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 arguably the busiest day I’ve had of any festival I’ve ever covered as included a Music PEI (Prince Edward Island) and M for Montreal co-sponsored Brunch showcase that featured rising emcee Vince The Messenger, dance pop artist Russell Louder and singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dylan Menzie; acclaimed Cameroonian born-French based singer/songwriter and guitarist Blick Bassy; critically applauded Francophone indie rock act Corridor; and an M for Montreal and Franz Nights co-sponsored hip-hop showcase featuring Montreal-based rappers Willygram, GrandBuda, Rowjay, David Lee, and Tizzo.
Of course, as we all know, all good things must come to an end. So we move on to the festival’s fourth and final day.
Night 4: November 23, 2019
L’Escogriffe Café Bar: M for Montreal and CDBaby Present: Ponteix, Clay and Friends and Foreign Diplomats
My last day in Montreal began in a rather low-key fashion: I went downstairs with my laptop and headphones for breakfast, several cups of coffee and work. I had wanted to do a little bit of sight-seeing: I knew that Hotel Monville was about a ten-minute walk from Notre Dame Basilica. I wanted to see the second of the city’s two Leonard Cohen murals. And I wanted to eat a smoke meat sandwich. Once, I was finished with that, I had to stop at a CD Baby Canada sponsored happy hour before I started covering the festival’s last night.
Located on the corner of Notre Dame Street West and Saint Sulpice Street in the Old Montreal section, Notre Dame Basilica is one of the most visited monuments in North America with over 11 million visitors entering though its doors annually. And although I’ve been an atheist for most of my life, the church’s interior is breathtakingly beautiful: the church’s vaults are painted in deep blue and decorated with golden stars. The rest of the sanctuary is in blues, azures, reds, purples, silver and gold. And unusual for a church, its stained-glass windows depict scenes from Montreal’s religious history rather than traditional biblical scenes.
I sat in one of the pews long enough to hear two different sightseeing tours – one in English for some Mexican travelers and other one in French. But I managed to do so while admiring the immensity of the church’s vaulted ceilings, the gorgeous arrangement of colors. Others sat in prayer or in contemplation. Considering the fractiousness, hatred, vapidity and fury of our world, such moments of pure peace seem so necessary.
Realizing that the sun was going to set, I limped my way over to the Place d’Armes Orange Line Metro for a Cté-Vertu-bound train to Lucien L’Allier, which is also the stop for the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, who were coincidentally playing my New York Rangers that same night. From the Lucien L’Allier stop, it was about a 10- minute walk to the city’s second Leonard Cohen mural at 1420 Crescent Street in the Shaughnessy Village section of downtown Montreal.
Set on the side of a rather unassuming apartment building, the Shaughnessy Village Leonard Cohen Mural takes up 10,000 square feet. So, it’s fucking enormous – and it captures the legendary singer/songwriter in remarkable detail.
I was desperate to have a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Deli. I limped along to a Honoré-Beaugrand-bound Green Line Metro stop at Guy-Concordia. I got off at Saint Laurent and transferred for a 55 bus up Saint Laurent Blvd.
When I got there, there was a line out the door. While waiting, a colleague I had met at the festival walked past me with his wife. I managed to get his attention and I’m glad I did. He had grown up in Montreal and he informed me that Main Deli Steak House across the street was actually much better. Plus, there wasn’t any line. He wasn’t wrong. The smoked meat reminded me of old Jewish delis back in New York.
Located near the corner of Mont Royal Avenue East and Rue Saint Denis, in Montreal’s Plateau Mont Royal section, L’Escogriffie Bar Spectacle is a small, dimly lit, subterranean bar in the basement of a building that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Park Slope, Brooklyn brownstone. If you weren’t paying attention or was on the wrong side of the street, you’d likely pass the joint and not realize it.
Since its opening in 2000, L’Escogriffe has been known for cheap drink specials and for hosting some of the region’s and country’s emerging live acts. Much like the handful of venues I visited, the Plateau Mont Royal-based bar and music venue attracts a very young crowd. But it may have been one of the most enthusiastic and hungry for live music I had been around in a few days.
