“POP till you drop.”
Montréal adopts this tireless mantra for the city’s annual week-long festival, explains our tour guide Anne-Marie. Now 15 years removed from its inception, POP Montréal represents a massive driving force for cultural events in the city, from gigs to speaking sessions to industry parties.
Perhaps most importantly, the festival gives the impetus for both locals and travelers to explore this multicultural city in all its glory, with its colorful murals, well-groomed parks, and grand architecture. Despite having traveled to Montréal twice before (for Osheaga in 2016 and 2015), these five days provide an even better opportunity to learn more about the city while also checking out a wide array of music. Whereas massive three-day festivals in many cities feel like amorphous events that happen to be located in a major metropolitan area, POP Montréal provides a more symbiotic relationship among the host city’s event spaces, artists, and visitors. And since programming could all be accessed à la carte, the festival truly gives fans the opportunity to customize their experience at a less hectic pace.
The concerts, which are primarily slated in the evening, give a crash course in the city’s distinctive venues. Rising talents play to packed, cozy clubs, while more established and iconic artists take the stage at some of the city’s most magnificent theaters. The jam-packed nights of music often run into the early hours of the morning, causing some tough scheduling conflicts when bouncing around the city’s neighborhoods.
The stress of running around from show to show is alleviated by the city being much more laissez-faire toward attending concerts. This stands in stark contrast to US metropolises like New York and Chicago, where fans line up early and in force, then jostle for position at shows. In contrast, queues to enter venues here are never long, if they even exist. In the bigger venues like Théâtre Rialto, fans tend to opt for the seated sections before standing general admission. This attitude permeates the city’s vibe as a whole: in its massive food market, in its restaurants and bars, and, of course, in its concert halls.
For the harried urban resident, there’s no better city than Montréal to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life. And for music lovers, POP Montréal is a great option to hear a combination of local artists, emerging indie groups, and influential performers.
Click ahead for my full weekend travel journal…
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21ST
After arriving and checking in to our hotel, our small group of reporters gets credentialed at Quartiers POP, one of the main bases of the festival. Housed in a building called École des Beaux-Arts (“School of Fine Arts”), the space is bustling with journalists, artists, and staff members — all wearing the festival’s trademark bright orange shirts. The buzzing chatter makes this feel like the first day of school, with palpable energy and excitement for what’s to come.
With press badges now in hand, we head toward Mile End, the lively arts district where many of the festival’s concerts are held. Our first dinner of the trip is at Nouveau Palais, a popular neighborhood restaurant. With old-school wood-paneling and tables, the spot has the charm of a greasy spoon, the kind of place where you go for some salty food to cure a nasty hangover. So it’s no surprise that Nouveau Palais does an excellent burger, with a unique, savory taste that is almost reminiscent of sausage.
From there, I jet to Métropolis for the first show on my docket: The Kills. The historic performing arts center features red carpet throughout, a seated upper balcony, and grand, high ceilings. Despite arriving exactly when opener L.A. Witch take the stage, the standing-room crowd is only loosely gathered, allowing me to easily make it to the front barricade. After overcoming a few early mic feedback issues, the trio settle in. Their slow-rolling, smoldering riffs provide a perfect match for the stage’s hazy neon lights. And throughout the set, drummer Ellie English proves to be a highlight, delivering the massive thump of the kick drum and the crash of cymbals with menace. L.A. Witch exit to a mostly packed crowd, and The Kills follow.
Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince enter to a dark stage, with only their silhouettes and a backdrop of a volcano exploding visible. The standing room crowd packs together and erupts in cheers as they take the stage — and the duo doesn’t disappoint, thanks to Mosshart’s dynamic stage presence. Opening with the punchy riffs of their recent single, “Heart of a Dog”, as well as the slow-burning “U.R.A. Fever”, Mosshart owns the crowd as she headbangs and struts across the stage. The band then shift gears to their throwback cut “Kissy Kissy”, but I cut out early to make it to another venue in time for Eskimeaux’s set.
