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.
The festival’s first day featured a collection of emerging and rapidly rising Canadian acts that included synth pop act Alex Bent and The Emptiness, R&B/pop singer/songwriter Sebastian Gaskin, indie rock act Close Talker and rappers Naya Ali and Prado. The festival’s second day continued with a diverse array of acts that featured rising, Montreal-based queer synth pop artist Antony Carle; Montreal-based shoegazers Bodywash; Vancouver-based post-punk/dance punk/No Wave outfit N0V3L; Montreal-based pop artist Claudia Bouvette; and Montreal-based Japanese surf rockers TEKE: TEKE.
The festival’s third day was the second of its two longest days — and for me, it featured an incredibly nine sets across town.
Day 3/Night 3: November 22, 2019
Bootlegger L’Authentique: M for Montreal/Music PEI Hangover Brunch Showcase: Vince the Messenger, Russell Louder and Dylan Menzie
By the third day of a multi-venue, multi-day music festival, you’re most likely a hungover, sweaty, sleep-deprived mess with aching feet and knees – and maybe even a sore back. You’ve eaten unhealthy food – but goddamn it, it’s been good. You may have business cards from people you can’t remember meeting or having a conversation. And if there’s anyone you do remember, the circumstances to how you’ve met them or when you’ve met them have blurred. You might be in discomfort and even for a moment or two, wish you could sit down in a chair and not move for the next three years. But you’d do it again and again and again because you’re in a world of constant music. And maybe you’re a bit of a sadomasochist.
Interestingly, the festival’s third official day and night wound up being one of the busiest, longest and most exhausting of my entire time in Montreal: I was going to attend Music PEI (Prince Edward Island)– sponsored brunch showcase early that morning, which featured three of the Eastern Canadian province’s hottest, up-and-coming artists – Vince The Messenger, Russell Louder and Dylan Menzie. Bonsound, the acclaimed local indie label was hosting a happy hour at their offices in the Mile End neighborhood. I mean who can say no to free booze, right? After the happy hour, I planned to stop at La Sala Rossa to catch the Cameroonian-born, French-based singer/songwriter Blick Bassy. From there, I’d rush back downtown to Le National in Montreal’s Gay Village neighborhood to catch Corridor, the local conquering heroes. I’d return back to the Mile End neighborhood to catch local hip-hop at Le Belmont. The end result – 9 sets of music in which I saw hip-hop (both in English and French), electro pop, troubadour-styled rock and indie rock.
I hadn’t been sleeping much and because I was sleep deprived and somehow managed to enter the wrong address into Google Maps for the brunch showcase: instead of 3481 St. Laurent Blvd., I entered something like 3841 St. Laurent Blvd. I wound up walking almost three blocks past Bootlegger L’Authentique, the Victorian-era themed cocktail bar hosting the brunch showcase – and missing a song or two of the opener Vince The Messenger’s set. D’oh!
Now, as you may recall, the up-and-coming Etobicoke, Ontario-born, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island-based emcee Vince The Messenger’s solo career started in earnest with the release of last year’s full-length debut Self Sabotage, an effort that led to the Etobicoke-born, Charlottetown-based emcee being nominated for a New Artist of the Year Award and the album receiving an Urban Recording of the Year at this year’s Music PEI Awards. After catching the 22-year old Canadian emcee’s set last month, I can see why: his work is an effortless and seamless synthesis of golden era hip-hop boom bap, introspective and thoughtful lyricism based on personal experience and feelings and slick, modern production. And it’s all done in a way that – to my ears, at least – seems perfectly suited for Hot 97 and Power 105.1 while nodding at the likes of Kendrick Lamar and others.
Russell Louder is a transgender musician, producer, performance artist, curator, party-thrower and ringleader, whose thumping, electronic dance pop thematically explores the internal landscape of identity, grief and romance through a decidedly queer lens. Sonically, Louder’s slickly produced, shimmering synth-based material managed to remind me a bit of I Love You It’s Cool-era Bear in Heaven but with a radio friendly accessibility that reveals an ambitious and enthusiastic young artist, attempting to craft crowd pleasers that will take over the world.
Headlining the brunch showcase was Dylan Menzie. His latest release, As The Clock Rewinds has received attention nationally while further establishing a genre-blurring sound that possesses elements of folk, pop, rock and Americana. Live, Menzie’s work struck me as bearing a resemblance to Ben Folds, Guster and others but with a decided Top 40/Adult Alternative-leaning. In other words, the material revealed an attention to craft – but while not being particularly mind-blowing or adventurous.
