Features | Festivals

Lost in the Funhouse, or: The Free Beer Flows Like Wine: Pop Montreal 2009

By Calum Marsh | 16 October 2009

Fifteen Chronological Talking Points About My Pop Montreal Experience

1. OUR ARRIVAL On the evening of my coming to Montreal, a good half hour past the listed cut off time for accreditation, I scrambled anxiously to Notman House, where press credentials are distributed and which otherwise acts as a sort of central administrative hub for the festival. The stress and hyperventilating, thinking we’d already missed a festival night of concert-going, we discovered as we burst through the Notman House’s heavy double doors, turns out was for naught: our lateness didn’t matter because Pop Montreal itself is so essentially leisurely. It is frankly incredible that such a well-orchestrated festival could operate on this scale while remaining so consistently and conspicuously casual. Pop feels remarkably fluid, as though its content was so overwhelming that excess entertainment seeped and spread outward; the fact of its remaining coherent enough to persist in spite of its own enormity suggests that some seriously committed promoters, administrators, and general volunteers are working diligently to not only allow this thing to function so efficiently but also—and this is what sets Pop apart, what makes it an experience unlike those provided by festivals elsewhere—to maintain its illusory veneer of lassitude. Pop feels like it just sort of happens, like it couldn’t have been any other way—and for that reason, despite its shortcomings, it is my favorite music festival in the world.

2. I’VE GOT A FEVER Fever Ray, whose set early on Thursday evening was my first of the festival, was totally fucking preposterous. (At most shows I took a few minutes for notation in a miniature moleskine, and all I managed to jot down during this hour and a half were the nearly illegible words “this shit = frankly absurd.”) It was a prodigal spectacle emphasizing sight over sound, and it proved to be one of the most purely entertaining shows of the week—though depending on how unmitigated you prefer your contact with a performer, the nature of this entertainment may have leaned too far into theatricality to truly resonate. But what wonderful theatricality it was! There were lasers (lasers!); there was a dense peasoup fog shrouding the stage and the nearby audience in, um, “mystery” (fog!; mystery!); and there were, littered across the stage, a dozen house lamps fitted with strobe lights (...lamps[!]). The desired effect of this garish expenditure (the lights and lasers alone, I’m told, were worth a cool four grand) was the creation, or maybe perpetuation, of the Knife and Fever Ray’s Daft Punk-like myth. Fair enough, but to me the end result seemed more like Silent Hill: The Musical.

3. MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE I’d had my fill of Fever Ray’s obfuscated grandiloquence—besides which, my lungs were beginning to feel as though I’d smoked ten packs of Marlboros on the drive over—so I sauntered over to the Cabaret for some sweet Micachu action. Upon arriving I was quite crushed to learn that not only had the show sold out of general admission tickets, the festival had permitted entrance to its nightly allotment of press-pass holders. (Pop’s policy re:press is basically this: like a standard festival pass, once the venue reached a certain capacity only paying ticket holders were permitted in, meaning potentially busy shows needed to be arrived at early in order to guarantee admission. However, being that the press are lazy and impatient and don’t care to sit through three local openers just to see one major headliner, Pop grants each press-pass holder five “reservation spots”—guaranteed admittances to five major events for which one may register in advance online. This is a totally reasonable and altogether effective system, even if the really major events—Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, etc.—reach the maximum allotment of reservations literally within seconds of registration beginning. I registered in time to grab a Micachu spot, but the show itself was listed under the event’s headlining act, Clues, who I had absolutely no idea was playing that night.)

My plans for the evening ruined by poor planning and a schedule-reading incompetence, I resigned myself to stopping in at a little showcase up the road put on by buddy Jon Bartlett—my generous travel partner and man of many helpful industry connections—where five bands from across the country performed to a modest crowd of heavy drinkers (myself now suddenly included). All five of these bands were to be playing the next day, at the Cokemachineglow-co-sponsored all-day BBQ showcase, and so the night functioned like a minor warm-up to the next day’s festivities. I drank heavily on Bartlett-provided beer tickets and met up with some old friends; I took extensive notes; I tried my hand at a little networking, enjoying a great deal of terrific new music. Vancouver’s The Pack A.D., a jovial two-piece semi-redolent of the Black Lips, put on a particularly entertaining set, and in the low-key setting it seemed to me that this was what Pop was really all about: capping major events off with obscure ones, indulging in new and exciting bands and showcases, getting drunk on good (free) beer.

4. THINGS I THOUGHT HAPPENED BUT CAN’T BE SURE I think Barlett later drove us to the Intelligence, but having exhausted a supply of drink tickets I was too euphorically soused to retain the specifics.

5. JUST ONE THING, REALLY QUICKLY, PLEASE If I may issue some hyperbole before we delve into the following details: Friday was the greatest single day of live music I have ever experienced. There’s your pull-quote, Pop Montreal. I hope it was worth all the beer.