I head to Bar Le Ritz P.D.B., a cozy club in Mile-Ex, a warehouse/residential area that’s comparable to Brooklyn’s Bushwick or East Williamsburg. Whereas Métropolis is imposing in its scale, Le Ritz is inviting, with small tables surrounding a stage that’s slightly elevated above the floor. As I arrive, Bellows are just wrapping up their set and really hitting their stride with the wistful “Thick Skin”. (Bellows, Eskimeaux, and final performer Told Slant all share band members, with a different person taking lead vocals under each moniker.)
The band members exit the stage, mingling in the crowd during intermission. Shortly after, Eskimeaux arrive, this time led by Gabrielle Smith. Smith proves masterful at the transition between quiet intros to songs that lead into cathartic releases, like on opener “Year of the Rabbit” and “Folly”. The audience bounces along, supporting the call-and-response of “You coward! You hummingbird!” on “The Thunder Answered Back”. And throughout, the small moments of easygoing chemistry shines through for the group, like when the band members shimmy and pivot in unison or when Smith and bassist Jack Greenleaf playfully kick each other before “Sleeping Bear”. The band moves from hushed moments into a roaring peak on “I Admit That I’m Scared”.
CoSigned NYC quartet LVL UP then arrive, giving a brief respite to the Eskimeaux/Bellows crew. The band’s searing, dueling guitars often prove overwhelming for the small space, but in their strongest moments, as seen on “I Feel Extra-Natural” and recent track “Pain”, the band put their anthemic qualities on display.
Told Slant closes out the night, and drummer Felix Walworth takes center stage. With Walworth standing behind a large drum kit, the band weave through gentle confessionals “Tall Cans Hold Hands” and “Parking Lots”. On Going By standout “Tsunami”, Walworth, Smith, and Oliver Kalb all join forces for the sweet, poignant chorus (“Isn’t this silly/ And aren’t you beautiful?”) — a great low-key way to wind down on a busy first day.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22ND
I meet a small group for a “Beyond the Market” food and culture tour led by our guide, Anne-Marie, starting at a Salvadorean restaurant called Los Planes Resto. The neighborhood is Latino, but Anne-Marie explains that Montréal’s ethnic blocs are somewhat nominal and are now home to a diverse cross-section of multicultural people. First up on the menu are pupusas — tortillas stuffed with savory ground beef, beans, and cheese — topped with salsa and cabbage.
As we meander over to Jean-Talon Market, Anne-Marie points out various colorful, intricate murals — created by everyone from graffiti artists to traditional muralists. On many blocks throughout the city, beautiful street art adorns buildings, promoting everything from community organizations to indigenous women’s rights.
Even at midday on a Thursday, the marketplace hums with energy. A wonderful combination of smells coalesces. Meats, cheeses, spices, fresh seafood, and pastries all waft lazily through the air. As we continue to walk through the neighborhood, we head through a lush garden/alleyway. Anne-Marie explains that a majority of residents in an apartment complex may apply to the government to receive funding to turn their walkways into a community space for barbecues and kids to safely play.
Our next stop takes us to Brasserie Harricana, a warmly lit pub in the rising industrial neighborhood of Mile-Ex. The brewery keeps its funky beer offerings at relatively low ABVs — Anne-Marie says that it’s common and culturally accepted that workers have a beer (or three) with lunch during their breaks.
After settling in with a couple beers, we head to Dispatch Coffee for a caffeine boost. The brewmaster stands in the back of the spacious car garage space and samples various coffees. He stops by to explain that high quality Arabica beans are so homogeneous that they’re susceptible to devastating diseases, so he’s committed to supporting farmers who experiment with cross-breeding Arabica with less-desirable Robusta plants for a heartier, more diverse coffee population.
With a pick-me-up of cold brew in hand, we conclude the tour at Dinette Triple Crown, a small fried chicken takeout spot. The restaurant actually provides picnic cloths, utensils, and a vast array of condiments for eaters to dine in a nearby park. There’s no formal checkout process or tab system. It’s purely on the honor system to return the picnic kit, and apparently the restaurant has never lost a basket. Throughout the tour, it’s easy to see the various qualities that make Montréal such a welcoming and progressive city: respect for neighbors, commitment to sustainable and ethical food sources, and willingness to invest in and support local businesses.