The fourth night of M for Montreal was the second consecutive day of intense pain in my feet and knees. Instead of rushing to the front of the room to photograph the showcase’s three sets of music featuring Ponteix, Clay and Friends and Foreign Diplomats, I sat down in a booth, towards the middle of the room. My feet and knees desperately needed it; but as a result, there wasn’t any photos.
Opening the CDBaby and M for Montreal showcase was the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based act Ponteix. Live, the act’s material featured a deliberately crafted sound centered around shimmering synth arpeggios, expansive, genre-defying song structures – and while bringing bands like Coldplay, Theodore, M83, Cut Copy and others, the songs featured lyrics sung in English and French.
“I’m the Rambler,” the refrain of the set’s third song was one of more memorable songs of the hook-driven set. Featuring an infectious hook that had many of the young women of the audience swaying, the song – to my ears – nodded at Nothing Like the Sun-era Sting. While possessing a radio friendly accessibility, the material was surprisingly sophisticated and as a result, I was really won over.
Clay and Friends is a Montreal-based act – Mike Clay (vocals), Adel Kazi (production, beatbox), Clément Langlois-Légaré (guitar, production), Pascal Boisseau (bass) and Émile Désilets (clavier, piano) — which specializes in a sound that meshes elements of hip-hop, soul, funk and poetry. Since 2015, the act has developed a reputation for a high-energy live set, featuring improvised and organic jams, beatboxing and samples that they’ve brought to audiences across their native Canada and the European Union.
The band’s initial batch of recorded material – 2017’s full-length debut Conformopolis and its English-language follow-up La Musica Popular de Verdun – have amassed over 4 million streams. Building upon a growing profile nationally, the band’s forthcoming French language EP Grouilades is slated for a January 31, 2020 release. While sonically, their set began with a warmly familiar neo-soul meets thumping old-school hip-hop sounding song. During the set’s first song, it seemed as though their frontman Mike Clay was having trouble hearing himself: to my ears, it seemed as though he was about half a beat to a full beat off. Live shows are weird and imperfect things; it happens. But I had some initial hope that the set would get better – that was dashed by the set’s second song, a song that began a run of terrible, pandering material that mimicked some of the soulless and terrible tendencies of the likes of Black Eyed Peas – with corny crowd involvement sequences. And the oddest thing was that the crowd was excitedly lapping it up; at one point they even demanded an undeserved encore.
Interestingly, the encore set was the best part of the set – perhaps because it was completely improvised and better captured the band’s spirit.
Foreign Diplomats is a rapidly rising Montreal-based indie rock/indie pop act, comprised Émile Raymond (vocals, guitar), Antoine Lèvesque-Roy (bass), Thomas Bruneau Faulbert (trombone, synths), Charles Primeau (guitar) and Emmanuel Vallieres (drums). With the release of 2013’s self-titled EP and two albums – 2015’s Brian Deck-proeduced Princess Flash and their most recent effort, the Jace Lasek-produced MONAMI, the members of the rapidly rising Montreal-based act have developed a reputation for crafting an anthemic, dance floor friendly take on the familiar post punk sound.
Building upon a growing profile, the act has opened for an impressive array of artists including the legendary Violent Femmes, Phantogram, Teenage Fanclub, Vance Joy and Half Moon Run. They’ve also played a number of festivals across the international festival circuit including Reeperbahn, Palèo, Les Primeurs, Cervantino, Osheaga, Montreal Jazz and Festival d’ètè de Quebec among others. Live, the Canadian indie rock quintet reminded me quite a bit of Interpol and Editors but with more of an emphasis on shimmering synth arpeggios, overwrought vocals, and big, dance floor friendly hooks. While Ponteix’s sound was more cinematic and contemplative, Foreign Diplomats’ had the sort of sound that would have worked in a much bigger room.
Seeing a commercially successful act in an intimate room like L’Escogriffe is a novel experience but admittedly, I wasn’t wildly impressed because they were drawing from a familiar playbook; in fact, I’m sure I’ve seen at least 10 bands with a similar sound in New York in the last five or six months, alone.
Unfortunately, after about four songs in, I had to head to La Sala Rossa for the M for Mothland/M for Montreal showcase at La Sala Rossa. Although it’s normally about a 10-12-minute walk from L’Escogriffe to La Sala Rossa, everything at that juncture was incredibly slow going – and it might take me twice as much.
If you’ve survived this far within a four-day festival, you’re delirious from sleep deprivation and pain. You are pain. Pain is you. A small part of your mind accepts that you may never not feel that kind of pain again. But like a marathoner, you’re going to make sure you get to that finish line. You may literally die at the finish line, but goddamn it, you’ve finished. (Wild yet true story: While I was sitting down at L’Escogriffe, I felt pain radiating out of my legs and feet and into the floor. That’s never happened to me before!)
La Sala Rossa: M for Montreal/ M for Mothland, Phase 1: WHOOP-Szo, Atusko Chiba, Gladys Lazer and Odonis Odonis
The last showcase of my M for Montreal was co-hosted by M for Montreal and Mothland. Mothland is a Canadian booking agency that books and hosts psych rock shows across Canada – and is central to the country’s psych rock scene. Interestingly, as the agency says on its website, they consider themselves more than just a booking agency – but as a sort of extradimensional space, a frame of mind and more importantly, as a tight-knit family sharing new sounds, colors and textures through multiple art forms and unique events from Halifax toVancouver.
Although its members are split between London, Ontario and Guelph, Ontario, the acclaimed DIY experimentalists WHOOP-Szo consists of a core lineup that is led by Adam Sturgeon (voice, guitar), who is a proud member of the indigenous Anishinaabe community, along with Kirsten Kurvink Palm (guitar, synths, vocals), Joe Thorner (bass, vocals, Casio), Andrew Lennox (12 string guitar, synth), Eric Lourenco (drums) and a rotating cast of collaborators, the act have developed a reputation for enthusiastically crossing and meshing genres, sounds and styles. And as a result, their sound is a wild fusion of folk, metal, pop, grunge, classical, psych rock and noise. Thematically, their work often focuses and touches upon the effects of colonialism and colonization, self-determination, language and history, civil unrest and the like.
Along with relentless touring across North America, they’re also known for their passion for social work and activism in their hometowns, as well as elsewhere: the band has helped in the creation of an Inuit Youth silkscreen apprenticeship program in Salluit, Quebec and workshops on Solidarity Through Art in Kingsclear, First Nation, New Brunswick among others.
Their M for Mothland/M for Montreal set featured the band as a trio. Their gear, a complicated set up of synths and keyboards, guitars and drums were set up on a circular platform in the middle of the floor, while trippy projections were beamed on to a wall on the far side of the room. The set-up allowed the musicians to communicate with each other much easier, leveled the playing field between musicians and audience, while giving the affair a decided level of intimacy. (It also allowed everyone in the room to actually see everything, including the band’s interactions with each other.)
WHOOP-Szo’s M for Motthland/M for Montreal showcase set meshing pummeling heavy metal, expansive prog rock and psych rock with enormous riffage and an uncanny sense of melodicism Unlike the other 25 of the other sets I saw during M for Montreal, their live set felt like improvised versions of their recorded material. While reminding those in attendance that they’re Canada’s champions of genre-defying, difficult to pigeonhole sounds that are morph and shift endlessly, it gave the set a mind-bending, hallucinogenic air.
With the release of their sophomore album, Trace earlier this year, the Montreal-based act Atsuko Chiba further cemented a genre-defying sound that possesses elements of prog rock, psych rock, post-rock, Brit Pop, shoegaze and rap metal – and in a way that brings several different acts to mind simultaneously: Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd, At the Drive In, The Mars Volta and even a little bit of Rage Against the Machine. So much like the showcase’s predecessor, the material was centered about power chord based riffage, enormous, arena rock hooks, expansive, mind-bending song structures.
The band’s live shows find them combining sound with live-triggered projections to create immersive, multi-sensorial environments: their M for Mothland/M for Montreal showcase found the band playing in front of a wildly psychedelic collage of exploding colors and imagery. (After catching them live, it wasn’t surprising to learn that they’ve shared stages with the likes of . . . And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, 65daysofstatic, Caspian, Duchess Says. Tricot, Indian Handcrafts, If These Trees Could Talk, Alarmist, Arms and Sleepers and Little Tybee among a list of others.)
Live, the band revealed some incredibly dexterous musicianship and a high energy performance that made me headbang – well, as hard as I could without knocking my glasses off my face.
Gal Lazer is a drummer, composer and singer/songwriter, best known for his work with acclaimed Israeli-born, psych rock guitarist and composer Yonathan Gat. Lazer is also the creative mastermind behind the solo recording project Gladys Lazer. Lazer’s debut EP Candy World/Bye Past was recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the countryside of Southwestern Georgia. Interestingly, the EP’s eight compositions find the Tel Aviv-born drummer dabbling in and meshing breakbeat, post-jazz, No Wave, trip-hop, electro pop, avant-garde jazz and experimental music. Much like WHOOP-Szo, Lazer, who was accompanied by a guitarist, performed in the circular platform in the middle of the room, which gave the audience an intimate look into the performers’ innate simpatico and communication.
Lazer’s live set sonically reminded me of 70s jazz fusion – particularly, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, as well as J. Dilla, Flying Lotus and even L’Eclair but with a trippy, trance-inducing vibe reminiscent of some of the artists on Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records.
Since the release of their debut effort, 2011’s Hollandaze, the Toronto-based electronic act Odonis Odonis – Constantin Tzenos and Denholm Whale – have developed a reputation for pushing their sound even further into the depths of noisy industrial-leaning experimentation. Interestingly, the Toronto-based act’s most recent work, 2017’s No Pop and this year’s Reaction EP finds the act moving towards a starker, more doom-laden sound – and while arguably being some of the most dance floor friendly material in their growing catalog.
Their live set was one of the loudest and most forceful sets of the entire festival with their sound – live, at least – reminding me of the punishing yet textured work of Nine Inch Nails and Blanck Mass an the infectiously anthemic hooks of Is This Hyperreal?-era Atari Teenage Riot.It’s the sound of the apocalypse: menacing, darkly seductive and propulsive. Dancing through the pain in my feet and knees, I was a sweaty and satiated mess. Sounds like a good way to end a festival to me!
Night 4 Winners: Pontiex, WHOOP-Szo, Atsuko Chiba, Gladys Lazer and Odonis Odonis
Statistics/Some Interesting Numbers
Time Spent in Montreal: 5 days/4 nights
Venue I was at the most: La Sala Rossa 3 times.
Most sets in a single night: 9
Poutines eaten: 2. I wanted more but just didn’t have enough time. I did discover that a large La Scooby Poutine from La Banquise can provide 3 nights of leftovers. Also, that poutine was some of the best food I’ve ever had in my entire life.
Smoked Meat Sandwiches: 1. There was a line at Schwartz’s Deli. Shoutout to Eric De Fontenay for recommending Main Dail across the street. The Main Deli’s smoked meat reminded me of Ben’s Deli. (As the song says, “New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down . . . “)
Guinness: 4. I wasn’t in a lot of places that sold that beautiful elixir I love so much; however, I had a lot of other booze – primarily wine. And I lost count of how much wine I had. In any case, free booze is the best kind of booze.
Nights in which I was fucked up: 1.
Lens caps lost: 1.
Hours of sleep: About 9. I lived on caffeine, adrenaline, poutine, music, the excitement of being in a new country and new city – and pain. God, I’ve never felt such pain in my entire life.
Miles Walked: 29.3. (This is why my feet and knees hurt so much.)
Crowd Surfers Seen: 1. That one person was in her sixties. I hope to be her when I grow up.
It was all worth it. Je T’aime Montreal. Je T’aime. I’ll return I promise.
For photos from M for Montreal’s 4th Day, check out the Flickr set here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJWXXmV