A Weirdo-Pop One-Two Punch With Bernice & Water From Your Eyes At Pop Montréal 2023
“Hey dudes, have you stepped into your brand new life yet?” That was Robin Dann, vocalist of Bernice, relaying an email a friend had sent her some time ago to the crowd crammed in a tiny room to see her band on what was effectively the grand finale night of this year’s Pop Montréal. But she put the question to the audience, too, and spoke broadly about how there seemed to be something in the air, big changes afoot. By the time you get to the fourth night of a festival, you start to feel as if you’re existing in some alternate reality so that, sure, Dann might’ve had a point.
While there are some heavy-hitting performances left tonight, a Saturday at a festival usually inherently feels like the climax. Accordingly, it was the most scattered of nights, with anyone I knew here darting around to completely different gigs, occasionally crossing paths later on. Like other evenings, there was a whole array of things to see, from local post-punk to a late night dancehall party. But I opted for the weirdo-pop one-two punch of Bernice and Water From Your Eyes.
Bernice were playing first, at a spot called Casa Del Popolo. The spot is a bar on one side, and then you go to the back and turn into a tiny venue. One thing that’s very cool about Montréal is they seem to allow a lot of old rooms to feel old: the Casa Del Popolo venue has those molded ceilings, and is illuminated by light bulbs hanging in glass jars, and like many other small clubs here is essentially a sauna. It felt like a perfect spot for Bernice though, with the playful intimacy of their whole aesthetic, and the fact that onstage they adopt a casual, lived-in aesthetic as a flipside to the stranger textures of their albums.
Like many artists at Pop Montréal this year, Bernice released a great new album this year, May’s Cruisin’, but Dann also noted the group hadn’t performed since that same month. You couldn’t tell. Live, Bernice have less of the glassy digital sheen they do in the studio, and instead approximate a kind of jazz-pop for indie listeners. Bass reverberated heavily around the room, drums gently tumbled and shuffled, and the keys stayed predominantly watery and organic. There were ruptures, like when the band did the brief “I Am Brave,” and suddenly the room was full of clattering electronic drums and sputtering synths. Mostly, though, the band stayed in this warm, more stripped-down space, always led by Dann’s charmingly eccentric disposition. At one point she got a frog in her throat, and she led the audience in a collective humming exercise to help her get it out.
Right as Bernice were wrapping up, Water From Your Eyes were meant to start a short walk away, at another venue called L’Escogriffe (or just L’Esco). Like the small sweaty room Ratboys played on Friday, L’Esco is a little rock club tucked away amongst other clubs and bars, so the whole block outside of it is thronged with college kids. L’Esco itself is low and dark, nearly underground but not quite, bathed in pink and red and blue lights.
I had seen Water From Your Eyes once before, at a gig in Brooklyn a little after Structure came out in 2021. I remember it being a slight letdown, waiting for songs like “Track Five” to rearrange your DNA but instead the whole thing sounding a little too restrained and thin. Maybe that was just the venue, or maybe Water From Your Eyes have leveled up their live show to match the fervent adoration that’s greeted them since Structure and with this year’s Everyone’s Crushed. Because last night a L’Esco, they sounded massive.
A Water From Your Eyes show is still minimal — just Rachel Brown, Nate Amos, and second guitarist Al Nardo onstage — which means recreating their music requires a whole lot of backing tracks. But they make that feel so much more alive and visceral than in the past. L’Esco got extremely packed, and the band greeted the crowd with something of a non-stop onslaught. Leaning into all their most beat-driven songs, they dialed up the distortion and fragmentation, so that it was all music you could still plausibly dance to, or at least nod your head along with, while noise rattled the room. Aside from “14” towards the end, the set focused on thrashing tracks like “Barley” and “True Life,” so there was rarely room for a breather.
“How’re you doing? I guess I never asked that, that’s rude of me,” Brown deadpanned during one of those brief respites. At this point, of course, the band had everyone in the palm of their hand and a cursory “how’re you doing” was greeted with resounding cheers. It didn’t feel just like it was just a response to the set we were watching but a feverish greeting for a band that has so clearly evolved in just the last few years, a band that’s exhilarating now and seems like they’re just getting started.