She-Devils. Photo by: Jean-Philippe Sansfacon
After an unexpected boom in the last few years, there was a lot of hand-wringing this summer about whether the Canadian festival bubble was bursting. This mostly referred to the big outdoor summer festivals, a market that was suddenly becoming overcrowded with competition and financially strained by the weak Canadian dollar. But there was also a questioning of the smaller, street-level, club-hopping city festival, most specifically by Michael Hollett of Toronto's long-running NXNE, who claimed that model no longer worked either.
So, as the summer flipped into fall and all the denim jackets came out of our closets, we headed to POP Montreal. In its 15th year, the city-wide music festival seems to still be going as strong as ever. So what makes it work? And does it?
After exploring all it has to offer over five days, we've found that POP is by all accounts a music festival, but key to POP's success is their understanding that music doesn't operate within a vacuum. There was plenty of food, gallery installations, an arts marketplace featuring designers and crafters, a Q&A series, a fashion show, a book launch, a film component, and programming for kids and families.
All of these interrelated and equally important parts were at their best when they worked in tandem. POP Quarters was always a flurry of activity, with its galleries, BBQs, symposiums and performances, making it one of the best vantage points to experience the festival. Hitting the basement late night Little Burgundy lounge was also essential, especially when there was a plate of mac and cheese or pulled pork sandwich care of a local food vendor waiting for you when you resurfaced.
Implicit in POP's programming is the understanding of how important the local arts and culture scene is to a successful festival. Sure, John Cale and Angel Olsen were top-billing headliners, but their performances were supported by locals like Helena Deland and Best Fern.
Here's how it all comes together:
Once it reaches a certain size, a festival like POP Montreal can start to feel a bit messy or indistinct, like a bunch of bands playing venues that just happen to be adorned with a festival banner. But POP Montreal didn't feel like a mishmash of whichever bands happened to spend the money on a Sonicbids application; it felt coherent. It felt curated.
Here's an example: Wednesday night you had queer punk hero Seth Bogart (formerly of Hunx And His Punx) rocking a late night concept party set at Little Burgundy's lounge in the basement of the Rialto Theatre, using pre-recorded music videos and campy, hilarious fake-commercial interstitials (about manyhose, eating makeup, and PSAs about daddies going extinct) as covers to run off stage and change costumes after nearly every song. It was carefully composed and orchestrated, while totally high energy, fun and, miraculously, totally spontaneous.
That might be because "The Seth Bogart Show" was part of a bigger art project, on display at POP Quarters throughout the festival, where you could watch the whole hilarious video project in all its Pee-wee Herman meets pop art meets joyful John Waters transgression. And speaking of John Waters, he was booked a few nights later as a marquee act upstairs at the Rialto Theatre.
This is how to make something sprawling seem connected and intentional. Look closely and you could spot these threads everywhere. - Richard Trapunski
Collision of Past/Present
The past reared its head throughout the festival in really interesting, complicated ways. John Cale has built a career on making challenging music, so the big question ahead of his headlining show was whether he would focus on new music, or play "the hits." The answer was somewhere in the middle. It was not long into his set before Cale broke into "I'm Waiting For The Man," but the version he and his band played was a much more shadowy, sinister version than the one he recorded with The Velvet Underground.
John Cale. Photo by: Louis Long
Weirder still was that following Cale's set, Vancouver's Whitney K performed at the Egg Paper Factory showcase at Casa del Popolo, and sounded uncannily like a countrified version of Cale's former band.
One of the final night's highlights was Winnipeg's Joanne Pollock's stunning cover of Freda Payne's “Band of Gold." The swinging soul song might seem like an odd choice, but Pollock honed in on its emotional centre, using her electronic music to find its depths, while still preserving the vocal melody. She prefaced the song by saying "this next song is a cover, it's one of the saddest songs in the world."
That same day, the festival was closed out by two performances that honoured two larger than life performers, Prince and David Bowie. Fredy V. capably handled Prince's funky back catalogue, while it took a bit longer for Jef Elise Barbara and their band Black Space to settle into Bowie's shoes. Once they broke out into "Stay," the band really gelled and rose to the occasion. - Michael Rancic
Any good festival will give you a chance to check at least a couple of legends off your bucket list, but the "big names" POP Montreal brings in aren't necessarily the ones you’d find headlining Coachella. It's pulling from an alternative canon, one you used to have to be introduced to by the snarky record store clerk on the corner.
There's John Cale, whose aforementioned set made me want to dive deep into his solo catalogue almost instantly. There's John Waters, who did so much for punk and queer and cinema culture as to have his fingerprints on basically the whole lineup. There's Psychic TV, whose leader Genesis Breyer P-Orridge fucked with genre and gender, industrial and psychedelic music, until it was remade in their image.
Wally Badarou. Photo by: Louis Long
There was even Wally Badarou, the French record producer and synthesizer ace playing the first live set of his own music after acting instrumental to acts like Grace Jones and Talking Heads. He's not a household name (far from it), but he packed La Salla Rossa and got the age-diverse crowd moving together until everyone was covered in sweat and couldn't endure the lack of air conditioning any longer. He described one song as "an encounter between Fela Kuti and Herbie Hancock. And Miles Davis, somehow." I agreed, and then realized this is a musical gap I'd usually fill with Spotify playlists. This was better. - Richard Trapunski
Everyone has to eat, and when you’re at a festival, and especially when you’re at a festival in a city not your own, finding something good and cheap to eat becomes a lot more difficult. The smart, and frankly, thoughtful ways POP Montreal incorporated food into their programming, either at the BBQs held at festival HQ or the food prepared at the late night lounge, were really helpful and a good way to get to know the city’s cuisine without ever having to venture far from where you needed to be.
From figuratively full. By: Jon Sherman
The focus on food found its way into the festival's galleries as well. Photographer and guest curator Maya Fuhr's Figuratively Full exhibit at Art POP explored the symbolic meaning of food, using photography to call "into question ideas of food consumption and what value and symbolism food holds in Contemporary North American society.”
Suddenly that shawarma they just grilled you takes on a different meaning. - Michael Rancic
Extra-curricular Events like Feminist Live Reads
Organized and directed by Chandler Levack, the charity event for the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal featured a who's-who of Montreal's arts and culture scene reading from the Ted Griffin penned script of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. In addition to charity, the purpose of Feminist Live Reads is to shine a light on the disparity of female roles in Hollywood. The film was anchored by an almost all male cast, so this version "flips the script," casting female actresses and personalities in those meaty male-dominated parts.
— POP Montréal (@popmontreal) September 24, 2016
In addition to the fittingly music-heavy cast — members of She-Devils, Nancy Pants, No Joy and Stars' Amy Millan — Shadowhunters' Maxim Roy played the role of Danny Ocean, writer and co-host of TIFF's Yo, Adrian podcast Fariha Róisín was Rusty Ryan, Montreal author Heather O'Neill played an inspired Reuben Tishkoff, and restaurateur Jen Agg was a perfect choice for the ice-cold Terry Benedict.
Director Jacob Tierney played the role of Tess Ocean, the role originally played by Julia Roberts. At first I was annoyed by Tierney, who seemed to not be taking the role as seriously, making light of the female character he was assigned. But that was just it, as delivered by Tierney, Tess' lines came off so flat and cliché, they would've never have been written for a man.
If all goes well this could become as much a daytime POP tradition as Win Butler's annual POP vs. Jock basketball game. - Michael Rancic
Opening the Door to Other Music Scenes
The lesson that NXNE never learned, even though it was staring them in the face: involve the music community and they will feel like the festival is theirs, too. While NXNE has tightened its grip, POP Montreal still happily works with outside promoters whose tastes they align with. Like, okay, Chart Attack. And a million disclaimers aside, the vibey, divey goodness of Ice Cream and bizZarh at Brasserie Beaubien wasn't the only cool co-presentation.
bizZarh. Photo by: Jean-Philippe Sansfacon
There was the Debaser/Ottawa Explosion showcase, which highlighted Ottawa's exciting musical activism streak, and the Pentagon Black punk show, with a face-melting Heathers set, at Turbo Haüs (apparently the western-most POP Montreal show ever). They even let Holy Fuck choose their own lineup — Fake Palms and New Fries — which made it feel a lot like a great Toronto show.
You can't be an expert on every scene, so POP Montreal wisely lets them join the party themselves. - Richard Trapunski
So Many Highlights
Whether it was hearing Slut Island co-founder Frankie Teardrop spin, being seduced by Leif Vollebeck at sunset on the roof of the Rialto Theatre, or getting way into Soft Opening right as they played their last show, this year's POP was full of highlights.
Leif Vollebekk. Photo by: Jean-Philippe Sansfaco
Lungbutter opened for post-punk outfit Psychic TV, slaying the sizeable early crowd with a torrent of noise. We’ve been telling you about how great they are for some time, and the band continue to deliver on that promise.
Lungbutter's Joni Sadler (also of CKUT), played double duty during the fest, also sitting behind the kit for Amy MacDonald's Nennen. Their set was comparatively quieter than Lungbutter's but MacDonald and Sadler turned up the furor when it suited them. Their performance was anchored by a great chemistry that had me guessing how much each song was planned, and how much was improvised.
Dorothea Paas's band also shared a great chemistry, which they demonstrated in the form of their excellent songwriting and their Juste Pour Rire-worthy stage banter. Paas's incisive lyrics cut just as deep as her guitar melodies sing, and as well as her jokes land, making her a kind of triple threat.
Un Blonde. Photo by: Louis Long
The equally talented Un Blonde set the bar high early on in the festival, and I'm still thinking about that performance now. Their brief but powerful set at Casa Del Popolo on the Thursday night was just incredible. The band performed songs from the recent (and Chart fave) Good Will Come To You, staying close to the source material, without being too afraid to have fun and embellish it. The tiny room was packed with an awestruck and (thankfully) quiet crowd. It's been incredible watching the project transform from arty guitar band to the phenomenal, elemental project it is now. - Michael Rancic
Everything In Montreal At The Same Time
The number of opportunities to check out other festivals and shows happening concurrently with POP is less a testament to the organizers of the festival and more a tribute to how fertile Montreal's music scene is.
Running from Thursday to Sunday the same week as POP was the DIY punk festival A Varning From Montreal. The city has great punk and metal scenes, and for this fan of both genres, making a stop in Montreal and not going to A Varning is a bit like a craft beer enthusiast (which I am also) visiting and not checking out the Dieu Du Ciel brewery. I had some time on the Friday to check out local favourites GAZM and f.i.t.s. play a matinee show with Toronto's own (and Rags and Bones alumni) Triage.
On the Saturday night of POP, following the Brasserie Beaubien showcase featuring Quaker Parents, blue odeur, Not You, Hand Cream and Dorothea Paas, the party continued less officially at the nearby Drones Club, with Not You and Hand Cream both taking the stage once again, along with Un Blonde and New Fries, who played earlier in the week.
With so much going on during the fest itself, it was hard to pull away from POP to visit these events, but going didn't take away from the festival experience, rather it broadened and enhanced it, as the local scene is its lifeblood. - Michael Rancic