As it does every year, M for Montreal’s 13th edition brought an array of local and international talent to one of North America’s most colourful music cities, with shows and industry keynotes going down over a span of four days. While snow and cold weather gave the festival an unfortunate early winter feel compared to previous years, it hardly slowed things down, as delegates from across the world – and local music fans, of course – converged onto the city’s numerous club venues and concert halls to celebrate once again just how much of a treasure Montreal’s music and arts scene is to this country’s cultural identity. Here’s a recap of the artists Northern Transmissions checked out this past week.
Partner: While this Windsor-via-New Brunswick duo have the slacker vibe down pat both in their lyrical content and aesthetic, Partner make simplistic but fun garage rock-driven tunes with an occasional power pop sheen to them – numbers like “Personal Weekend” and “Everybody Knows” are prime examples. Cracking jokes and playing tongue-in-cheek covers of “Crazy Train” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” midway through their opening night set at Sala Rossa on Wednesday, the duo of Josée Caron (vocals/lead guitar) and Lucy Niles (vocals/rhythm guitar) not only have a solid arsenal of short but sweet songs, but they clearly know how to let loose and have fun. M for Montreal did well to get the self-proclaimed “Lesbian Green Day” as a tone-setter for the festivities to come.
Hubert Lenoir: Despite being an absolute nightmare to take photos of due to his extremely dark lighting (the above picture is the best take this writer could get), this fast-rising 24-year-old glam rocker took Sala Rossa by storm Wednesday; jumping, boogying, and shimmying his way across the stage to classic rock and jazz-tinged tunes, with the crowd screaming and bouncing in kind. His arrival on Quebec’s musical landscape has been nothing short of astonishing – his three awards at the Gala de L’ADISQ and shortlist nomination for this year’s Polaris Music Prize only accentuate that – and the crowd sang his songs loudly and enthusiastically from the word go. As far as things you’d want in a rowdy festival-opening show, this one had everything: from wild antics (eg. him running through the crowd to dance on top of the bar); to entertaining stage banter (if you understand Quebec French, that is); to crowd surfing; to a screamed acapella cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, followed by an instrumental one of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In other words, completely bonkers. Not only did Lenoir set the bar high as far as charisma and showmanship at the festival, his set showcased the arrival of a unique, vibrant talent.
Thursday’s hip hop showcase at Club Soda: As M have done in recent years, concurrent showcases across the street from one another at Club Soda and Café Cléopâtre (yes, the strip club) went down once again for the 2018 edition of the festival – and just like last year, Club Soda’s event was focused squarely on local hip hop. The results here, however, were mixed. Franco emcee Rowjay performed to a receptive crowd with a solid cadence (albeit a French-language twist on the Migos triplet flow) and frequent audience interaction, but primarily over repetitive, run-of-the-mill trap songs. Zach Zoya followed him with mostly English tunes and a simultaneously rap and R&B-focused style, all the while significantly cranking up the energy level of the proceedings. With a fast delivery, bilingual banter and mosh pits being opened up, the 20-year-old native of Rouyn-Noranda puts a confident and charismatic spin on music that’s otherwise very of-the-moment. Fouki, meanwhile, brought things more or less back to what Rowjay started the night off with; jumping between a fast, aggressive flow and a somewhat Post Malone-esque one, delivering a modern trap sound en français with a decent amount of flair and conviction.
Thursday’s shows at Café Cléopâtre: On the other side of the coin was Café Cléopâtre, whose upstairs floor hosted an array of indie bands, including the Zephyr Bones; a Spanish-Chilean quartet with shades of post-punk and surf rock to their tunes – think Broncho and other such bands – and an emphasis on bass lines, ‘60s vibes and neat, pristine instrumentation. Saskatchewan’s Beach Body followed them around 11:45 p.m. with a decidedly sleepier and hazier feel to their equally surf-influenced music – and despite a dancing couple at the front getting invited to dance onstage with them, their set was sadly a sparsely-attended one.
Helena Deland: One of this city’s local talents garnering attention from outside the Montreal echo chamber is Helena Deland, the singer-songwriter who took to a packed Fairmount Theatre on Friday surrounded by tiny fake IKEA candles and a darkly lit, cozy atmosphere – a perfect recipe for her luminous, intricate musical output. Commanding the stage and her material extremely well both by herself and with her backing band, Deland’s poetic songwriting and Hope Sandoval/Cat Power-esque voice were a comfortable fit for the stage setup and the venue itself. Fellow local singer-songwriter Tess Roby also impressed earlier on with her ethereal and cerebral brand of art-pop and a smoky voice, in a set that also gave the crowd a much-needed kick in the ass as she was interrupted mid-song by an organizer who admonished those chit-chatting amongst themselves during her performance. “Thank you for listening, it makes a big difference,” she said after restarting and finishing the song. A little respect goes a long way.
Bodywash and Winona Forever: Those who stayed up super late on Friday were treated to an intimate show at L’Esco, first at 1 a.m. with local quintet Bodywash, whose heavy use of synths, guitars, ride cymbals and misty sonic textures fit nicely with both the bill and their time slot. The McGill alumni’s moody yet groove-driven dream pop/shoegaze style – creampop, as they call it – resonated nicely with the largely monochromatic red lighting of the venue and the homey feel of the basement bar venue. Around 2 a.m. came Vancouver-Montreal transplants Winona Forever, whose mildly jazzy and R&B-influenced material – not to mention several time signature changes and general left turns during songs – brought a distinct change of pace to the proceedings. While their music might get slapped with the “slacker rock” tag by some, it’s very groove-driven, and did well to keep the audience engaged by the time their set ended – at 2:40 a.m., no less.
Tanukichan: San Francisco’s Hannah van Loon, best known as Tanukichan, may have seemed like a somewhat unexpected opener for Kero Kero Bonito at Sala Rossa during this year’s festival’s closing night, but unlikely pairings can make surprisingly good bedfellows. Flanked by four bandmates and possessing a soft-sounding coo of a voice, her dreamy, shoegazey style (a bit of a theme at this year’s festival) hopped between drum machine-heavy bedroom pop and noisier, guitar-focused tunes – a somewhat more rock-imbued Sleigh Bells, if you will. Her bandmates may have unfortunately drowned her out most of the time, but van Loon’s set acted as a nice calm before KKB’s storm.
Kero Kero Bonito: When a band jumps into a punk rock intro as members are arriving onstage, chances are you’re in for an exciting show – and this one was that and then some. One of the most enigmatic and intriguing bands to arrive in the last few years, Kero Kero Bonito helped close out this year’s M for Montreal by bringing the Sala Rossa faithful a dose of unbridled joy, quirky and cute songs, and a couple death growls from frontwoman Sarah Midori Perry – not to mention some plush flamingos and alligators to boot. The Japanese-influenced band jump from electropop to rock to noise pop and many places in between, with many songs from throughout their young career – “Flamingo” in particular – commanding huge singalongs from the sold-out crowd. Bringing the members of Tanukichan back onstage during the encore to dance as KKB powered through “Trampoline”, the energy onstage and in the audience was on par with, if not better than, the benchmark Hubert Lenoir set on night one. With a musically and aesthetically diverse identity, as well as a rousing and straight-up fun live show, a bigger venue than Sala Rossa beckons next time they roll through town.
Words by Dave MacIntyre