Pop Montréal 2023 Gave Us Some Of Our Best Live Music Experiences Of The Year
For over 20 years, Pop Montréal has taken over venues across the city for a festival that balances beloved local acts with international names, all fueled by a spirit of discovery. Before my first time here, I thought of it as more of a SXSW-style affair, with its gigantic lineup spread out over town. But now that we’ve come to the end of Pop Montréal 2023, it reminds me more of events like Iceland Airwaves. When people talk about Montréal’s European flair, they aren’t lying, and the festival’s booking often skews more adventurous. Everything might still be loosely in the “pop” sphere, but it’s all weirdo left-of-center takes, deconstructions, new adventures.
Five-night festivals can be an endurance test, but Pop Montréal was also has ebbs and flows built into it. Wednesday was a chill opening night for locals and those of us who arrived early. The first set I watched properly was Thanya Iyer, who performed in the sweltering back room of a little cafe underneath the Pop Montréal office. Before that conjures an image of a banal downtown, we should specify that Pop Montréal predominantly takes place around Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood — which beyond being residential and quaint akin to places like Brooklyn, is also dealing with its own brutal waves of gentrification. But this meant many of the rooms the festival occupied were intimate, cozy places to see artists up close.
Iyer’s performance was also the first of many revelations that hit me over the head during the course of the festival. Live, she conjures a magic that is a different beast compared to her (also good) recordings, perhaps suggesting the direction of her forthcoming album. It was an ethereal jazz-folk that shimmered and roiled, drums and harps rippling, Iyer’s voice swinging in far-seeing arcs. A few blocks away, there was also the Rialto, which actually houses a few different venues. The main room is an old theater with a dancefloor, which filled up on Wednesday night for a jubilant party thrown by the Belgian duo Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul.
On Thursday, I took a long walk up from the downtown hotel to the edges of Mile End, to a venue called Entrepôt 77. It’s a simple outdoor space, with a tent structure (but no actual tent) and an active train track barely hidden behind trees at the back. The pairing that night was Anjimile and then hometown heroes Bell Orchestre, the pre-Arcade Fire instrumental group featuring Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld. While the ’00s Montréal pedigree could sometimes make Bell Orchestre scan as an outgrowth of the baroque indie of the time, live they kick up a much fuller version of their genre-less collision of neoclassical, jazz, and rock. Drums tumbled, violins howled, and the horn arrangements often felt like intense ancient incantations. It was another stunning performance that knocked me sideways. The rest of the night would follow suit, with a meditative, transcendent set from Loraine James and a mind-blowing bug-out helmed by Kate NV, both performing in the subterranean club Piccolo attached to the Rialto theater.
Back at Entrepôt 77 on Friday evening, underground rap took over. The first thing I caught was Shabazz Palaces — obviously an institution at this point, obviously featuring an MC we’ve all known for decades. But this was a different kind of Shabazz performance, with material from across their career rearranged for a full live band setting, with synths, guitar, bass, and saxophone. Ishmael Butler looked cool as hell in a little beanie with a red pom-pom on top; actually, the whole band looked like cosmic funk filtered through rap. Butler also sounded ignited by having the full band behind him. Anyone you talked to that night said it was a surprise relative to past times they’d seen Shabazz, and the constant grooves and spacey synth odysseys were both jaw-dropping.
Bahamadia headlined the stage afterwards, getting the crowd to rap along to hooks over and over. My next stop was a completely different vibe, down to the Diving Bell, a small rock club that’s due to close in December. The Diving Bell is on the third floor of an old building, with college kids lined up outside for a more modern club on the first floor, and then this bizarre spot on the second floor that looked like an old Chicago sports dive but charged a cover at the door. When I first got up to the venue, Ellis was roaring through the end of a set, distortion filling the room. Then Ratboys, triumphant on the heels of The Window, ripped through new songs that already sounded like classics.
