a voice the shade of dawn.
Pop can be lonely. With 10 shows on at the same time, friends come and go, ping-ponging according to disparate tastes. So it’s nice to arrive back at the Ukrainian Federation and feel like everyone is here, gathered by the promise of Irma Thomas. She is, I have heard, the Soul Queen of New Orleans. I don’t really know what that means. A large proportion of the crowd is like me. We’ve seen Thomas’s name on the back of soul anthologies, heard it in passing, but it’s a casual knowledge. Looking into the crowd, Thomas comments that we’re “mighty young.” But, despite her guesses, we’re not here because of books or compilations or because our parents taught us her music. Some of us are here because we are head-over-heels, fan-club in love with Irma Thomas’s singing. And others, like me, are, as critic Carl Wilson observed, “there because the Pop Montreal curators told them she was great, and they trust those curators, because they’ve earned it.”
By the end, we’re all mostly crazy for this lady with sunshine in her song.
After Irma, I take off on my bike. But the Hypnotic Brass Band, at Lambi, are starting late, and so are the Bug and Warrior Queen at the Portuguese Association, so I’m caught in scheduling limbo. A few friends and I wander down to Casa del Popolo, a small club co-owned by a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The woman playing inside looks like someone’s mother-in-law, someone’s great-aunt, but she’s up there in her unhip haircut and unhip outfit singing, willful and weird. The woman is Elyse Weinberg, whose one record was released in 1968, on a label co-owned by Bill Cosby. Though she recorded a follow-up—complete with contributions from Neil Young—it was never released. Now she’s here. The crowd is small but attentive. I don’t know what to make of this woman, and I feel somehow like she doesn’t know what to make of us.
And then we head, in the wee hours, to Cinema L’Amour. Cinema L’Amour was built in 1914, and there was a time when this was a hot spot for Montreal’s Jewish theater. There are rumors it’s where Harry Houdini suffered his fatal blow. Today, it’s an adult cinema. Scared off by the neon, the blocked windows, the, uh, porn, I had never been inside. Now, for a few nights, Pop has reclaimed the space.
We can hardly see (which is probably a good thing). But what we do see is ornate and beautiful. Hundreds of us have packed in for Li’l Andy, a local songwriter and sweetheart. He wears a cowboy hat. Tonight, he’s backed by a band called Ideal Lovers, and they’re covering the entirety, sides A and B, of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night.
It’s a marvel. It’s the greatest concert of the festival and one of the very finest shows I’ve seen this year. Scarcely visible, silhouetted in red, Li’l Andy is not, tonight, a garden-variety novelty country act, and Ideal Lovers are not “just” a cover band, strumming out a cliché. No, they hammer these songs like copper plates. They shout and howl and love them. The crowd, scarcely visible, silhouetted in red, shouts and howls and loves along. Emilie passes me a flask of whiskey. Li’l Andy and his friends are wry, playful, but you can tell they know what’s happening here. They feel it rising out of the housings of their guitars. These tunes are gonna haunt this place—alongside 10,000 moans and the ghost of Harry Houdini.
Tonight, I see a screening of Vincent Moon’s Take Away Shows—bands filmed in subways and streets and bedrooms, kids weaving among the players, accidents toppling in, and they’re beautiful. I bike like a maniac down to the Église St-Jean-Baptiste and catch three or four of Burt Bacharach’s epic and professional medleys. My main thought: Bacharach seems to have written every single great song that Lennon/McCartney did not. The church’s gold dome sparkles, and the band, too. It’s schmaltzy, cheesy, easy, and a little boring. But then the chords change, a trumpet rises up, and yet another hit song’s got its barbs into you. If I’m a fish, Burt Bacharach’s a fisherman.
Herman Düne are playing in the red and chandeliered hall called La Sala Rossa. This group is my favorite contemporary American band. Except they’re not American. They’re from Paris. Their English is bad. And yet this three-piece-now-two-piece is in love with America, with apple pie, state fairs, rock-and-roll. With movie stars, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Daniel Johnston. And they remind me of Ivor Cutler, too. Anyway, they rhyme clumsily and yearn earnestly and put my heart together again.
Then it’s Akron/Family, who are not from Akron and are unrelated to one another but whose pretty space jams have been known to melt brains. But tonight I do not have the patience for this tomfoolery. Not long after the band pin a tie-dyed Stars and Stripes to the wall, I exit into starlight and make my way to Le Gymnase, a fire-eaten husk of a club whose crowd seems diffuse and unsure what they’re here for. Throw Me the Statue, who are, first of all, cooler than their name implies, play with the sort of whole-hog heart that you hope for from all small bands. They stun this audience, stun them glad, and we all—even me—leap and bob to Seattle pop songs, which are part tenderness and part, um, Weezer.
I’m already feeling worn out: too many good concerts in too few days. I’m glad this is the sort of festival where I can sleep in a familiar bed, gorge on familiar bagels, treat myself to familiar ice creams. And free Ritter Sport. Saturday afternoon, I moderate a panel on music journalism, but the important stuff comes later, as I oscillate between three different venues. This night in particular I feel like a lone wolf, a maverick following the scent of song. It is, yes, lonely. Bruce Peninsula holler at the Portuguese Association—a weird mix of fire-and-brimstone chorale and dimpled Toronto indie pop. I see friends in the Mittenstrings playing their first-ever show, Mom accompanying on recorder, four voices in gorgeous hot-toddy harmony.
But the best thing I see Saturday night is the Persuasions. This legendary a-cappella act was discovered on the streets of New York City 45 years ago and, though some of their present members look like they would have been in diapers in 1965, they’ve set us SMILING, all caps, at the Portuguese Association. The Persuasions sing the high notes and the low ones, old songs and new ones, the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and Frank Zappa’s “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.” They can’t all jump from the stage to the crowd—some of the older fellas have to take the stairs—but there’s awe in everyone’s face when they join us down here. We’re smitten by their crows and croons, and the Persuasions, too, are moved. You get the feeling that, these days, they don’t see many such crowds—young kids unable to restrain their glee. They’re moved, we’re smitten. All of us are loud, not dumbstruck.
My final concert of Pop Montreal—Dan Deacon’s “Baltimore Round Robin”—is the weakest set I see. Maybe it’s because I don’t give it a chance—I’m quick to leave the dark and lonely loft for somewhere brighter and fuller of friends. But I prefer to blame it on the concept of an all-Baltimore slate. The concept’s wonderful—a gaggle of bands that came up in school buses and set up around the perimeter of the Eastern Bloc art space. The crowd rotates, hearing one song at a time—on Sunday, it’s mostly loud stuff, punk and electro. And yet, despite the charms of Deacon, the Videohippos, Nuclear Power Pants, the bands are just too inconsistent. Baltimore alone can’t compete with Pop’s many-sided wows. The secret of the festival is the way it takes Montreal’s present community and chops and skews it, mixing locals and legends, familiars and faraways. We can’t outplay Burt Bacharach—but we can all sing along to his songs.
I hear next year the festival is planning a parade.
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