Live Concert Review: M for Montreal 2019
M for Montreal (French – M pour Montreal) is an annual music festival and conference, which takes place during four days in mid to late November. Created on a whim, the festival was initially set up as a showcase to introduce 6 local acts, including Patrick Watson and The Besnard Lakes to 12 festival buyers and media professionals from the UK, who happened to be in Montreal while on their way to New York for CMJ, as the festival’s program director Mikey Rishwain Bernard told me in an interview on this site last month.
Since the inaugural festival 14 years ago, M for Montreal has gradually expanded to become a platform for Canadian artists and music industry people to network and mingle with national and international tastemakers, as well as other industry professionals, while simultaneously featuring over 100 emerging and buzzworthy local, national and international acts and bands in showcases across 15 of Montreal’s top venues and clubs.
300 music industry heavyweights, movers and shakers and tastemakers from over 20 different countries, including Canada and the United States make the trek to Montreal to seek out, new emerging artists and new business opportunities. Festival organizers, as Bernard told me last month, hope that the acts on the festival’s bill will be exported to each of the delegate’s respective markets. Now, as you may recall, I had the distinct honor and pleasure to among those 300 music industry heavyweights, movers and shakers and tastemakers, who made the trek to Montreal for the four-day festival. (And, as I’ve previously mentioned on this site: of course, I had at least a smoked meat sandwich and some poutine in town. After all, when in Rome, right? More on that later.)
I’ve covered and attended a number of music festivals throughout JOVM’s nine-plus year history, including Afropunk, CMJ, Mondo.NYC, The New Colossus, Catalpa, Full Moon, The Meadows, The Roots Picnic, SummerStage and a few others. From experience, multiple days and nights of music, networking, boozing, hijinks and sleep deprivation fly by in a furious blur. You’re suddenly at the last showcase or the last set of your festival and you have to go back home to the real world of day jobs and adult compromises and bullshit. Being in another country heightens the strangeness of it all – and it reverberates in unexpected ways. True story: last week, I was waiting for a Williamsburg, Brooklyn-bound Q59 bus and it suddenly occurred to me that the week before, I was in another country covering music for this site. Last night, I was in the Richmond Hill section of Queens and it suddenly struck me of how much that neighborhood reminded me of parts of the Mile End and Plateau Mont Royal sections of Montreal: residential and tree lined neighborhoods that were so quiet that I could hear a small group of friends chatting from their apartment.
Sadly, because I was in town for a very specific reason, I didn’t see much of the city as a tourist but you can get a feel for a town and its people from walking its streets, eating local delicacies, riding their public transportation, drinking at local bars, seeing its local music and arts. There’s something to be said about a place where a singer/songwriter and poet is seen like a god – and where murals and other art can be seen on almost every other block.
Night 1: November 20, 2019
Casa Del Popolo: Alex Bent and The Emptiness, Sebastian Gaskin and Close Talker
La Sala Rossa: Naya Ali and Prado
“Unkempt, in threadbare clothes, with holed shoes and sun-cured hide, my costume is permanent: the traveler, the man from far away.”
– Paul Salopek
As my Air Canada flight was approaching Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport (formerly Montreal-Duval), I got a brief glimpse of snow-covered suburbs. I was reminded of similar sights: Amsterdam’s twinkling lights as the plane banked a sharp left to approach Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, farmland just outside of Frankfurt-am-Main International, Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline . . .
Once we landed, I went through customs, a self-help customs kiosk that took a picture of you, scanned your passport and spit out a receipt, which you had to hand over to a customs agent. I got my suitcase, exchanged some of my American dollars for some Canadian dollars – and then I spent the next roughly 15 minutes trying to find the 747 bus, an express bus that goes from the airport to Downtown Montreal.
I checked in to my hotel, the Hotel Monville near Chinatown and the Place d’Armes Orange Line Metro stop. And as it turned out, I didn’t have much time to settle in to my beautiful and modern hotel room: I had to pick up my festival credentials at the festival’s headquarters, Hotel 10. While picking up my credentials, I wound up befriending a couple of American delegates and with credentials in our hands, we all happily headed over to a happy hour and dinner for delegates at the Universitè du Quebec, a Montreal.
What started out as a small band of American music professionals that got lost trying to figure out where our happy hour and dinner was, managed to get significantly larger – to the point that I quipped “If you’re an American and you’re lost. Join us! We’re lost, too!” After a few minutes of joking, searching and then asking random passerby – most often they were like us, lost! — where our happy hour was, we found it. And after a couple of drinks, we were off to delegates dinner, which was in another building on the campus.