La Sala Rossa: M for Montreal, Exclaim!, Le Bureau Export and What the France Present International Night: Blick Bassy Blick Bassy is a Cameroonian-born, French-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who started his professional career touring across his native Cameroon as a member of Macase for a decade. Winning the 2001 Prix Elysee Musique du Monde convinced Bassy to emigrate to Paris. After spending some time performing in s mall venues across town, the Cameroon-born. French signed a record deal for his first two albums – 2009’s Leman and 2011’s Hongo Calling. Blick rose to international prominence with 2015’s Akö, a critically applauded effort, which included “Kiki,” the theme song for the global launch of the iPhone 6. Interestingly Ako also quickly established Blick’s unique global spanning sound with the material drawing from the work of American bluesman Skip James, while featuring elements of bossa nova and several other African styles and genres. On the album, the Cameroonian-born, French-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist wrote and sang lyrics in the Cameroonian language of Bassa while accompanying himself on guitar and banjo. Since the release of Akö, Blick has been busy: he has contributed to two compilations – both released in 2017: Afrocentre (New African Trip) and A Nous Paris. He has also toured globally making festival appearances at Africa Utopia, WOMAD, Vancouver Folk Music Festival and of course, this year’s M for Montreal. His latest effort, 1958 was released earlier this year through acclaimed Parisian world music label Nø Førmat Records. 1958 is a defiant and loving tribute to the heroes who fought, bled and died for Cameroonian independence. Thematically the album focuses on the disastrous impacts colonialism and economic exploitation has had on his homeland and its people – but the material also touches upon profoundly universal themes that Blick briefly discussed during his M for Montreal set – the deep connection between one’s language and historical roots; the need for mythology and heroes; how history – and the knowledge of it – can help towards the search for identity; as well as the hope for a bright future centered around the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Performing a solo set in which he accompanied himself on guitar, the Cameroonian-born, French-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s set was an intimate and hushed affair that seemed to capture and transfix the crowd in a way that I haven’t seen since I caught Irish experimental pop act Cloud Castle Lake at Rockwood Music Hall last year. Much like album single “Ngwa,” Blick’s live set was an achingly gorgeous fever dream of loss and hope that brought Peter Gabriel and Bon Iver to mind.
Le National: M for Montreal and CISM 89.3 Presents: Corridor Located at the intersection of Rue Sainte Catherine and Rue Baudry in the heart of Downtown Montreal, Le National is yet another of the city’s historical and cultural treasures. Originally named The National Theater, the building can trace its origins to when legendary Montreal-born playwright, actor and director Julien Daoust founded it and built it along with architect Albert Sincennes and photographer A. Racette, as one of the first professional theaters for French speakers in North America. From what I’ve looked up on Wikipedia, Daoust’s dream for The National Theater was for it to be the creative and spiritual hub of a Quebecois theater, that attempted to reflect the community’s identity and ideals. Under the leadership of restauranteur and businessman Georges Gauvreau and actor Paul Cazenueve, The National Theater featured adaptations and translations of the period’s big Broadway hits, as well as productions of original work by a lengthy list of French-Canadian playwrights. Between 1936-1953, The National became famous for vaudeville and burlesque shows featuring the era’s best and most beloved performers. But once longtime director Rose “La Poune” Ouellette left, the building was turned into a movie theater – at one point showing Chinese and gay cinema. In 2006, the building was renamed Le National and since then, it has become a major venue for rock concerts – especially for French artists. Much like Chicago’s Vic Theatre, Webster Hall, Bowery Ballroom, Beacon Theatre, United Palace Theater, Kings Theatre and the Apollo Theater, you can practically feel the ghosts coming from the walls and floors. The rapidly rising Montreal-based indie rock quartet Corridor – comprised of longtime friends and collaborators Dominic Berthiaume (vocals/bass) and Jonathan Robert (vocals/guitar/synths) along with Julian Perreault (guitar) and Julien Bakvis (drums) – played a festival headlining set at the famed Le National. Now, as you may recall, the members of Corridor received attention across the Francophone indie world and elsewhere with 2017’s Supermercado, an album that was released to glowing praise from NPR and Vice, who referred to the album as “the best French record of 2017, 2018, 2018, 2019, 2020 2021 and even 2022 . . . ” Building upon a growing national and international profile, the Quebecois band toured across Europe last year and made their first Stateside appearances with sets at SXSW and Northside Festival. They also opened for Crumb on a sold-out Stateside tour, and have made appearances at London Calling Festival and La Villete Sonique Festival. Released earlier this year through Sub Pop Records, the Montreal-based JOVM mainstays’ third album Junior was the first Francophone album that the world renowned label has ever released. While continuing the band’s ongoing and highly successful collaboration with their friend, producer (and occasional roommate) Emmanuel