POP Montreal: première partie

Although the likes of Steven Malkmus, Andrew WK and Laura Marling are on the bill this year, POP Montreal remains a showcase for the burgeoning Montreal and wider Canadian music scenes, its mission to concentrate on homegrown artists at the expense of more populist fare. It may be a necessarily sponsored affair, but there is a fierce, independent vibe here that's unafraid to champion left-field, experimental acts from across the musical spectrum, from the MacBook musings of Armen at the Bazaar to the rock-opera of Yamataka / Sonic Titan, with pretty much everything imaginable inbetween.

A genuine city-wide effort with churches and community buildings temporarily transformed into spaces for the 350+ acts due to perform, hundreds of volunteers give their time to ensure the programme runs smoothly over the five day schedule in late September. Montreal retains an air of its tough industrial heritage, softened now by an influx of high-tech and creative businesses, but this is a grassroots affair where everyone chips in and hipster is not a bad word, just a description of the cool young things who go to gigs to, y'know, dance and have a good time. It's a radical notion in 2011.

Now in its tenth year, the occasion was marked by an outdoor performance from local kids made good, Arcade Fire - fresh from being crowned with a Polaris Music Prize, the country’s premier music industry award. Both the award and this homecoming show underscore a year that has seen the band elevated to genuine headline status, their Suburbs album easily topping the domestic, American and UK charts on release; the mantelpiece creaking beneath the weight of various Grammy, Juno and Brit awards.

The open plan Place des Spectacles is well used during the city's annual Jazz Festival, but this was the first time that the POP Montreal programme had brought anything of this scale to the party. Organisers had predicted 75,000; on the night, the official attendance was 101,000 - the crowd spilling out onto side streets and nearby squares to watch the show on large video screens.

101k. That's a lot, whichever way you look - testament to the level Arcade Fire find themselves and the affection in which they're held by the Quebecois. Some record deck wizardy from Ninja Tunes' Kid Koala and the Francophone rock of Karkwa (think a Canadian Elbow. Maybe. Something like that.) warm the expectant crowd. For T’Fire (as you hope no-one refers to them) it might have been tempting to just turn up and bask in the reflected glow. Fair play then that not only do Arcade Fire turn up, they deliver a thrilling set that should linger long in the memory.

A 'coming attractions' video projection heralds their arrival. The opening volleys of 'Ready To Start', 'Keep the Car Running' and 'No Cars Go' would knock most audiences anywhere in the world sideways - Montreal expects nothing less and Win Butler, when he finally finds his voice, can't quite get the words out. By comparison, Régine Chassange is wound up tighter than a broken pocket watch; when she speaks the words rattle out like a machine gun. No-one minds. Everyone understands. This is their time.

The atmosphere is inevitably warm. Humbling even. Look back down the Place and the sea of people stretches as far as the fading light allows the eye to see. The only police we see are post-show, directing foot traffic. The idea of something of this magnitude happening back home seems as remote as the Canadian wilderness feels right now. It’s the evening’s one downer - and is certainly not Montreal's fault. While free to attend, the night is also about raising awareness and funds for the ongoing reconstruction effort in Haiti; a brief pause during the show to allow a representative from the Partners in Health charitable organisation to speak doesn’t dent the momentum.

Aided by a bewitching film, animation and light show, the Bros. Butler and Co. have three album's worth of solid material to keep the energy levels high, the heart-stopping organ of 'Intervention' marking the mid-set; their anthem-of-sorts 'Wake Up' confidently follows rather than kept in reserve for the eventual climax. 'Neighbourhood #1', The Suburbs' 'We Used To Wait' and 'Neighbourhood #3' bring the main set to a close. ‘Rebellion’ is pulled out for the encore. ‘Sprawl II’ is the soundtrack to a spot of drum destruction. It doesn’t feel gratuitous. It feels right.

There is, in the UK at least, an undercurrent of sniffiness around AF from those who still only see bluster. Yet with REM calling it quits just a few days previous, Arcade Fire, with their industry prizes and platinum selling albums stand on the cusp of something even bigger, like U2 with War or REM with Green. Maybe we’re looking at the torch finally being passed. Butler will never have Bono’s sense of ego and utter self-belief - he’s too awkward for a start – so perhaps AF will use their opportunity to lose themselves in their craft, confound the critics. All those extra bodies on stage may prove a haven in the years to come. Safety in numbers. If they so wish, they can mix it up in the mainstream and put a little étranges back into the charts. Everyone’s a Win-ner, right?

It's late. Really late. Like five o'clock in the morning UK time late. But miss the chance to take in Toronto's Fucked Up on home soil? No way, man!

We're at the Eglise St-Edouard which, in the dark, we guess might be a church basement. Tasseomancy have a madrigal quality underpinned by doomy synth drones. They get their name from the art of reading tea leaves and you suspect sisters Sari and Romi Lightman have access to all kinds of magic in order to pull you into their web. Failing that, if you buy a candle from the merch stand, you get a free download of some of their music. Even witches have to pay the rent. By contrast, No Joy are altogether rowdier, taking shoegaze pop down alleyways previously paint-spattered by the Kim and Thurston Travelling Art Show. Unfortunately, the soundman gifts them with a truly dreadful mix and, if there was any melody, it's lost in a relentless and tiring racket of the infernal kind. There is much hair waving but, ahem, no joy to be had here. Curiously, an elderly gentleman sitting at the side of the hall appears to sleep through the entire set. Later, we note a Tweet that suggests this was Sire Records' Seymour Stein, in town to talk during the festival. We like to think this was true.

Damien 'Pink Eyes' Abraham notes Fucked Up have played Montreal a few times already this year, perhaps accounting for what looks like a slightly reduced crowd for the Polaris Award winning hardcore crew, but there are still a couple of hundred here, determined to have a good time. Their David Comes To Life opus is already one of our albums of the year and, unsurprisingly, this is a set that draws heavily on its contents.

There’s not much to say beyond the fact that it was FU’s standard balls out show, their four guitar assault throwing out far too many harmonies and too much depth for something supposedly so basic as US hardcore. Pink Eyes keeps his pants on but strides across the hall in order to use the merch tables as a temporary stage. It's hot, so fans take the opportunity to cool him down with some of the complimentary POP Montreal uh ... fans. It's all in the detail. Few other bands encourage as much audience participation, the mic repeatedly thrust into the faces of those in the increasingly chaotic pit. Sandy Miranda bounces studiously around with her bass and we briefly consider starting a Facebook page in honour of guitarist Mike Haliechuck - that's one handsome dude, dude.

As the main set ends, we stumble out into the street, jetlag kicking us in the face, big-style. In four hours time we’re supposed to be up and about to see what else Montreal has to offer.

Next time: Digging for vinyl, bagels and Yuck.

Photos courtesy POP Montreal.

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