Halfway through Mary Margaret O’Hara’s highly anticipated performance at Pop Montreal on Saturday night, she invited her brother Marcus and niece Alexis to pass out balloons to the entire audience. Fans who had come to hear her play songs from her one and only album, 1988’s Miss America, were befuddled. For a performer like O’Hara—whose headlining performances of her own material in the last 10 years you could count on one hand—there was no better way to shed her mystique. Her childlike interlude involved a room full of fans inflating their new toys and playing along, either by letting the balloons sputter about, or making them release musical farts.
That is Pop Montreal in a nutshell: take one legendary, rarely seen performer, add plenty of irreverence and peripheral irrelevance, and the result is a dazzling, diverse and often ridiculous musical orgy that is just as likely to be deep and profound as it is to puncture your expectations—like so many popped balloons.
Pop Montreal is a nine-year-old festival that has, to its credit, become one of the only music conferences where it’s actually possible to avoid the cliché template of four dudes playing electric guitars, drums and bass guitar angling for a record deal (although that template does also exist here—but it’s easy to avoid seeing). This is a carefully curated “pop” festival that concerns itself with doing things differently. And so even if it is heavily sponsored (every volunteer wore a shirt plugging a shoe company), has its share of rote industry showcases, and programs plenty of paint-by-numbers indie rock, there’s more than a healthy contingent that colours outside the lines.
It was the grand dames that reigned supreme this year, starting with Khaira Arby on Thursday night. The Malian matriarch brought her brand of Tuareg desert music to Montreal in the middle of a torrential downpour. She’s one of Timbuktu’s best-loved artists; she only releases music on cassette and this was her first North American tour. Yet she had applied to get into the festival just like every other schmuck. Pop Montreal organizers flipped out, booked her immediately, and talked her up enough to fill the room with curious enthusiasts. Arby is a regal presence in traditional dress who commanded the stage before she even unleashed her voice. Her band was just as compelling, especially the lanky 17-year-old guitarist, stationary while silently shredding at the side of the stage; the man (boy?) was a model of modesty, despite the obvious dexterity required to sound like an African Eddie Van Halen in 12/8 time.
Friday night found 67-year-old gospel singer Naomi Shelton playing to a packed room at La Sala Rossa. Her band included James Brown’s bassist for more than 30 years, Fred Thomas, and a trio of back-up singers who each got their turn in the spotlight. (The singer with an uncanny resemblance to Michaëlle Jean managed to transform Foreigner’s schlocky power ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is” into the gospel song the original tried to be.) Shelton herself has a snarling side to her spirituality, like Tina Turner taken to church. Shelton is clearly on a mission from God that appears to be working, though one has to wonder what she thinks of the young white kids dancing with faux gospel hands.
And then there was Mary Margaret O’Hara. The fifty-something Toronto singer has a reputation as a recluse, if only because her reputation hinges on one “class-sick” album, as she puts it, that she’s never properly followed up. But she’s remained active and musically curious; she talked about having gone to see soul singer Macy Gray and abrasive New York City noiseniks Swans the night before her show. Appropriately, then, her set here saw her singing torch songs, the kind of rock’n’roll and R&B she performed in the ’70s, arty pop music, jazz, free improv, and more than a few distracted monologues and absurdist asides that turned into free-associative stand-up comedy (one of her sisters, of course, is actress Catherine O’Hara).
Playing with a new rhythm section (Rich Brown, Davide DiRenzo) and her musical partner for over 30 years, guitarist Rusty McCarthy, O’Hara was in an equally indulgent and generous mood. Indulgent in that she always played by her own script (or lack of one—the set list was literally pulled from a hat) and only performed two songs from Miss America (“When You Know Why You’re Happy”, “Dear Darling”), and generous in the space she gave her fellow musicians: the show opened with Rusty McCarthy taking lead vocals; opener Little Scream was invited up for an improv duet. Friend Yvette Tollar performed one of her own songs; later in the set, O’Hara implored her to return, to which Tollar reminded her, “People want to hear YOU sing, Mary!” If this gig was supposed to have a sense of revered and rare occasion, O’Hara was having none of it. Years spent out of the spotlight has made her uncomfortable with it; she’d much rather share the stage with friends, rather than surrender to anyone’s expectations.