There’s been a running joke among Americans that I meet during the week that this is really a trial run to escape the US come November. It’s not looking like such a bad option. (If you’re reading this, Justin Trudeau, please make it happen.)
The evening brings one of the first top-billed acts: The Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale. Montréal slates Cale to perform at Théâtre Rialto, and the venue’s scale and sheer beauty doesn’t disappoint. Even more ornate than Métropolis, Rialto features dazzling gold carvings, stained glass, and cherubic paintings lining its high ceiling. The magnificent stage walls are painted in a regal combination of red, blue, and gold. Marble tables fill the GA floor area, and the older crowd files in slowly right as the show kicks off.
The festival taps local singer Helena Deland as the opener. Her gentle croon floats throughout the hushed theater, and she earns polite applause after each track. Deland’s hypnotic, soft voice makes me think of the enrapturing quality of Lana Del Rey, especially when paired with the slow-burning instrumentals of her band.
When Cale takes the stage shortly after, he stands behind his laptop and keyboard to a round of thunderous applause. One of the top moments early on in the set occurs when Cale dusts off The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”, starting the track with its skittering, upbeat keyboard (despite its grim subject matter). Things take a trippy turn, though, as he loops his vocals over swirling, psychedelic instrumentation from his backing band. On “Leaving It Up to You”, Cale takes up his guitar, unleashing drawling, whammy-distorted guitar lines. The seated crowd begins to get agitated, itching to get up and dance. Talented drummer Deantoni Parks provides a sharp backbone with his drum pad on next track “Dirty-Ass Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Cale starts to wave his arm back and forth, attempting to draw in the audience.
“It’s not goodbye,” he says with a smile. “It’s, ‘Hi there!’”
“(I Keep a) Close Watch” again gives Cale the opportunity to loop his vocals once more to create an eerie echo as the stage and audience are bathed in red light. The singer kicks the energy up a notch on “Hanky Panky Nohow”, this time getting better audience participation.
Cale walks offstage after “Wasteland” to thunderous applause from the audience, stomping and cheering for more. Earlier on in the set, three younger fans (including one wearing a zebra-print cowboy hat and neon-pink tie and another wearing a platinum blonde wig) bucked the seating trend and nestled against the stage. The band quickly returns, and finally more fans break out of their shell. No longer worrying about maintaining decorum, fans pack in close to the stage for his encore en masse.
From Cale’s set, I make the short walk down the street to Théâtre Fairmount, where Holy Fuck will headline. Fake Palms take the stage first, performing their set with very dim lighting, almost exclusively in hues of blue, creating dramatic silhouettes. The noise rock quartet don’t garner much response from the loosely assembled crowd, except for a few headbanging fans front and center.
By the time Holy Fuck emerges, the people who had been waiting on the flanks of the stage pack in. The band’s tidal wave force of sounds proves overwhelming, but it’s worthwhile to see the band in action for the sheer innovation of their methods. Brian Borcherdt is the chief engineer of this unorthodox instrumentation, from rubbing a knife against the strings of a guitar to feeding an old film strip through a film synchronizer. The exuberant release of “Lovely Allen” gets the crowd jumping to help finish out the set.
It’s now after midnight, but the celebrations aren’t done yet. Back in the basement space attached to Théâtre Rialto — known as Piccolo Little Burgundy — HEALTH take the stage at 2 a.m. to a small crowd for the late-night show. The L.A. noise rock trio hit hard with “STONEFIST” early in their set, and John Famiglietti brings bountiful energy with his frantic headbanging throughout. Famiglietti and guitarist Jake Duzsik show strong chemistry as they bounce around each other on stage. From Fake Palms to Holy Fuck to HEALTH, I’ve heard quite a bit of maximalist, experimental rock in the past few hours, so I pack it in and call it a night about midway through.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23RD
Early in the evening, Cale returns for another event, this time a discussion at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. In a well-attended auditorium space, Cale discusses everything from punk’s true origins (he says the UK) to his work with younger bands as a producer. Perhaps most interestingly, though, Cale expresses his affinity for hip-hop, specifically citing Earl Sweatshirt for his “very strange constructions” of tracks. Cale even goes on to draw a parallel between hip-hop’s penchant for the free-form and his early work: “[Modern hip-hop songs] feel very improvised. That was one of the best times in The Velvet Underground, when Lou really took off.”