During the dinner, I wound up sitting with and befriending an Aussie-born, Finnish-based music executive; a Montreal-born, Chinese-based music executive; and a Swiss-born, Canadian-based band manager. I’ve been lucky to travel internationally a couple of times, and generally a handful of topics come up:
- Where you’re from and if you’ve been to that city or country before. If you’re chatting with a local or a frequent visitor and you’re a newbie, you ask for recommendations for someplace to eat or to a drink. Locals know – and they’ll give you someplace locals love and go. If you’re chatting with a fellow newbie, you’re usually chatting excitedly about your immediate observations about the city, its people, the country as a whole, as well as the things you like or don’t like. And if that newbie is an American, you’ll likely joke about being dumb Americans in a foreign land – or you’ll talk about “things back home.” (Years ago, when I was in Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair, I chatted with a publishing professional, who was from St. Louis and based in Minnesota or someplace like that. And hearing the names “St. Louis” and “Minnesota” just had a different weight being far away from home.)
- Yes, politics. People will ask you about the Trump Administration. They’ll also tell you their thoughts on the Trump Administration. Generally speaking, our friends across the world are concerned and frightened for us – and they hope that we’ll gather our sense before it’s too late. Oh, and they all think Trump is an embarrassment. While at a happy hour, a few days later, I had an extensive conversation with a French reporter about the impeachment hearings. (Admittedly, I was doing a pretty fine job of forgetting about America while I was there. I just didn’t miss it much. I missed certain people though.)
- In some cases, you’ll talk about race and racial relations. Of course, that’s a tightrope walk full of implications, assumptions and biases. But from my experience foreigners – particularly those in creative fields – tend to be very progressive in their thinking.
- I mean – duh. You’ll chat with other folks about what you’re all excited to see or what you’re planning to see.
After some interesting conversations, loads of laughs and several bottles of wine shared among four men, festival organizers had provided a couple of yellow school busses to send delegates off to the festival’s first official showcases. It was my first time on a school bus in close to 30 years. Adults suddenly turn back the clock and are turned into children. It didn’t occur to me to video record the short bus ride – but it was absurd and hilarious.
The first stop of the night was Casa Del Popolo, a small hipster bar/café in the trendy Mile End section, known for hosting indie rock bands, DJs, spoken word events – and from what a music friend told me, cheap but very good eats.
Led by Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based alt pop/R&B singer/songwriter Alex Bent, the emerging Canadian pop act Alex Bent and the Emptiness officially opened the night and the festival. With the release of last year’s Vanilla Blue EP and this year’s Baby, Bent has begun to receive attention in his hometown and elsewhere. And from his M for Montreal set, I can understand why – Bent specializes in crafting slickly produced and incredibly contemporary radio friendly pop.
Accompanied by backing tracks, a DJ and a live drummer, Bent’s live set was centered around his radio friendly material. And while being hook-driven, Bent’s live set was a bit problematic for me. I can’t quite put my finger on it but his stage presence to me was awkward and I couldn’t quite connect with him. Understandably, some of that may have been nerves. After all, the Saskatoon-based pop artist was opening the four-day festival, a festival that included several acts that have received attention in the States and elsewhere. And admittedly, the material may not have been for 40 somethings, who haven’t been into mainstream anything in about 25 years. (At this point, I can admit that sometimes I’m just too old for certain things – and that it isn’t for me. It will happen to all of us.)
More important: while being remarkably hook driven, Bent’s live set revealed some weaknesses within the material. Bent could use an additional musician or two to give the material some added muscle. Also, I think that Bent’s live set revealed that at this particular juncture, there isn’t much that separates him from his contemporaries, who are also performing some variation of Top 40 pop.
Could he get over in Canada or say – in the States? Yes. Will he? That’ll be determined.
Loving, the rapidly rising Victoria, British Columbia-based, lo-fi psych folk act featuring David Parry and Lucas and Jesse Henderson was supposed to be the second set at Casa Del Popolo. Based on the two singles I’ve written about on this site – “Only She Knows” and “Lately In Another Time” – the Victoria-based act was one of a handful of acts I was really looking forward to catching, especially since I somehow missed their Baby’s All Right set earlier this year.
Unfortunately, one of the band’s members came down with a bad case of food poisoning and as a result, the band couldn’t play. These things happen. No matter how much you may plan for a festival, inevitably there will be moments where you’re flying by the seat of your pants, figuring out things as they come. But they work out how they’re meant to work out. Still, it was disappointing. And worse yet, I couldn’t make the Victoria-based band’s second set during the festival’s third night.
