Note: As you will undoubtedly notice, I am a horrible photographer. I have this big sexy camera that was given to me, which only seems to emphasizes my deficiencies. I ask for forgiveness in advance.
Music journalists are not used to good lighting. It’s into the early hours of Thursday morning at Le Belmont in Montreal, and I’m squinting and adjusting my note pad in vain, hoping to catch a sliver of the barely there house lights as I sit on the second floor balcony as the crowd of people below continues to swell. Eventually I give up and just start writing blindly on the note pad, even though I have a perfectly good smart phone with back lighting in my pocket. Maybe I’m just stubborn, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my so-called career as a writer, it’s that a music journalist ain’t shit if he can’t scribble down notes in bad lighting and at least a half-dozen beers deep into the night, or morning.
Those are the kind of skills needed to get through POP Montreal, a five-day music and arts festival spread across venues throughout the cosmopolitan Canadian city. Over 300 groups—ranging from high-profile acts (hometown heroes Arcade Fire and Chromeo) to up-and-comers (Slam Dunk) and revived bands (The Raincoats)–from every genre are represented, leaving plenty to see and even more to inevitably miss out on. Finding the balance between covering the big and small shows, the known and unknown acts and all the different genres requires some planning, as checking out one show comes at the cost of all the other ones that are going on at the same time.
My only previous experience in Montreal was in April, where myself and a couple friends made the six-hour drive from Boston, stayed for an incredible 48 hours and left in, and I mean this in the most complementary of ways, a crippled state. Now flying solo, my mission was clear: to see and cover as much as possible, attempt to take some pictures to document the event, and most importantly, to not drop half a month’s worth of rent in 90 minutes at Chez Paree, which is harder than it may seem.
Like SXSW or CMJ, most of POP Montreal’s 50 selected venues are located in the same general area; in this case, it’s Avenue St. Laurent, a street that cuts west from downtown that’s lined with stores, clubs, resto-bars, resto-cafe-bars, bar-resto-lounges and all those other things that Canadians love so much. After checking in the hotel and picking up my press pass, I head up St. Laurent for the opening party, which, as I discover soon after I start trekking, is about an hour’s walk. My reward upon arrival is two drink tickets and a rather bland soiree in the multi-use basement of a church. These events have never held much interest for me. After everybody flashes their passes and wristbands and validates their place above the common folk, who are outside smoking cigarettes and apparently having much more fun, they attack the food spread, which is a devastated carcass of crumbs when I get there, and that’s pretty much all there is. I take my two free St. Ambroise beers with aplomb, observe a bit from the bleachers and get the hell out of there.
Heading back down St. Laurent towards the stretch of venues, most of the resto-bars (and bar-resto-cafes, too) were empty; it was, after all, only a Wednesday. Having not eaten since just after arriving in town, I stopped to line my arteries with the finest in fatty smoked meats at Montreal institution Schwartz’s. On tourist trap off-hours, the place—a modest hole in the wall with a lunch counter and soda served by the can—takes on a different demeanor. I listened as one cook tried in vain to get the other to quit smoking and get back to the gym with him, but alas, Marcelo loves his cigarettes too much to give them up now. The sandwich itself consists of freshly sliced smoked meat, with the chewy, flavorful fat left untouched, stacked high between two feeble pieces of bread and a thin coating of yellow mustard. It’s priced for tourists, but I challenge you to find another place where you can walk out feeling completely overcharged and completely satisfied at the same time.
With my smoked meat quota filled, I now had the proper food base in which to start drinking, and the breath to repel any potential human encounter I might have for the rest of the night. Continuing up St. Laurent, the first stop was La Divan Orange, where people were shuffling around outside in the kind of semi-line where nobody knows why they are waiting, or even if they are at all. I stepped around them into the entrance (marked with a big “This show is completely SOLD OUT” sign), which was jammed up with people trying to get in. The line-up consisted of Play Guitar, No Joy and the headliners, Vancouver-based band Japandroids, who were setting up on stage as I walked in, and still setting up as I walked out. Not unlike the Star Wars bartender kicking out Luke’s droids, me and my media pass were brushed off and told to wait in line with the rest of the shitkickers outside and to hope that someone might leave, in which case I could get in.
Further down St. Laurent, a large crowd swarmed around the entrance to Le Belmont. With the bouncer’s dismissal from La Divan Orange still ringing in my ears, I decided to try my luck at HOHM Private Club just a few doors down. I climbed the narrow, sticky stairs to the main room, and it was clearly apparent why this place was chosen to host the hip-hop show, which falls pretty low on the genre value scale for POP Montreal. Modestly sized, with a couple worn, once-white leather couches stashed to the side and a stage that was barely elevated, this was the kind of venue where promising acts could cut their teeth in front of crowds consisting of mainly friends.
