By Glenn Alderson
November 16-19, 2016
MONTREAL — There’s been a dark cloud hanging over Montreal since the passing of Leonard Cohen earlier this month as the city mourns the loss of its true poet laureate. The memorial outside his original place of residence in the Plateau area is still shining bright with his music playing from a concealed speaker, hidden behind countless bouquets of flowers, commemorative plaques and lit candles. But as any good music industry professional knows, the show must go on. With that in mind, there really was no better way kick off the eleventh year of M For Montreal than with a performance by Martha Wainwright, a legend in her own right, who delivered a moving rendition of “Chelsea Hotel” that tugged on all the right heartstrings during her set at the Rialto Theatre, offering a perfect homage to the godfather of gloom.
Running Nov. 16 to 19, M For Montreal is an annual four-day music event and on the opening night of the festival there was a brief moment of clarity amidst the sadness of Cohen’s passing at the sold-out theatre as bands, agents, promoters, managers and journalists from all over the world descended on the city for a whirlwind weekend, celebrating all of the vibrant and varied talent being produced in both Quebec and the rest of the country.
M For Montreal is an exceptionally organized and streamlined festival that is tailored for putting the right people in the right rooms in front of the right artists. It’s a model that was appropriated by Sebastian Nasra (Avalanche Productions) and British festival programmer Martin Elbourne (Glastonbury Festival, The Great Escape) and it works.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Things were in full swing by Thursday, following an early morning speed schmoozing session. Day two provided activities of polarizing proportions, kicking things off with a good old-fashioned seated church show at Red Roof – Church of Saint John the Evangelist, featuring a moving performance by Leif Vollebekk, delicately playing a short set splitting up his time behind a Fender Rhodes piano and a few soft spoken guitar numbers, including his recent standout single “Elegy” off his upcoming album, Twin Solitude, on Secret City Records. This was shortly followed by a rock show at a strip club, a fact that Mikey Rishwain, M For Montreal’s enigmatic music director, got a real kick out of garishly announcing from the microphone during his closing remarks at the church.
The showcase at Café Cléopâtre was more so a rock show above a strip club but it still maintained that strip club smell as Toronto’s FRIGS f.k.a. The Dirty Frigs took the stage first to perform their blend of proggy post punk while all of the delegates slowly poured in. Vocalist Bria Salmena is a confident creature who stood tall under the flashing ceiling lights above the stage when she shed her guitar to confront the audience face to face, mic gripped tightly while she screamed and sang and shouted her way through the set with her wound-up band holding things down effortlessly in the background. One of Arts & Crafts’ latest signees, FRIGS are definitely a band to watch for in 2017 if you’re looking for an innovative take on those grungy PJ Harvey vibes from the mid-90s.
Naturally, Brendan Canning had some stiff competition going on downstairs so I unfortunately missed his set but made it back just in time to see Michael Rault and his band take the stage next to blast out their sunny garage pop with ease. Rault has had an interesting career, starting as a child prodigy of sorts in his hometown of Edmonton with his first band at the young age of 15. He has since moved on to call Toronto home after a welcomed stint on Pirate’s Blend/Burger Records. Relatively quiet in 2016 with the exception of a live release on Last Gang, the Rault name still seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, including this evening when he brought down the house with a familiar energy heard on his 2015 Living Daylight LP.
Tasseomancy have been doing their art-folk thing in the Canadian music scene for a long time and have always done it well. I remember seeing them at a house show 10 years ago in Calgary when they were still touring under the name Ghost Bees and their eerie hooks and esoteric harmonies left a haunting impression on me. A few years later twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman were back on the road with Timber Timbre, right around the time he first signed to Arts & Crafts. Tasseomancy are basically staying true to the same thing they’ve always done but on this particular night, the twins were trying out a new set of songs from their upcoming album that had more of an art pop vibe to it, which is sounded about as good as the scent diffusers they were using onstage smelled.
Greys ended up closing out this particular showcase at the ungodly hour of 1:45 a.m., 15 minutes before I usually turn in to a piece of pizza. The Francophone fuck freak theatrics of Bernardino Femminielli ended up slowly pushing some people away, some across the street to Club Soda to check out the confusing white AF funk sounds of Busty and the Bass, most to never return. But those who stuck around for Greys were treated to a high energy set from the Toronto soft boys who love their angry guitar rock. When there’s not much of an audience to push you through your set, the best approach is just to push back harder and Greys have truly learned to embrace those vibes. It always makes for a better show, even if there were only 30 people left standing in the room by the end of the night.