Ethier, the album found the band jettisoning the languorous creative process of its predecessors – out of inspired necessity. As the story goes, although the members of the Montreal-based quartet had at the time, only recently signed to their label home, they had firmly committed themselves to releasing a new album worth of material every two years. And they fully intended on fulfilling their long-held commitment. Naturally, when the folks at Sub Pop heard this, they gently warned the band that if they wanted to release new material this fall, they needed to send the label a completed album by May 10. With the ink barely dried on the finalized record contract, the members of the band rushed into the studio and recorded Junior in an inspired blitz, finishing the album in mid-April. Six of the album’s 10 songs were conceived in a single weekend – with album closer “Bang” written the night before the session were to begin. Reportedly, the band’s Jonathan Robert wrote the song’s lyrics while panicking over the possibility of not being to properly finish what they started. Because of the quickened nature of the Junior sessions, the album’s material features fewer expansive jams and fewer overdubs. Even the album’s artwork managed to come about in the nick of time: in fact, in spite of other, more meticulous and gorgeous artwork they received as potential album art, Robert’s “shitty last-minute” collage of an egg saying hello was the one his bandmates approved. “Part of the beauty of the thing is that we didn’t have time to think about it,” the band’s Berthiaume says of the Junior recording sessions. Remember how I mentioned that I got lost earlier in the day because I transposed numbers in an address? Well, for some very odd reason when you enter Le National into Google Maps, it gives you the following address: The National Theater, 1220 Rue Ste. Catherine West However, if you go to the venue’s site, they give the following address: Le National, 1220 Rue Ste. Catherine East What’s the difference? 3 or 4 stops in the completely opposite direction! Thankfully, I figured it out and got to Le National with a few minutes to spare. And I was able to get to maneuver my way to the front for photographs. Talk about luck, eh? The JOVM mainstays M for Montreal set was a nearly two-hour, career-spanning set, which also included a great deal of songs off Junior. Playing what may have been the arguably one of the biggest venues and shows of the past year, the band was in front of a passionate set of diehard local fans, who were intimately familiar with the band and every song of the band’s growing catalog. Speaking of passionate fans, check this out: during their set, an older heterosexual couple – I’d say they were maybe in their late 50s or early 60s – managed to move up to the front of the house fairly early on in the set. The man had a camera and was excitedly taking pictures and videos of the set. Was he and his wife, the parents of someone in the band? I haven’t a clue. At one point, the man had asked me to do something in French. I couldn’t understand a word he said. And we’re at a loud rock show! Was there anyone, who could hear anything besides the band? The older man went over to a young man behind me, who could clearly understand and speak French. The next thing I saw was this young French speaking man, lift the older man’s wife up over his shoulders. And within a beat, the woman was crowd surfing. The crowd happily passed her around most of the woman, before someone gingerly helped her down. If I can have that kind of fun at her age, I think I would have lived a full and interesting life! The band wound up rising to the challenge, playing what may have been the most energetic and passionate shows I’ve seen them play with the band’s Dominic Berthiaume figuratively bouncing off the walls throughout while Jonathan Robert shimmied and bopped during each expressive guitar line, as strobe lights flashed like fireworks in front of us. Along with that, the material somehow was larger, almost arena rock friendly with the band balancing between road tested tightness and loose, expansive jamminess, which added to their material’s seemingly effortless nature without eschewing its shimmering beauty. Songs like “Topographe,” “Pow,” album title track “Junior” “Goldieand Domino” among many others subtly reveal a wide range of influences: a bit of post punk here, a little bit of XTC there, a little bit of The Beatles over there, maybe a smidge of The Beach Boys back there. With some deft craftmanship and musicianship, they mischievously dip and dabble over a wide course of guitar music styles to create something surprisingly new yet dimly familiar. Before I went to Montreal, I would have told you that Corridor’s Union Pool setwas one of the best live sets I’ve seen this year. There’s a different energy in a small club, when everyone seems to quietly acknowledge that you’re all seeing the sort of band that legitimately has a chance to get so big that you’ll never see them play in a small room ever again. But when you see that same band play material you’ve been obsessed with for some time, with an ambitious arena rock fashion in their hometown, which was also part of a brief escape from a year that was difficult personally and emotionally, and it gave their set a much different feeling. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
