Within Montreal’s diverse, vibrant and admittedly crowded festival culture, M for Montreal always manages to stand out. Despite being held at a time of year when festival fatigue has long-afflicted many Montrealers, it’s nonetheless managed to cement a reputation as a breeding ground for local artists, as well as a platform for non-Montreal artists to make an impression on local music fans.
While this year’s instalment of the festival lacked some of the more recognizable acts of years past (for example, ODESZA in 2017 and Kero Kero Bonito the following year), this year’s edition still had some entertaining and unique performances on deck throughout. Here’s our day-by-day recap of M for Montreal’s 2019 edition.
Thursday, November 20: The opening night of M mainly involved running across the street in chilly weather between Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo — both of which are among the city’s very best, and most intimate, venues. I managed to get in to a Casa show technically only reserved for delegates, and bore witness to a bluesy R&B artist (Sebastian Gaskin) and warm, fuzzy indie rockers (Close Talkers), both of whom showed clear signs of talent and substance despite being a mismatch with each other.
Meanwhile, Sala’s first showcase of the week included several female artists on the same bill — each of which brought distinctive styles to the table, even if the performances were of varying heights. While B.C. native Prado appeared to miss the mark with high notes vocally and couldn’t always stay on time with the music, local rap artist Naya Ali made up for it by commanding the stage with swagger, confidence and an energetic delivery over modern trap beats. Finally, local francophone artist Lydia Képinski made sure to leave her own impression on the evening, with a dark, witchy, ‘80s-inspired synthpop/new wave sound; some serious dance moves; a stage surrounded by CO2 fog; and even a trip all the way to the bar at the back of the venue, bringing her performance to the top of the counter.
Friday, November 21: The fact that M for Montreal hosts shows at local strip club Café Cléopâtre will never not be hilariously awesome. It also makes a solid venue for smaller-scale shows, even if the crowd can get a bit sardine-like. While this was indeed the case on Friday (especially since the show was free), they certainly showed up for an interesting bill. Local five-piece Bodywash performed a set full of dreamy, shoegazey indie rock with male-female dual vocals and reverb-soaked guitars; Vancouver’s NOV3L, whose name might sound like that of an EDM producer, but whose music is largely a Talking Heads-inspired hybrid of post-punk and dance punk; and TEKE::TEKE, a Montreal-based, surf rock-inspired Japanese rock act featuring a trombonist and a flautist. Eat your heart out, Lizzo.
While SAT opening act Soran brought underwhelmingly paint-by-numbers, funk-inflected pop rock to the table, the marquee act were local heroes Busty and the Bass, who have gone from their days as a popular McGill band to establishing themselves as mainstays in the local scene. The jazzy hip hop/electro-soul collective have always done a standup job of commanding a crowd’s attention, so much so that they’re arguably better suited for bigger concert halls like Club Soda rather than the standing-room-only SAT — particularly with the more upbeat tunes in their repertoire.
Saturday, November 22: This night got off to a bit of a rough start for me, as I wasn’t able to make it to local Sub Pop signees Corridor’s show at Le National, and was turned away from Nap Eyes at L’Escogriffe thanks to the venue being at capacity. Thus, I headed to Le Belmont for their hip hop showcase, where local emcees rapping in both official languages took to the stage. Some of the artists taking the mic showed flashes of brilliance, even if not necessarily groundbreaking (GrandBuda and David Lee), and others brought a blend of Southern trap and Quebecois slang that came across more irritating than interesting (Rowjay). In other words, it was a mixed bag. I also found myself drinking a shot of Jameson with a group of random strangers, one of whom proceeded to tip the bartender 10 times what he’d paid for the drinks. Hey, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?
Sunday, November 23: 2019’s edition of M for Montreal came full circle on this year’s final night, as I spent the entirety of it once again hopping between Sala and Casa. At Sala, two artists opted to have their equipment set up in the middle of the crowd rather than on stage (with an extremely psychedelic backdrop on a projector adjacent to them), and it worked out rather well in both cases. London, ON-based group WHOOP-Szo brought a unique brand of sludgy, fuzzy take on psychedelic alternative rock with hints of grunge everywhere. Meanwhile, a few years after Israeli musician Yonatan Gat played his own show in the middle of the crowd, his former drummer Gladys Lazer took to Sala Rossa with the exact same setup — and an impressive set full of technically complex drumming, weird time signatures, and experimental, genre-bending rhythms.
Across the street, PEI’s Russell Louder brought some ‘80s-flavoured experimental pop to a fairly packed Casa, with glitter, drum machines and a heavy use of falsetto also very much part of the mix. However, Odonis Odonis would close the night out in style back at Sala, with their heavy, industrial brand of electronic music being a well-executed hodgepodge of Nine Inch Nails-esque distortion, screaming, menacing drum beats and dark synths. All this to say, it was further proof why M for Montreal is a unique showcase for unique music, and why Montreal is an incredible (and incredibly appropriate) host city for it.
review by Dave Macintyre