Friday, November 18, 2016
My Friday evening was mostly spent camped out at Casa del Popolo, the infamous venue owned by members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Starting things off in the back room where they host their live music was Montreal native Helena Deland, playing solo at first to an immediate hush that fell on the room. She was eventually joined by her band but remained coy and somewhat shy as she plucked her way through an intimate set of songs before New Fries took over the stage to shake things up. Considering their unique take on no wave, it would probably be easier if we just made up a “new no wave” subgenre for them. It was freakishly delightful art rock, perhaps the most moving set of the weekend. I couldn’t quite figure out how this band works exactly but the vocal stylings of Anni Spadafora when compressed through her delay effects were especially entertaining to witness in a live setting. I want to see New Fries again. Please come to Vancouver.
When all the fries were gone, there was an extended delay and no sight of Cindy Lee’s Patrick Flegel. Most people would know Flegel from his previous Calgary-based project Women, but you might not recognize him performing as Cindy Lee; dressed in drag with his tattered white fur coat, Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction wig and sequined cocktail dress. Flegel also runs his vocals through an effects pedal to alter his voice in a way that makes it sound more feminine. On his debut album, An Act Of Tenderness, this worked beautifully. The songs are warped bedroom recordings that come through like wounded pop music for the disenfranchised. In a live setting, when sung over a pre-recorded backing track, there’s something that’s somewhat a miss. Twenty-five minutes after the scheduled set time Cindy Lee had finished untangling patch cords, setting up effects pedals and changing from army boots in to high heels. The first song rang through distorted speakers like the red room dream sequence in Twin Peaks. Three songs in the dream was starting to feel a little bit less dream like and the old gum I was chewing definitely wasn’t coming back in to style. I don’t know what the live plans are for Cindy Lee in 2017 but I would definitely like to see Flegel do this again, only with a band.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
By the time Saturday rolled around, I had been sufficiently networked from the plethora of shakers and cocktail parties that were thoughtfully programmed by the M For Montreal organizers and their affiliates. First on the program was a bit of a throwback set by emo originators The Appleseed Cast playing at Bar Le Ritz, one of my favourite venues in Montreal. Reminds me of what the Biltmore would be like if it wasn’t underground. I’ve unapologetically never been able to shake my emo past so made sure I was right up at the front for this set, which was unfortunately much shorter than what everyone in the audience would have liked. “We’ve got 10 minutes left so this is our last song,” singer Christopher Crisci said, before launching in to a perfectly epic bone-chilling closer that just left people wanting more.
One name I kept hearing pop up as a must-see act was Heat who was playing at an upstairs underground-esque kind of venue called Matahari Loft. Heat is a Montreal-based band whose bio describes them as ’70s proto-punk crossed with ’90s psychedelia. I don’t really hear those references at all but it’s possible that was from their earlier days when they were better known for playing more drunken sets (and whipping their dicks out?). They were still really fun to watch perform without any dicks in sight, as they stood illuminated by a glowing neon sign that wasn’t about to let you forget what they were called. Raspy-bedside vocals and catchy hooks, you could feel the, umm, heat radiating from the quartet throughout their entire set.
My night ended with Nobunny, everyone’s favourite masked garage rock underdog. In everyone’s defense, he’s actually the only masked garage rock underdog, but nonetheless Justin Champlin was in great form on this evening with everyone else in the band wearing their own version of silly Nobunny garb. Perfectly suited for the run-down loft they were playing in, I could feel the floor shake as all the Montreal garage punks moshed and drank their way through a sufficiently tight set while the M For Montreal delegates in attendance watched politely from the sidelines.
Everything about M For Montreal makes it my favourite festival that I’ve ever been to. You get to meet cool new people in the music industry, hang out with others that you already know but never get to see. The programming is thoughtful, always exciting and diverse. I never have trouble filling my time that I’m there with something fun to do. And the festival staff really does care about your experience. They want you to meet people, they want you to see the bands and they want you to be happy. It’s exceptionally modest in size and scope but with that in mind, their reach is significantly and exponentially larger than you’d think it would be.
As I was standing in front of the Leonard Cohen memorial, watching people light candles and pay their respects, I realized that Montreal is a city unified by music and M For Montreal truly upholds this philosophy consistently from year to year.
This is where you say Hallelujah.BC, Bernardino Femminielli, Brendan Canning, British Columbia, Busty and the Bass, Cindy Lee, Frigs, Greys, Heat, Helena Deland, Leif Vollebekk, Leonard Cohen, M For Montreal, M For Montreal 2016, Martha Wainwright, Michael Rault, New Fries, Nobunny, Tasseomancy, The Appleseed Cast