More power to her: it was her unpredictability, after all, that drew people to her in the first place. The same could be said of Pop Montreal itself.
The local yokels
The first artist I saw perform on Thursday night was a young Inuit woman from Greenland named Nive Nielsen, now living in Montreal. Backed up by seven musicians playing a collection of horns and strings, she played country-tinged music on a red ukulele in the window of a clothing store. Nielson has great promise and charm to spare, but writing songs called “Vacuum Cleaner Killer” doesn’t do her any favours.
Likewise, local singer/songwriter Carl Spindla had a tenuous relationship with concepts like using a capo and tuning his guitar, but his gruff self-deprecating charisma anchored songs that could put him in the company of young incarnations of Gordon Lightfoot and Tom Waits.
Montreal band The Hoof and the Heel were considerably tighter, performing peppy pop that was never cloying, with boy-girl duets and a driving acoustic guitar, like a workshop between indie favourites Stars and Rural Alberta Advantage. One song was more than a bit like Arcade Fire’s Wake Up; albeit it’s an ancient chord progression, but the phrasing was unmistakable, especially when heard a few doors down from some of the earliest Arcade Fire gigs.
Young punk band BonVivant made one question the necessity of the Asexuals reunion happening in the same time slot across town; at the very least, BonVivant should have been added to the bill with those pioneering punks from ’80s Montreal.
Finally, no talk of Quebecois music is complete without some metal; the doomy tones of franco-metal act Le Kraken boasted ominous textures that were just as important as the thundering sludge coming from the rhythm section. Inadvisably, it inspired crowd-surfing in a cavernous basement bar with a seven-foot ceiling.
Around the world
One of the breakout surprises of the weekend was five young lads from Sao Paulo, called Holger. Armed with three keyboards, three guitars, two drum sets and plenty of percussion, they had no trouble starting a dance party at either of their two shows: one under the bright lights of an in-store gig, the other at a late-night warehouse party. Despite the possibility for clutter, they know their funk and disco templates well enough to keep things sparse and focused on shouted choruses. A cover of the Pixies’ “Hey,” stripped down to the bass line and thunderous Brazilian drums, was saved for the encore.
Brazilian pop surfaced in a much more subdued manner in the work of Helado Negro, a one-man band using prerecorded tracks to make a dreamy, psychedelic variation on bossa nova.
Similarly subdued was U.K.’s Portico Quartet, who use an instrument similar to a steel-pan drum, known as a “hang”; percussionist Nick Mulvey plays a set of them, which sets Portico apart from any number of other equally talented jazz acts with a cinematic bent to their compositions, best absorbed late at night.
Of course, late at night means competing headliners, which meant that after Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Saturday night set, I was only able to catch the last 10 minutes of the Budos Band—and yet that was 10 minutes of the most gripping, exciting music I heard all weekend. The 10-piece New York City band boasts four percussionists and two horn players (that sound like six), playing cross-cultural ’70s funk that also borrows from almost every style of African rock and jazz from that decade—and plays it with the intensity (not the instrumentation) of early Black Sabbath, which had both band and audience screaming in ecstasy at a fever pitch all the way through the encore.
The final hours
As if seeing Mary Margaret O’Hara and Budos Band in the same hour wasn’t enough, there was still one final defining moment to be had on Sunday morning at 2 a.m. At a warehouse party somewhere in the industrial wasteland in the north end of the city, there was a not-so-secret show by Deerhoof, the San Francisco band who had headlined a packed gig the night before.
Even though there was still one more full day of the festival, Deerhoof, like Mary Margaret O’Hara, acted as a perfect summation of much of what makes Pop Montreal so special. They play short, sharp songs full of flashes of brilliance and complexity, contrasted with a playful naivete that’s often simple and silly. Bassist Satomi Matsuzaki occasionally sings in Japanese; drummer Greg Saunier’s humorously pained attempts to banter in French. Stylistically, they can be all over the place, from a sweet ’50s pop song to aggressive noise to off-kilter beats. For all their eggheadedness, the music is always visceral and joyous, leaving audiences after both sets insatiable. Perhaps more than any other act of the weekend, Deerhoof embodied the cultural collision and iconoclastic spirit that makes Pop Montreal one of the greatest musical holidays in the world.