By Jennie Orton
VANCOUVER- Rouyn-Noranda, the unassuming burg that is the setting of the annual FME festival, wears the madness like a perfectly worn pair of Doc Martens. The folks who call the town home don’t seem to bat an eye at the hoard of music fans who descend on their lakefront property, some driving from as far as the United States or flying from each coast of Canada to be there. The result is a laid-back weekend of impressive local and regional talent; a well-orchestrated moveable feast for those in attendance and a hospitable locale of residents to help make it all feel friendly.
FME’s mobile app kept everyone informed of the handful of surprise shows, making it mildly like a Pokémon Go experience for those who wanted to see as much as they could; except considerably less shamefully lame. If you were on the ball you could catch Betty Bonifassi do a quickie performance at 9e Rue and Avenue du Lac. Or you could hitch a ride to Évain to watch Laura Sauvage unveil her new album at Pub Chez Gibb.
The per-scheduled roster was well-formed as well; music that played well for pepping up the daylight hours was scheduled for the outdoor stages under the sun. Like Afrikana Soul Sister’s noon show at the main outdoor stage which gave several families the opportunity to introduce their kids to sonically large music played perfectly live. Djely Tapa at the mic bringing effortless movement and voice to the percussively large arrangement behind her; Joannie Labelle in particular was impeccably relentless. At night, FME scheduled the shows that were more for the grown-ups and those who liked to stay up late and rolling as long as possible between shame eating sessions at Chez Morasse. A stand out example was the red-headed fury of Duchess Says, the Montreal Punk band with growling audacity courtesy of vocalist Annie-Claude Deschênes. They were ruthless rabble-rousers that got everyone primed for a little bit of disobedience.
Another sundown high-point was the 3-band rockabilly showcase at Au Diable Rond; a dark whiskey drenched venue with impeccable sound and the always delightful feature of being able to stand inches away from the band. Florida rockabilly band The WildTones were a standout, with a high energy set of tight-as-hell garage delivery. They were joined on the ticket by Deke Dickerson who is so good at things with fretboards that it had to be seen to be believed. It was a high energy night that funneled you out into the street at 3:00am with a little bit of Tabasco still left in the tank.
As with most festivals of this type, it was the wanderings and accidental stops that provided the best surprises. First you catch Betty Bonifassi play a completely sold out show to the vaulted ceilings of Agora des arts, the literal chains she rattled during “Black Woman” clattering up into the rafters, her guts out delivery a prime example of the boldness inherent in French artists matched with the gravitas that grew in many directions after Janis Joplin blew on that wacky dandelion decades ago. Then you walk outside and ramble across the street, through the tunnel guarded by giant wooden crows that marks the entrance to 7e Rue, and you see a group of artists dressed in flowing white attire, one of whom is holding a flute; officially capturing the longing in your heart for flautists in live music.
These are the members of Barry Paquin Roberge and they give you one of the best moments of the weekend out of nowhere. Picking up steam in their local scene, Roberge may be a name you don’t recognize in provinces out to the west but it is a name you should remember. If Billy Ocean, Jethro Tull, Polyphonic Spree, the Mamas and the Papas, and Prince all got thrown into a salad spinner, the delicious result would be Barry Paquin Roberge. Led by Étienne Barry, Sébastien Paquin, and Alexis Roberge, their live show is a gas. Bold covers like Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s a Winner” took over the street and the crowd that gathered coaxed an encore from the 7-piece yacht rock party. It takes but a couple songs to be sold on this group of musicians who have embraced a set of influences warmly and without irony and have turned them into a veritable voice of their own. It was a very easy set to love.
That is the energy you feel at FME. It is a constantly moving target that is both effortless and exhausting. When you finally descend on Lac Kiwanis, as Klô Pelgag plays a dramatic set flanked by a strong quartet as the sun set reflects off the still waters and the light of the Rona across the water battles with the stage lights for best man-made illumination, you feel spent but content. It is a comfortable place to be, this festival in Rouyn. Where your schedule can be a stream of consciousness and where everyone’s a winner baby. That’s no lie.Afrikana Soul Sister, Alexis Roberge, Au Diable Rond, Barry Paquin Roberge, Betty Bonifassi, Chez Morasse, Deke Dickerson, Djely Tapa, Duchess Says, Étienne Barry, FME, FME Festival, Joannie Labelle, Klô Pelgag, Lac Kiwanis, Laura Sauvage, Pub Chez Gibb, Rouyn-Naranda, Sébastien Paquin, The WildTones