Because of the night’s reschedule, I wound up stopping at La Sala Rossa. Located diagonally across the street from Casa Del Popolo, La Sala Rossa features a performance space known for indie rock, jazz, cabaret, reggae, flamenco, film screenings, DJ nights and spoken word performances, and an eatery serving tapas and paellas. Much like Webster Hall and Bowery Ballroom, La Sala Rossa is a local historical and cultural treasure with a storied history: Built by Montreal’s left-wing Jewish community in the early 30s as a cultural/recreational/political center, the building once hosted Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt and a workmen’s circle during ‘40s and ‘50s.
The Centro Social Espanol has occupied the venue for the past 30 years or so, and they’ve maintained the building’s storied history as a cultural, political and recreational space – but this time for those of Spanish descent.
The first set I saw in the old, historic building was the Vancouver, British Columbia-born and-based pop artist Prado. Initially starting her career as an anonymous SoundCloud producer, the Vancouver-born and-based pop artist stepped out into the limelight as a solo artist, influenced by the likes of Bjork, Lil Uzi Vert, and Britney Spears. Live, the Vancouver-based artist’s set leaned heavily towards Top 40-like pop, delivered with the sort of self-assuredness, determination and verve that brought Lizzo to mind. And yet, admittedly, I wasn’t overly wowed by her. Much like Alex Bent and the Emptiness, I felt as though I was too old for the material to actually resonate with me – and that the material may have been strengthened with some live instrumentation behind her.
I went across the street to Casa Del Popolo to catch Sebastian Gaskin, an emerging Winnipeg, Manitoba-based R&B singer/songwriter and guitarist. With the release of his debut EP Contradictions, the Winnipeg-based artist has received attention and praise for crafting late night/early morning music featuring reverb-drenched soundscapes, thumping beats and melancholic melodies. Adding to a big year for Gaskin, his single “6am” landed at #1 on the National Indigenous Countdown.
Accompanied by a DJ, Gaskin’s live sound reminded me a bit of JOVM mainstays Nick Hakim and Daughn Gibson but with a decided hip-hop leaning, and a careful attention to razor sharp hooks. The end result was a rousingly crowd-pleasing set that had the room wanting more.
Because I had some time, I walked back across the street to catch Naya Ali, an Ethiopian-born, Montreal-based hip-hop artist, who burst into the local and national scene with the release of her debut single “Ra Ra,” “Ra Ra” received praise from the likes of VICE and was featured on Spotify’s new Music Friday Canada playlist, as well as a handful of Apple Music Playlists. The track also landed on the Canadian Viral Chart.
Building upon a growing profile, the Ethiopian-born, Montreal-based artist released her debut EP Higher Self last year. And with the release of “Get It Right” off her highly anticipated full-length debut, Naya Ali seems poised to be one of the province’s hottest new talents. Specializing in a contemporary and radio friendly sound, the rapidly rising Montreal-based artist’s sound draws equally from reggae and hip-hop but delivered with a forceful and self-assuredness of a determined and hungry young artist. And as a result, she quickly won over the crowd.
Out of the 6 or hip-hop artists I’ve seen, Naya Ali was one of small group of artists I could see truly making a name for herself Stateside. Partially, because her rhymes and lyrics were written and sung in English – but mainly because of her forceful presence.
My night ended back at Casa Del Popolo, where I caught the Saskatoon-based indie rock trio Close Talker. The Canadian indie rock act – Will Quiring, Matthew Kopperud and Chris Morien – have toured across North America and Europe while receiving praise from the likes of NPR, Billboard, Spin, Q Magazine and Consequence of Sound. Presumably centered around what has been considered their most confident effort to date, How Do We Stay Here?, the Saskatoon-based act’s set featured some slick, hook-driven material paired with plaintive vocals that reminded me quite a bit of Los Angeles-based act Hands – that is thoughtful, earnest and yet radio friendly.
After Close Talker’s set, I ran into a group of Americans and Canadians, (including some of the Americans I met a few hours earlier) and we wound up going to get a late-night meal at Larry’s, a bar and café a few blocks away. I had one of the best pork chops I’ve ever had in my life. Seriously. I then took an Uber back to my hotel, spent some time going through email and preparing for a 9:30AM networking event.
I desperately needed the pork chop, too. I wound up getting so fucked up that I somehow thought I lost my festival badge on three different occasions — only to find it in another pocket. Yeah, it was that kind of night.
Night 1 Winners: Sebastian Gasker, Naya Ali and Close Talker
Come back for my coverage of nights 2-4 of M for Montreal.
For photos from M for Montreal’s first day, check out the Flickr set here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJVy2Dw