Le Belmont: M for Montreal/Franz Nights: Willygram, GrandBuda, Rowjay, David Lee and Tizzo After Corridor’s amazing set at Le National, I limped as quickly as I could across the street to catch an Honoré-Beaugrand-bound Green Line Metro a couple of stops to the Berri-UQAM stop for an Orange Line Metro to Mont Royal Station. Besides the local indie rock champions, I was looking most forward to catching local hip-hop at a late-night M for Montreal and Franz Nights co-hosted showcase at Le Belmont. Once known as dive bar popular amongst Montreal’s college student aged scene, Le Belmont, on the corner of St Laurent Blvd. and Mont Royal Blvd. West, in the city’s Little Portugal section is now an extremely popular club and lounge, best known for hosting a variety of events including DJ nights, parties, burlesque shows, live music and for its hip-hop nights featuring both locally known and nationally known artists. It doesn’t matter if it’s here in New York or while I’m traveling, I look up reviews of restaurants, bars and clubs I’m unfamiliar with. I’ve frequently had issues with bouncers and security at a wide range of places. Racism is infuriating and dumb. White supremacy is and how it infiltrates your every thought and action is heartbreaking and even more infuriating. Let me give you a memorable and very odd example: Years ago, I was covering a CMJ showcase hosted and sponsored by a dear friend and her publicity company. She went all out. We’re talking about swag bags with some really cool stuff. (I still have and use the tote bag from that showcase!) There was this one guy, a white guy, who was fucked up out of his mind on molly. He was acting strangely. And by strange, I mean strange for New Yorkers. What I mean by this is that he was fucking bonkers: he spent a set spinning and skipping around the room while flapping his arms about like a bird with a broken wing. Most people will either ignore it or they’ll shake their heads and laugh at the poor insane bastard, who someone thought he was a bird. But he swerved into the obnoxious, please punch me in my jaw territory, once he started to touch people who didn’t want to be touched by him – and by getting into people’s personal space. The crowd became restless and visibly uncomfortable. Expressions turned to “Yo, what the fuck, dude?” and “What’s this guy on?” My friend does the right thing: She informs security that there’s a guy who’s causing problems – and that he needs to go, right away. What was security’s response? They approach me! The brother, who was working the show, taking photos and not actually bothering anyone with obnoxious behavior. Why? Because I’m a brother and I must be up to no good. That’s why. I’m pretty sure that I looked at my friend with an expression that must have read “Please, not this. Not now. Not like this.” She quickly put her arm around me and said to security “No! Not him! He’s with me. He’s with me.” She then pointed at our obnoxious and very high villain of the story and said “Him. That guy.” Of course, other equally fucked up things have happened. But as you can imagine, I want to be armed with as much information as I could, to avoid as many ridiculous situations as humanly possible. What I can say about Le Belmont is this: it’s one of the worst clubs I’ve ever been in. The temperature that night was about 20º F and they had a long line of people patiently waiting. As a New Yorker, I’m not waiting on a line for more maybe 20-30 minutes if it’s that cold. And if wasn’t for the fact that I ran into someone rather influential, who pulled the ill flex on the staff, I would have wound up in a warm bar someplace else. Once you got in, they seemed to have a profoundly confusing set up: the coat check, security pat down and ID check were all way too close to each other, and if you added people wanting to leave, it led to choked up passageways and confusion. It would be one thing if the club was packed to the rafters, but it wasn’t. So, I don’t understand what the hold-up us was. And I don’t understand why anyone would wait longer than 30 minutes in the freezing cold – especially when there are plenty of other places to go nearby. Because the drinking age in Canada is like 19, the Le Belmont crowd was incredibly young, the crowd consisted of a bunch of extremely immature, very white posers, who seemed to be Montreal’s equivalent of New York’s dreaded bridge and tunnel crowd. I had young dipshits trample all of my stuff and try to push me out of their way for pictures and selfies, despite the fact that I had been there before them. And admittedly, it took everything within me to not punch a teenager in the face. I’m ridiculously flat-footed. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve dealt with painful bouts of plantar fasciitis. By the time, I got to Le Belmont, I had limped around town for close to a full day. I planned on muscling through as much as I could before collapsing in pain – but what I desperately wanted was a chair. My kingdom for a chair! So, as you can imagine I wasn’t particularly thrilled when I realized that the showcase was running noticeably behind. And with each set averaging 20-30 minutes, it made things difficult to figure out for the first few minutes: during the first set, I briefly thought that Willygram was David Lee. Luckily, I was able to figure it out or it would have made this lengthy post even more confusing! Willygram is a young, up-and-coming Montreal-based emcee, who primarily rhymed in French over enormous, tweeter and woofer rocking beats, big hooks and trap-like production. He was one of the most energetic artists of the showcase, jumping into the crowd a few times to start up a boisterous mosh pit – and at another point, jumping into someone’s selfie. Interestingly, his set began a string of extremely contemporary hip-hop that wouldn’t be out of place on Hot 97, Power 105.1 and Z100. My tastes lean more towards more underground and indie hip-hop, what I will say is that Willygram’s set did feature a couple of crowd pleasuring bangers, which perfectly complimented a dexterous and self-assured flow.