My Saturday, once more, kicked off at Entrepôt 77. This time, there was some homegrown post-punk in the form of La Sécurité and Py Py. The former bill themselves as art-punk, and that’s mostly apt. (Their drummer wore shop goggles throughout the set, which gave him a bit of a Devo vibe.) Where they were brooding and shadowy, Py Py were a scabrous, chaotic answer from the other side of the genre’s spectrum. Py Py are more than a contemporary Montréal band: The group is actually compiled of veterans from other groups like Duchess Says, Red Mass, and CPC Gangbangs. Their set was ferocious, a scraggly and jagged take on post-punk that could also veer into sludgy, vaguely psychedelic territory, before Annie-Claude Deschênes would yelp and jabber and stir the crowd back up. They performed with big Ps and Ys hanging behind them, which eventually made their way into the crowd, first tossed around like beach balls and eventually held up in worship.
When you’re at a Canadian festival, you realize there’s a whole different hierarchy at play. Certain indie bands that seem massive in America don’t play to as many people here, and others, like Men I Trust, led to massive queues to enter. In the context of Pop Montréal, Hand Habits’ Rialto set qualified as the big headliner for Saturday night, but I was bouncing around town for two gigs that were difficult to get into — Bernice’s warm and welcoming show at Casa Del Popolo, and then Water From Your Eyes’ caustic catharsis over at L’Esco. After electronic and rap nights down at the club in Piccolo, the weekend reached its zenith with a dancehall party going way late into Saturday night, as is Pop Montréal tradition.
Though Saturday operated as the grand finale, there was still more music on Sunday. Similar to Wednesday’s soft opening, Sunday was a reflective comedown. The two big names that night were Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the current iteration of Tangerine Dream, in direct conflict with each other. There can be this quality to city-based festivals where the Sunday feels sort of tangential, removed from the rest — a few big shows in different rooms, the energy and expansiveness noticeably different. Given that Tangerine Dream’s set was in a seated theater — albeit a gorgeous one called L’Oympia — far away from the rest of the festival, that was partially true. But their performance was so stunning, it ended up registering as a true headliner wrapping up the festival.
The idea of seeing Tangerine Dream now is complicated. Edgar Froese, the group’s founder and sole consistent member through the decades, died in 2015. The group continues on, led by his appointed successor Thorsten Quaeschning, alongside violinist Hoshiko Yamane and keyboardist Paul Frick. This iteration of the project has not been without its controversy, with some old fans (or band members) writing it off as a cover band masquerading under the original moniker. And it’s true the live set is a strange hybrid, with some old “hits” — renditions of ’70s Tangerine Dream material, the Risky Business theme, music from the band’s score for Grand Theft Auto V — mixed with arrangements incorporating new material and angles. Nothing is retro, overly reverent evocations of old sounds — everything is rendered in loud, lush new electronics. Maybe if you saw Tangerine Dream in 1974, this all feels strange. But all I can tell you is now, with the trio performing in North America for the first time in 10 years and thus the first time over here without Froese, the show left no doubt about the potency in their continuing existence. It wasn’t just a highlight of Pop Montréal, but one of those most special performances I’ve seen in recent memory.
While many artists were given surprisingly long sets for a festival context, Tangerine Dream were allotted a full two hours at L’Oympia. Throughout, everything sounded massive, immersive. The three members stand silent behind their keyboards, dark figures in flickering lights against graphic backdrops. It’s not about them. It’s about these gigantic waves of sound, often pulling off the same (very effective trick) — building and building layers of cascading synths, a beat locking in, everything feeling equally like it’s taking you down a wormhole deep inside your mind or way up into the stratosphere. You could see how the show itself is malleable. It’s just as easy to imagine them in a nightclub, bodies colliding under strobe lights. In the context of their performance on Sunday, it was almost more like we were witnessing a classical performance, or an art piece. After four nights of running around Mile End catching gigs all over the place, it felt like some sort of closing ceremony, a performance to just let wash over you.
Dazed and with my ears ringing, I figured that was it, there was no more music left, and nothing could follow that anyway. But then some festival associates whisked me away in an Uber back up to Mile End, back to the Rialto, in hopes of catching a small bit of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s set. We walked in as he walked offstage, having performed his final song. But soon he returned for an encore, in which he casually asked for requests, and the rapt audience hollered a whole array of songs they’d like to hear. It went on like this for two encores and nearly half an hour, including Oldham performing Sinead O’Connor’s “Queen Of Denmark.” It was a completely different experience than Tangerine Dream, but just as powerful a conclusion — a hushed, communal space, all the noise of the weekend subsiding to just a man and an acoustic guitar.