Many audience members ask about whether Cale regrets not working with anyone in particular in the past, and he responds instead by looking to the future: “There are still people I’d like to collaborate with: Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet.” That would certainly be a project to look out for a meeting of great musical minds, old and new.
After hearing one top-billed artist speak, I head back to the grandiose Théâtre Rialto again for Angel Olsen’s highly anticipated performance. I angle to catch Leif Vollebekk on the Rialto Rooftop beforehand, but unfortunately get caught in a gap of time just before doors are supposed to open for Olsen. So instead, I hop into L’Gros Luxe, a cozy bar/restaurant serving up tasty comfort food. I settle down and relax with a savory plate of poutine (surprisingly my first time gorging on the dish during this trip) topped with pulled pork. Afterwards, I slowly make my way back to the theater.
Since she dropped My Woman just weeks ago, the excitement is palpable outside, and Olsen’s name is lit up in bright lights on the marquee. It’s the first time in the week that I experience a line to get in a venue, but the queue moves quickly as fans patiently file in. Similar to during Cale’s performance, fans mostly opt for the seated upper deck before the GA standing area. This time, however, there are no tables or seats in the middle of the floor — just standing room.
Montréal’s very own dream pop duo Best Fern take the stage first. The crowd loosely assembles around the stage for the group’s subtle performance. Unfortunately, the combination of the size of the venue and Best Fern’s ethereal sound causes them to be overwhelmed by the chatter of people talking in the background by the bar. The band bring out a guest to provide support on keys for “Do U Love U”. They loop singer Alexia Avina’s vocals for an enchanting, pretty effect on “R U Well”, but it seems the sound would be better suited for an intimate bar or club.
The crowd continues to file in for singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante next. The Brazilian troubadour captivates the crowd with his expressive, animated facial expressions as he shows off his multilingual singing chops in French, English and Spanish. The problem with people talking in the background still persists, which distracts from Amarante’s emotional singing, but the singer seizes control of the crowd toward the end of his set.
You may recognize Amarante from the Netflix series Narcos — he sings the song in the intro, “Tuyo” — whose theme he performs here with an enchanting whistling interlude. This elicits a huge round of applause. Afterwards, he turns to the sound guy and asks whether he has time for one or two more songs. The sound guy flashes a “two,” and the crowd cheers loudly again. He kneels and brings his hands together as he thanks the audience on the floor and the balcony above before closing with the gentle cut “The Ribbon”.
The table’s finally set for Angel Olsen, and her backing band emerges wearing matching powder blue suits and bolo ties — perfect for playing off the grand, theatrical feel of the lavish theater.
“What is this place?” Olsen asks with a smile. “I feel like we’re in that Titanic movie.”
The audience now fills the general standing room, and Olsen gets the crowd moving a bit with her recent hit single, “Shut Up Kiss Me”. And Olsen’s voice is absolutely the real deal live, from sustaining a high-pitched croon through the jamming coda on “Sister” to unleashing an anguished roar on “Not Gonna Kill You”. And the support of keyboardist Emily Elhaj for vocal harmonies provides extra nuance to Olsen’s singing. Another equally impressive feat is that, despite having a sizable backing band, the instrumentation never overwhelms, and it remains easy to hear the individual components each band member contributes to the songs.
And although the band includes some up-tempo, rollicking songs (the earlier “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Not Gonna Kill You”, as well as “Give It Up” come to mind), the crowd remains mostly still. And even if the fans don’t exactly reciprocate the energy of the band early on, Olsen’s mostly a good sport about it. After “Forgiven/Forgotten”, she gently chides the people sitting: “Thank you for being so polite. Are you always like this?”
And then she gazes up to the balcony: “Hello up there! Are your bums OK?”
[Olsen flashes two thumbs up, and people sitting flash their thumbs up in response]
Olsen: “Thumbs for bums!”
The band close with the smoldering “Woman”, and a huge encore call follows after Olsen and company depart from the stage. She finishes with another slow-burning track, “Windows” — a fitting closer for the majestic setting.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24TH
Prior to our arrival, we had been warned that Montréal is its own “micro-climate,” and it seems like fall and sweater weather arrive right on cue. The days are now sunny but breezy with a telltale bite of colder days to come. I head back to Quartiers POP to meet with other delegates over tacos and mimosas.
Later on, I stop by Bar Le Ritz P.D.B. early to take some snapshots of Diet Cig. Singer Alex Luciano greets me, explaining the band are a little frazzled since their sound guy lost his passport that morning in Burlington, so they had to leave him behind. Even with this minor hiccup, the duo remain super upbeat, obligingly posing and making funny faces all around the venue for a bunch of portraits. With Diet Cig’s actual performance hours away, I hop over to Rialto Hall, another small performing space attached to Théâtre Rialto. This room features small tables flanking the sides and a low stage.
First up is another Montréal band, Year of Glad, who emerge onstage with two guitarists and a bassist (all seated), a drummer, a saxophonist, and a cellist. The band produce one of the most unique sounds I hear all week — like if you had a black metal band, except all the band members were given acoustic instruments. Singer A.P. Bergeron leads the loose collective of musicians and unleashes guttural, high-pitched screams for vocals. And the band explodes out of the quiet moments of their songs into mayhem with pulsing strobe lights. At the most intense moments, Bergeron rocks out of his seat, and the band members headbang in unison like the fiercest metal band. It’s strangely mesmerizing and pulse-pounding, despite the respectfully seated and quiet audience.
Circuit des Yeux follows, and her sultry voice contributes to another sprawling, abstract performance. With lengthy songs, she only actually performs a handful of tracks during her 25-minute set, but the final one is most impressive. It starts and stops in fits, and each time the audience doesn’t know whether to applaud or whether the track will continue. Finally, she unleashes a guttural scream and furiously headbangs before the song ends and then quickly darts offstage.
POP Montréal saves its highest energy pick-me-up performances for late Saturday night. Back at Bar Le Ritz P.D.B., Diet Cig close out Le Ritz’s show with an electric performance, kicking things off with “Cardboard” and “Sleep Talk”. Singer Alex Luciano brings pure, joyous energy, spinning, kicking and hopping across the stage. Slop pop is their self-described genre, and it’s a pretty accurate name. Any minor deficiencies in their raw sound are immediately compensated for (and then some) by the duo’s frantic energy. Luciano talks a mile a minute, and the band rip through their set like the world may end at midnight.
“This next song’s gonna be on our next record,” Luciano exclaims midway through the set. “It’s our first-ever slow jam!”
When it comes to Diet Cig, “slow jam” seems to be a relative term, because about halfway in, the track explodes with Luciano’s rollicking riff. The band bring the show to an emphatic close with their hit “Harvard”. Luciano leaps off stage, bouncing among the fans and injecting some fresh life into the audience before running back on stage to wild cheers.
After three straight late nights, I begin to waver on whether to call it a night or shimmy over to D.R.A.M.‘s late-night set. Sticking around absolutely proves to be the right choice. Big Baby brings some of the best energy of the week and revitalizes the packed crowd. The “Broccoli” singer has the perfect amount of hits to put on a totally crowd-pleasing set, and he commands the audience with his playful callbacks and catchphrases from the get-go:
-“If you love your mama, let me hear you say, ‘Yeah, doe!’”
-“I like money! I like to have it!”
D.R.A.M. also earns the award for the most popular line I hear all weekend (on “Cute”): “I choose you like a Pokémon.” And before “$”, he brings in a bit of his origin story, explaining, “This time a year ago, I was asleep on my cousin’s couch. I didn’t have nothing.”