GrandBuda is a Montreal-based emcee and producer and one of the night’s rare artists who rhymed in English and Spanish. Much like his immediate predecessor, his sound generally leaned towards the slickly produced, trap-inspired stuff you’d hear on Hot 97, Power 105.1, Z100 and others but with a subtle old school bent to his flow – but unlike Willygram, the material seemed to be centered around some pop-leaning ambition: his set featured one song with Spanish lyrics and while it reminded me of hip-hop’s universality, it felt gimmicky to me, like a terrible synthesis of Pitbull, Drake and Action Bronson. He also had a more dance floor friendly song with a radio friendly hook that was meant to be a bold new take on his sound, but it flopped with a dull thud to me. His flow didn’t fit the song and as a result, it felt cynical, uninspired and calculated. It’s a shame because he has some bars and some actual talent. Personally, I’d prefer if he did more of the trap-leaning, radio friendly material – or went in a more underground, old-school inspired direction.
Rowjay proudly hails from the Saint-Léonard section of Montreal. When I was doing my initial research into the festival and figuring out who and what I’d cover, this guy really caught my attention. His most recent effort Hors Catégorie EP finds the acclaimed local emcee spitting insanely dexterous bars in French – with some smattering of English – over trap-like production and tweeter and woofer rocking bass with the self-assuredness of a burgeoning superstar. Live, he didn’t disappoint, proving that he may be one of the city’s most polished rap artists – and more important, an artist that I think should get more attention outside of the Francophone world.
David Lee is Montreal-based artist, who has firmly established himself as a key figure in the city’s Anglophone hip-hop scene. Playing several hundred shows across Montreal and the province, Lee has built up a reputation for energetic live show; in fact, he has toured with the province’s two biggest contemporary hip-hop acts Loud and Rymz. His sophomore solo album Tears Off Joy manages to further cement his reputation for a genre-defying take on hip-hop that draws from R&B, pop and punk rock. And while he played an energetic set with some guest artists, I wasn’t impressed. When he did more street hip-hop like material, it seemed both incredibly phony and downright corny in a way that felt like a suburban kid playing a role. It was shameful and awful.
Tizzo is a Haitian Canadian rapper, who grew up in the Habitations Meunier Tolhurst in the city’s Ahuntsic section. With the release of his debut mixtape Tu Sais Vol 1., the Haitian Canadian rapper quickly received attention in the city’s Francophone underground scene. Since then, he’s been incredibly prolific, releasing three follow-up mixtapes in 2018 alone – 51tr4p Fr4p50, Fouette Jean-Baptiste and Zowlloween. This year has seen Tizzo release two more attention-grabbing mixtapes, Fouette St. Patrick and his most recent effort, Canicule, Vol. 1. While his recorded material isn’t as polished and refined as some of his predecessors, live Tizzo and his crew performed it with high energy and the self-assuredness of a road-tested unit. Unfortunately, I only caught about half of the rapidly rising emcee’s M for Montreal set; by the time Tizzo got on stage, my knees and hurt so much that I felt like I just couldn’t continue. However, whether recorded or live, his material, which was also centered around tweeter and woofer rocking, trap-like production revealed an uncanny resemblance to Lil’ Jon and the crunk-era sound – and all of the songs I caught were just straight bangers.
Day 3/Night 3 Winners: Vince The Messenger, Blick Bassy, Corridor, Rowjay and Tizzo
Come back for my coverage of day 4 of M for Montreal.
M for Montreal/Music PEI Hangover Brunch Showcase: Vince the Messenger, Russell Louder and Dylan Menzie at Bootlegger L’Authentique Photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJWcHXi
M for Montreal, Exclaim!, Le Bureau Export and What the France Present International Night: Blick Bassy at La Sala Rossa Photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJW5LaX
M for Montreal and CISM 89.3 Presents Corridor at Le National Photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJWzMsj
M for Montreal/Franz Nights: Willygram, GrandBuda, Rowjay, David Lee and Tizzo at Le Belmont Photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJWMnVr