As Oh! Canada arrived in Montreal, the city was in the process of experiencing a rainstorm that, by it’s end, would pour down almost a months worth of rain in just under 24 hours. Yet a little (or a lot) of inclement weather wasn’t enough to bring down the spirits of the plaid shirted hordes that decended upon the city for the annual Pop Montreal Festival. Similar in spirit and approach to the UK’s Great Escape festival, Pop Montreal combines daytime events, lectures and workshops followed by late night shows in a variety of shops, theatres and rooftops around the Plateau area of the city. With most venues just stumbling distance from one another, the festival provided an opportunity to catch both established and new talent from Canada and beyond, all under the glowing cross of Mont Royal itself.
Despite the deluge on Thursday the Metropolis theatre was packed to the ornate rafters for hometown heroes Karkwa, fresh from their Polaris prize triumph. Faced with the unenviable task of opening the show was Leif Vollebekk. While Vollebekk recently toured the UK solo, the full band sound provided the perfect backdrop to allow his songs and vocals to take flight. Unfortunately much of this seemed to be lost on the crowd, who were clearly their for one reason and one reason only. Karkwa. Launching in to a set heavy on tracks from Les Chemins De Verre, the crowed erupted, singing every word back to clearly ecstatic frontman Louis-Jean Cormier. Performing in front of a dazzling wall of lights, the show made for a celebratory spectacle that more than made up for the dampness of the crowd. It remains to be seen if the band can translate their fusion of pastoral folk rock (a la Van Occupanther), sweet guitar hooks and more proggy leanings to a non-Francophone audience, but on the night Karkwa play the role of returning champions to a tee.
Stepping out into the still pouring rain, a taxi ride takes us to the other end of the Plateau to Cagibi, one of the many Montreal venues operating under the “no food=no beer” system. One grilled cheese sandwich later and it’s in to the Sappyfest showcase featuring Snailhouse (the longtime project of Mike Feurstack of Wooden Stars/ Bell Orchestre), Baby Eagle and Daniel Romano with Misha Bower. Playing in a chilly backroom they may be, but with delicate fingerpicking and a wry sense of humour all three acts turn the room in to a special place. Montreal has many such seemingly secret rooms where musicians perform, almost hidden away. Casa Del Popolo is another venue with such a feeling, and it is there that, the following night Leif Vollebekk and his band (who he announces are yet to be named) turn in an understated yet masterful performance. Unlike the cavernous Metropolis the previous evening, the audience listen in wrapped attention as Vollebekk teases phrases out of his guitar and violin, looping them before delivering heartbreaking vocals that touch on Buckley, Baker and Bird without resorting to cliche or pastiche.
With a festival with so many acts and venues, part of the pleasure is in stumbling in to a venue and catching a few tracks by lots of different artists: The Golden Dogs, Black Feelings, Bear in Heaven, Baby Eagle (again) and the frantic pop onslaught of Hollerado were all great surprises-the later filling Le Divan Orange with confetti, streamers which got caught in the ceiling fans and an audience of devotees. They also took the party to the streets afterwards, inviting fans to paint on their van outside the venue. Perhaps not the wisest idea should they ever wish to pass through US customs, but certainly memorable, as the band literally left their (paint-smeared) mark on the streets of Montreal. On a more sombre note, Timber Timbre played the Ukrainian Hall. Bathed only in a faint red light, the band turned in a moving and occasionally unsettling performance. Frontman Taylor Kirk’s howls and yelps sounded like those of a wounded animal, and the audience sat in hushed reverence as the band reworked selections from their recently released (in the UK at least) self titled album. Only the sound of bar-goers tripping over bins in the pitch-black venue momentarily broke the spell.
The next days musical entertainment begins with a visit to the rooftop of local software firm Ubisoft, where local boys Malajube play an acoustic set that floats over the rooftops of Montreal as the sun sets behind them. Although the semi-acoustic nature of the set meant the more proggy elements were toned down, the band still managed to demonstrate why their forthcoming album is being so eagerly awaited by many in Canada, Francophone or not.
Inhabiting a similar otherworldly realm to Timber Timbre were Tasseomancy (formerly Ghost Bees). Hushed and haunting, it comes as little surprise to learn after the show that the bands latest release is produced by Taylor Kirk. Further proof of the closeness of the Canadian scene comes on the Saturday evening at the Out of This Spark showcase, which features Light Fires, Forest City Lovers, Evening Hymns and The D’Urbervilles. Like a Canadian Wilkommen Collective many of the band members seem to be part of numerous projects, popping up to add different parts to songs, add an instrument here or there. There is a real sense of support for fellow artists at the show, and a clear love of making music. Despite having just flown in from London the day before, Evening Hymns put in a rousing set, frontman Jonas Bonnetta crafting harmonies with himself, hopping around stage in an almost tribal manner. Be it stripped to just Bonetta and his loopstation or with a full band and harmonies from Sylvie Smith (also of The Magic) it is evident that there are many layers that go into Evening Hymns’ finely crafted songsmithery, and tonight they seem to find just the right balance of delicate pastoral folk with surging passages, much to the delight of the assembled crowd.
Kat Burns (Forest City Lovers)
Fresh from covering Green Day at the Mint Records BBQ earlier in the day, Forest City Lovers showcase material from latest release Carriage with a set of playful folk infused indie-pop full of arch lyrics that has the front few rows frugging their hearts out. Lucky then, that Light Fires (the new collaboration of Gentleman Reg (from, er, Gentleman Reg) and James Bunton (of Ohbijou) are next to take the stage. “Do you wanna dance?” asks Reg, knowing full well that the minute the electro-pop starts that is exactly what the crowd will do. “We don’t have anything you can buy, or anything online to steal. All I can give you is my sweat” Reg adds as he and Bunton turn the venue into a heaving, sweaty mass all the way to the merch desk.
Closing the show are the D’Urbervilles, who number a couple of Forest City Lovers (one, of whom, Tim Bruton, is also an Evening Hymn) in their ranks, and who’s frontman John O is perhaps better known in the UK for his Diamond Rings project. Where that project revels in flamboyance and electro-pop, The D’Urbs present a much darker, guitar heavy outlook. Here the synths menace, and the guitars growl as John O intones he delivers his tales of love and loss to the assembled throng. Quite what will become of the D’Urbs as their frontman’s star continues to rise remains to be seen, but on tonight performance we can only hope he can use his success to bring The D’Urbs to the attention of a wider audience.
John O of The D’Urbervilles
With so much going on from night to night, there are any number of parallel festivals that could have been attended-reports of triumphant sets from Van Dyke Parks, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Deerhoof amongst others fill the streets as people pour out of venues up and down the city. As Sunday saw the festival begin to wind down, it was time for the the Oh! Canada road trip to continue.
Next point of call? Toronto.