It’s easy to see why the Virginia rapper is a rising star. His stage presence is impeccable, as he wiggles his shoulders between songs with a charming, goofy grin. His anthemic sing-alongs get this crowd as hyped as I’ve seen any audience all week. On “Cha Cha”, he reaches out to a fan and dances with her before wading into the crowd to join his own mosh pit.
69 Boyz are originally slated as the late-night show’s final headliner, but they have travel issues and cancel their set. In their place, hometown hero Win Butler steps in for a headlining set as DJ Windows 98. The Arcade Fire frontman ends up hanging out in the Rialto basement through D.R.A.M.’s whole set, bobbing along at the side all the way through final, rousing song “Broccoli”. Butler is certainly a visible fixture in the community, but it still remains a testament to how laid-back and respectful the crowd tends to be that a superstar musician can fly (relatively) under the radar in this tiny venue.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25TH
I make my way to Église Saint-Michel-Archange with another reporter to check out the record fair. The structure is grand and imposing, and within many older folks hang out while eating pastries and perusing record collections. I actually don’t have a record player, although I do enjoy looking at the old cover art for LPs. I’m glad I go anyways, though, because I meet an older photographer, Ralph Alfonso, who’s selling original black-and-white prints of his photography from the ’70s. The all-star cast of musicians he’s photographed includes Iggy Pop, Blondie, Patti Smith, Ramones, and many, many more. He says that he has one of the few photos of Ramones with all of the band members smiling — the band would later commit to not smiling in group photos. He also has incredible shots of Iggy Pop and remembers that David Bowie strategically placed himself in the shadows when playing keys on that tour so he wouldn’t be easily photographed.
After departing, we slowly make our way down Boulevard Saint-Laurent to Schwartz’s Deli for lunch. The restaurant is renowned for its viande fumée (smoked meat) sandwich, and the line for the full-service restaurant winds out the door. We dip into the take-out side of the restaurant for quicker service with a more limited menu and actually manage to grab a seat at the counter.
This restaurant reminds me of the type of cult restaurants in New York City, where somewhat brusque staffers try to shepherd along the dawdling tourists. After receiving our orders and grabbing a seat, I unwrap the meal/tiny present. This reveals a compact sandwich, piled high with pink meat between two supple pieces of rye bread. A dollop of mustard at the center of this delicacy provides just a hint of a contrasting taste, but it’s mostly gloriously briny and tender. The French fries — extra crisp on the outside, but pillowy soft in the center — are a highlight as well.
After wandering around, popping into funky thrift shops and punk music stores on the block, I prepare to go out for a final night of music. By Sunday evening, many attendees already have left town, but I make my way over to Divan Orange for one final gig, which features Montréal’s St. Lawrence Warehouse Company on the bill.
The neighborhood is quiet, but the bar hums with life. The long, rectangular hall is packed all the way up to the cramped stage, where St. Lawrence Warehouse Company’s members soon squeeze onto. With six members, it’s an accomplishment that nobody gets knocked off. The band features a vast array of instruments, including, but not limited to, saxophone, violin, accordion, flute, and xylophone. The equipment lends itself to massive folk stomp-and-clap sing-alongs à la The Head and the Heart, but the band showcase impressive sonic breadth. The styles of their tracks vary immensely during their set, especially as different instrument players take lead vocals. The accordion player weaves a dark, rip-roaring tale about not liking the person he sees in the mirror; the guitarist leads the penultimate track, “Best Friend’s Clothes”, an exuberant drinking song; the flutist brings the set to a close with the gentle, wistful “Grace”. Despite the earlier, more energetic tracks in the set that get the crowd bouncing, the closer feels like a fitting end for the last concert I’ll see this week.
The cool air is refreshing stepping out of Divan Orange. I opt to walk back to the hotel, past Schwartz’s Deli, past Quartiers POP, past Métropolis. After five days of non-stop music and partying, the city settles into a peaceful slumber.
I think about a quote from artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s discussion about how art can be separated into two categories: magic and deception. The former can enact change; the latter looks pretty but lacks substance.
“That’s what art should always be doing: making things happen,” P-Orridge says during the talk.
It’s safe to say that in the past week, POP Montréal captures some magic.
Photographer: Killian Young