It was exactly the kind of place where you could be unexpectedly surprised by a talented young group, as I was by Ain’t No Love, a four-piece group from Toronto/Montreal. The ethos of contemporary Canadian hip-hop (Drake nonwithstanding), embodied by the shined-up boom-bap sound and intellectual party maven personas of people like K-Os, K’Naan and Shad, was clearly present, but the songs were pleasantly removed from any notion of adherence to those artists’ formula. Composed of singer Saidah Conrad and producer Liam Clarke, with raps performed by Beanz and a guy simply named 1990, they flowed through their strong set with relentless energy. Perhaps even more impressive was the young crowd, in which at the tender age of 25 I was the decided outlier. The way Beanz pointed out people he knew made it seem like mostly friends, but none of the support seemed obligatory. At some point during the set, it dawned on me that this was my first hip-hop show outside of the U.S. (the presence of girls should have been a dead giveaway).
OG Hindu Kush, who sheepishly followed, embodied all the rap cliches Ain’t No Love so fervently contradicted: tired beats, self-conscious hipster fashion sense, no stage presence and a feeling that they were seemingly content with simply rapping to each other. To be fair, that was only one song; a suddenly disinterested crowd and technical problems with the sound (to which the rappers responded with harsh glances and growls towards the audio guy) were distinctly American rap problems that seemed to have followed me across the border. Along with most of the audience that was demanding an encore from Ain’t No Love just minutes ago, I headed for the exit and some cool night air.
Two doors down at Le Belmont, the crowd looked like it had only grown larger since I last checked it. With the same disinterest that the last bouncer turned me away, this one waves me by past the line of about 30 or so people. Le Belmont has the feel of a pre-renovation Paradise Rock Club. The room itself isn’t very big, but there are two bars, one next to the stage and one all the way in the back, plus a third bar in a separate room with a worn-out pool table that is considerably more relaxed. I’ve arrived in time to catch the last two DJ/producer performances of the night: Lunice and Araabmuzik.
Even in the midst of so many amazing shows, it can be tough to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for each one. But Lunice, with just his drum machine and sampler, put on a show worthy of a headliner. The 23 year-old Canadian producer is wise enough to indulge in the Golden Age hip-hop influences (the glitchy soul spasms of late-career J Dilla and lush sonic arrangements of Ski Beatz) without losing his footing in contemporary flavors dominated by Kanye West and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. His sound is the result of pushing those two disparate groups into the same room and seeing what comes out alive. His stage presence recalls a knob-twisting version of Tyler the Creator; head-jerking until his neck is about to snap and admonishing his fans to get more drunk, without a drop of sweat on him despite being buttoned up in long sleeves in a increasingly steamy club. His hour-plus set took some time to pick up the audience, but after punching out a hyperkenetic remix of U.G.K.’s “International Player’s Anthem,” it took off and didn’t look back. Every so often, when satisfied with his current groove, he jumped out from behind his equipment and gleefully soaked in his own work, dancing around stage and pumping up the crowd.
Lunice was a pleasant surprise, but headliner Araabmuzik was the known quantity. In the past few years, the Providence, Rhode Island-born producer has developed a signature sound thanks to his production for the Diplomats, a group that never met a loud, bombastic beat they didn’t love. Crafting songs like Cam’ron’s “Get It In Ohio” has never been a problem, but the producer showed a slightly different side on his debut album Electronic Dream earlier this year. Borrowing heavily from electronic acts (OceanLab, DJ Nosferatu), he filtered pieces of those compositions through his MPC 3000 drum machine, turning the angelic vocals on a song like Kaskade’s “4am” into club-ready banger like “Streetz Tonight.”
His popularity as a solo act took off thanks to a series of YouTube videos where he showed off his prodigious skills on the MPC, and that was basically his stage show at Le Belmont. In contrast to Lunice, he didn’t offer much in terms of personality, which was reserved to cueing up his ubiquitous sample of a woman saying “You are now listening to Arrabmuzik.” Alternating between flipping new beats and replaying some of the better songs from Electronic Dream, his set sounded outstanding, even if it lacked any sort of coherent direction. Some may (and have) argued that his reliance on recycling the work of established electronic producers detracts from his overall portfolio, and that isn’t totally without merit once you compare the originals to his reworked versions. But since when has sampling and remixing ever been a problem for artists who don’t play instruments?
With the set finished at a little past 2 AM, I take my note pad, sticky, dirty, wet and filled with barely legible notes, back onto St. Laurent. Now, if I could only find an open resto-bar-lounge…
Stay tuned for continuing coverage of POP Montreal Day 2 featuring Kid Koala, Slam Dunk, Molly Sweeney and the massive free Arcade Fire show in downtown Montreal.