Vive le Pop

A very tired and thoroughly rocked Johnathan Stewart checks in with a report from Pop Montreal.

Shakin’ it The D’Urbervilles get down in Montreal. photo Rachelle Goguen

Pop Montreal is one of Canada’s best music festivals for discovering and appreciating what is going on with this “independent music” stuff everyone’s talking about. This year’s festival had more than 200 acts spread over the five days of October 4 to 8 at 35 venues, most close together and many of the shows were quite affordable.

I took in 16 acts at 12 venues, as well as some conferences presented by Pop Montreal in conjunction with McGill University under the moniker “The Future of Music Symposium.” Halifax and the Maritimes were well represented in the festival with a number of great acts making the trek to Poutine-ville, including Dog Day, Wintersleep and Windom Earle. Bands composed of Halifax ex-pats also made an impact on the festival—mod punks The Nymphets, whose guitarist and bassist are two brothers originally from Halifax, had a headlining slot. Oh yeah, and some band based in Toronto but from Halifax named Sloan headlined a show as well.

Wednesday started out with Toronto’s Lily Frost, who will appear at the Halifax Pop Explosion next week. It was a great show, with Frost accompanied by strings and a backup singer. Frost’s music could be described as 1960s French Chanteuse meets Can Pop, mixed with Doris Day, sprinkled with Leonard Cohen. The pride of New Brunswick, Shotgun and Jaybird, also played a perfect set.

Thursday afternoon former Talking Head and documentarian/genius-at-large David Byrne spoke about the impact of the internet and new technologies on today’s music business. This sounds like a hackneyed subject—who hasn’t heard about how the internet is changing everything?—but listening to his analysis of copyright and his personal experiences as an artist working through these changing times was remarkably exciting.

Haligonians Windom Earle showcased their electro-dance-pop-karaoke music to a crowd of about 10 people that night, which is too bad because they’ve been getting good press around Montreal. The upside was that they totally brought it—most bands don’t bother for a small crowd.

The big show Thursday was harpist Joanna Newsom who played a packed sit-down theatre show. She hails from Narnia, whoops, San Francisco, California. She could be described Joni Mitchell meets The Lord of the Rings. I spent a lot of her set praying to be struck deaf but on further consideration she is unique. She sings about desire and need and disappointment with language like nobody else out there.

Friday night’s first band was Peterborough, Ontario’s The Silverhearts. This is a sprawling collective with brass and pedal steel and piano and more. They describe their sound as “bordello blues”; I describe it as “freaking awesome.” Montreal’s Pony Up is a four-piece also headed to HPX this year. They play angsty, catchy, slightly dancy pop. They can turn a phrase and sing some great harmonies.

Saturday began with local one-man electro/performance art band Dishwasher. His last song featured him dancing around through the audience dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume while a projector played footage from a boxing match. Harlem Shakes from New York, the second band of my night, were a good find—I wandered in to a hole-in-the-wall to watch BC’s Panurge but they had cancelled and the Shakes were the replacement. They played it glammy and melodic.

Sunday night was strung between two venues and only a handful of bands. The first was Beaver, a sincere young man who is worth mentioning for his impressive acoustic guitar playing, managing to accompany himself with a steady rhythm line while he picked sweet melodies. Finally, the SS Cardiacs played a very impressive set, balancing introspection with full-out sonic assault.

Pop Montreal is a great festival with a fun, laid-back feel and many opportunities to hear music for all tastes. Now I’m going to sleep for two days solid.

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