POP MONTREAL at various venues in Montreal. October 5-8. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Montreal - Deep down, I knew the honeymoon had to end someday.
The Pop Montreal fest may have started as an anti-establishment, grassroots-to-the-max endeavour orchestrated by a handful of hardcore music geeks who wanted to celebrate their city's then under-the-radar indie scene and challenge corporate monopolies, but five years in, the laissez-faire ethos is starting to show some cracks.
Pop is still geared more toward actual music fans and artists than pretty much any other Canadian rock fest. But bolstered by international hype for the semi-fictionalized burgeoning Montreal music scene, oversaturation and overcrowding are becoming considerable problems. While it has yet to reach the CMJ low, wherein access to popular gigs is contingent on how many doorpeople you know, that possibility lies somewhere in the not-too-distant future.
To the organizers' credit, they did institute the clever strategy of allowing certain pass holders to RSVP in advance for mega-shows like Thursday's Joanna Newsom gig and Saturday's Mighty Sparrow throwdown. But folks who wren't that organized had a snowball's chance in hell of checking out the hot tickets. Not such a bad thing, since it meant searching out underexposed gigs by unknowns rather than going for the sure bets.
The most interesting thing about the fest, in contrast to CMW and NXNE, was the substantial focus on hiphop. In addition to including Kool Keith 's Dr. Octagon performance in the Pop package, programmers seem to have done some healthy outreach to try to make the festival more appealing to rap fans. Thursday night's gig by Parisian crew TTC at Club Soda was rammed (we wouldn't've made it in without the help of a friendly Ninja Tune honcho) with good reason: there's something exhilarating about watching a crowd of franco-freaks wave their hands in the air while listening to rhymes delivered in their mother tongue.
Admittedly, maybe 1/27th of the faces in the crowd at every hiphop gig belonged to people of colour. Part of that had to do with the type of beatmakers and MCs performing - backpack-friendly folks who'd make more sense opening for Death Cab than G-Unit, like Cadence Weapon , for example, whose name is rarely mentioned without a "future of Canadian hiphop" title trailing it like a piece of toilet paper. Friday at Club Lambi , Edmonton-born Rollie Pemberton teased the crowd by darting on- and offstage for 15 minutes before starting his set.
Those who doubt the dude's talents should see Cadence Weapon live at least once. Though the flows on his Breaking Kayfabe disc can be a bit monotonous, often too heavily based on the same cadence (sorry) and black-kid-tryin'-to-keep-it-real-in-whiter-than-white-Edmonton subject matter, and marred by lacklustre production, Pemberton takes things to the next level onstage. He's animated and measured, throwing himself into the role of crowd-riling entertainer with gusto.
Between freestyled banter about Tom Cruise and Pokemon, his unrehearsed rambles added tons to the experience. The guy needs to know when to drop a joke, for sure - his insistence on referring to the city as "Mont-reel" and his head-nodding fans as "Mont-reelers" wasn't funny the first time - but the set itself reaffirmed that the Cadence buzz is justified.
On the other hand, supposed Chicago hotshots Flosstradamus were a grand désastre live, reminiscent of a lame mainstream dance club or a bar mitzvah circa 1999. Instead of mash-ups, the Floss posse relied on easy nostalgia hits (Walk Like An Egyptian, Mony Mony, Groove Is In The Heart) shakily mixed with pounding big-room beats and punctuated by sudden halts during which the onstage crew would holler and wave their hands in the air like they just didn't care.
They segued nicely into their sometime femcee Kid Sister (aka Melissa Brown, younger sister of Flosstradamus's Josh), another buzzy act that turned out to be a downer. Her rhymes were delivered at an impressive pace, but you couldn't hear any of the wordplay, and though it was fun to watch the puffa-jacketed, pint-sized rapper bounce around, we weren't feeling it half as much as the roomful of baseball-capped dudes who looked like they'd arrived en masse from McGill's management faculty.
For all its expansion, the Pop fest's greatest strength remains its ability to expose out-of-towners to the wealth of acts beloved by locals but still not well-known outside Montreal.
Saturday night provided two great opportunities. After ditching the bustling Ukrainian Foundation showcase featuring overhyped Minneapolis indie rock outfit Tapes 'N Tapes , we got down to Sala Rossa just in time to catch the end of Alien8 act Think About Life 's tremendous set.
Offering a kaleidoscopic grab bag of squiggly guitars, manic drums and stop-start melodies, the anti-pop innovators would be great even if they didn't feature one of Montreal's most amazing frontmen, Martin Cesar (Donkey Heart, Dishwasher), who chokes out soulful syllables like he's having a seizure. The impromptu freestyle session that closed their set (featuring Cali MC Subtitle ) was just icing on the cake. Make them your new favourite band.
Just as good for totally different reasons were the Besnard Lakes , who've been quietly expanding their lush indie pop sound into something phenomenally epic, proggy and occasionally thunderous.
We almost missed their set due to near rioting outside Club Lambi ( Holy Fuck , who played just before the Lakes, are apparently huge in Montreal - who knew?), but divine intervention snuck us in.
Thank god. Fleshed out by a full mini-orchestra (guitarist Jace Lasek joked that he'd invited a grade 9 music class for the evening) and a red-gowned trio of backup singers, the space rock invaders blazed through anthemic tunes from their upcoming JagJaguwar/Outside album that were equal parts Bowie, Queen, Journey, Sonic Youth and Nazareth (yes, Nazareth).
I can't imagine how they're gonna translate that on disc, but they were fucking killer live.
Pop Mtl’s highs
Think About Life
The Besnard Lakes
Tapes 'n Tapes