6. THE BARBECUE Friday’s day-long barbecue, which brought together ten bands from three record labels and which provided both cheap beer and free burgers, was a resounding, giddy success. CMG got involved with the sponsorship because Bartlett, who, besides owning and operating Kelp Records, is an agreeable, affable, and just all-around swell fellow, extended the generous invitation for us to slap our name and logo across the festivity’s prominent banner. Scott really did a bang-up job pulling together a BBQ-oriented podcast and on-site advertising for the party, but the real, er, meat of the organization and promotion was handled by Bartlett himself, so this is the part of the festival wrap-up where we very sincerely say: holy fucking shit, Bartlett, that barbecue was awesome.

When I arrived at Notman House’s spacious backyard parking lot, where food tents and music gear and dining tables had been arranged in a surprisingly cohesive and professional manner given the general disarray of the venue itself, the place was completely packed—already a line three-dozen deep had spawned behind the burger tent and dozens more loafed around drinking $2 St. Ambroise and devouring complimentary Swedish Berries and chips by the handful. I did my part: Bartlett stood me behind a line-side merch table, bringing me burgers and beer bottles while making his charismatic rounds, and I happily obliged. This was (partly) a CMG party! At Pop Montreal! And I was getting drunk with what seemed like a limitless supply of beer tickets—in the early afternoon! Hot Panda, providing one of the first sets of the day, summed up the pervading feeling nicely: “We’re very pleased to be sharing a bill with free food.”

7. OLD FRIENDS, EMPTY BARS As the barbecue wrapped up around seven, my group’s major priority was working out a rough schedule for the evening. Nobody could agree on headliners. I wanted to trek down to the Ukrainian Federation for Destroyer. Joni wanted to see Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Jon and Vincent fancied Tune-Yards (sic). Jose was undecided. Bartlett had somehow secured a ticket for Sufjan, but his wife wanted dinner. We’d spent the past six hours gorging on complimentary provisions together, laughing heartily like Pepsi-drunk children at a wealthy friend’s birthday party, and now it was time for us to part ways, to explore the festival’s many delights nomadically. But this was alright: Pop Montreal is spiritedly communal, welcoming of its attendees; there are always friends about, always people to talk with or drink with, and it didn’t take long to understand this fact. Example: as I was about to set off on the forty minute hike to Dan Bejar’s wails, I very nearly tripped over Videotape, No Big Hair favorites and my friends from Ottawa. I joined the band for their early gig at Bar St. Laurent 2—the sequel to what, I’m not sure—where I managed to convince the onsite Pop representative that yes, I was in fact the tour manager for Videotape, and yes, I would in fact like some additional drink tickets. Videotape then played to an unfortunately small but seemingly receptive crowd, and I left to continue on my way.

8. REBUILD! RESTORE! RECONSIDER! I was heading out the door of the bar when Bartlett sent me a text message: “You’re on the list for Sufjan,” it read, and though I understood these words, the meaning of their presence together on cell phone screen was difficult to grasp. It’s true that Bartlett and I had vaguely discussed the idea of his Sufjan pass being passed along to me in the event that he couldn’t make it himself, but that offer—an expression of generosity that exceeded reason, as far as I was concerned—sat in the back of mind as a platitude, not something to actually count on coming to fruition. Consider: Sufjan was performing at the Cabaret, which at legal capacity holds somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400 people, where he could have easily packed a venue five times that size.

Thus, as I walked into the Cabaret past a vocal mob of Sufjan supporters on the lookout for scalped tickets, I refused to get my hopes up. Surely there was some mistake. At a small table I found a woman handling reservations and the guest list, on which only a handful of names were scrawled. Mine was one, my three simple syllables. I was ecstatic, still in slight disbelief.

And so it went. I shuffled down the steps of the Cabaret into a small, dark theatre where the opening act, Asthmatic Kitty’s Crypaticize, were already well into their set of plaintive folk rock. By the time Sufjan walked on stage, my day-long beerdrunk had settled into a warm glow of evening malaise, and the set—mostly unreleased material, Sufjan having organized the tour for the purpose of “workshoping some new songs”—washed over me slowly and beautifully. The crowd seemed so open to and receptive of Sufjan, singing along loudly to lively favorites like “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head” and “Chicago” while remaining utterly silent when the tone of the music demanded it. During one especially jazzy brass freak-out, somebody near the stage took ill and Sufjan, ever our hero, sprung into immediate action, silencing his five-piece band and requesting that somebody call an ambulance. The situation was eventually resolved and Sufjan marched on, all “We should play a different song. I think that last one was too…somber.”

The few attendees I heard from subsequently seemed rather ambivalent to the show as a whole—weirdly, the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Jeremy Gara allegedly stormed out after two songs for lack of interest in the set—but I received the experience much more positively. And I know I’m not alone in my delight: “This next song is called ‘All Delighted People,’” Sufjan announced mid-set, to which one audience member yelled, “That’s us!” Indeed.

9. ELEVEN-YEAR-OLDS AIN’T NOTHING TO FUCK WITH I was standing on the sidewalk in drizzle and drear with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Destroyer would be over by the time I could find the Ukrainian Federation; Jon and Joni and anybody else I could call had found their ways to other sold out shows nearing their respective conclusions; and late-night gigs—everything from Dog Day to Shapes & Sizes to Japandroids—wouldn’t start for a few hours. Bartlett sends another text-based piece of salvation: “Get your ass to Dog Bus, take a cab.” How could I refuse this advice when Bartlett had otherwise orchestrated my festival experience so efficiently? And so I found myself in a sparsely-attended night club watching an 11-year-old and his 15-year-old brother dropping rhymes over iPod beats while a number of girls much closer to my age than theirs danced fervently front and centre. I’m generally averse to both novelty and irony and white prepubescents rapping seems, at least on paper, like products of both—to the extreme. I was surprised to find that the kids fronting Dog Bus were legitimately decent rappers and confident enough as performers to keep the laughs and cheers directed at their act rather than their shtick.

10. AND THEN MORE Bartlett, ever on the move, drove the two of us down to Sala Rossa where Lee Fields & the Expressions were scheduled to bring soulful jubilation to the rain-slick Montreal streets. The bar itself, which I’d reckon houses 250 people comfortably, was packed ridiculously tightly with aging funk fans. Bartlett bought an arm-full of beer and unloaded some bottles on me, asserting that double-fisting is always preferably to flagging down a bartender once we’re already in the thick of the crowd. Not that we ever penetrated that mass of bodies—the place was too full of people and their fervor for Lee Fields, who, bounding on stage moments after we settled in, completely delivered.

But we’ve got more places to go and more shit to see, so Bartlett and I polished off the round of St. Ambroise and took off once more.

11. YOUNG HEARTS SPARK FIRE Bartlett insisted we go to Divan Orange to catch the Japandroids, only, once we reached Divan, we saw it: a few dozen people huddled around the club, which has a sign displayed on its door reading: “SOLD OUT. NO ADMITTANCE.” Bartlett marched right in anyway, fretful little me wandering behind, and, as a stern bouncer raised a hand to stop us, Bartlett merely waved him off, looking out toward some contact in the middle distance. This contact turned out to be Greg Ipp, operator of Unfamiliar Records (the label on which Japandroids currently reside and other co-sponsor of the afternoon’s BBQ festivities) and, er, sort-of ex-CMGer, who quickly signaled to the doorman to allow us in. Great timing again: the Japandroids began their set pretty much the second we walked in. This was the second time I’d seen the duo rip through Post-Nothing material, but the experience was much better there, in a narrow, crowded Montreal bar, than it had been previously, on a wide-open and totally empty field in Ottawa. The crowd spat manic enthusiasm at them and the band responded in kind. For my part, thirteen hours of beer and live music had drained me of the physical or psychological capacity to navigate the festival and its entertainments properly, so I left the hard work of deciding where to go next (answer: some after-party; some poutine place; some apartment floor) to those in my reconvened party. My memory of the last two hours of the night are vague and insubstantial, but I remember making the following mental note: I cannot handle this much music (nor this much drinking) for another two days. I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.

12. AND AGAIN Saturday: what the fuck. I woke up tired and hungry and weary of Pop. I hadn’t even arrived on Wednesday, when the festival officially began, and I still had all of this today and the following to endure. When did this festival, which I chose to come to and chose to enjoy this heartily, become such a tremendous chore? Why must I “endure” Pop, rather than embrace and relish it? Was this not supposed to be fun? I was ready to call it quits but had no way to get home until Sunday and nothing to do for the rest of Saturday except the one thing my mind and body felt rather sure it did not want to do: see more shows, drink more beer. Etc. And so I did.

13. COOKIES, ETC. Oh, I endured! Though I don’t recall much about it. Friday’s entertainment seems to me now so clear, its individual experiences distinctive and organized and narrativized so that the story itself seems perfectly cogent. Saturday, by contrast, was a day of long walks and much food, of indoor art shows and community record shows and then back to the indoor art shows. By six I’d seen no bands but had walked longer and farther than I had over the course of the last month. Oh, I endured. Friend Vincent and I visited a visual art installation version of Charles Spearin’s The Happiness Project, which took over a spacious and quite gorgeous two-story tenement somebody later informed me belonged to Land Of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell. Each room had been cleared of furniture and decoration and housed small art pieces set to Spearin’s original music. In the living room we found our pal Ming schmoozing with the event’s curator and pseudo-guide, who laughed lightly to deflect Ming’s insistent requests to interview Spearin sometime later in the evening or, in the very least, to have him sign his CD. In the kitchen were two young men from Arts & Crafts records baking trays of chocolate chip cookies, which they offered upon greeting us with warm smiles and invitations to sit down. On the table, near a plate of fresh cookies, sat two young women working on some sort of child-like craft project, and the whole scene had an air of inclusion that was also a little eerie—it was like a postmodern interpretation of heaven or that part in The Matrix when Neo visits the Oracle.

14. ALTERNATIVE SPACES By nightfall we’d resigned ourselves to staying mostly put, so we picked Faust as our entertainment for the evening and walked to the Ukrainian Federation to settle in. The Ukrainian Federation is a sort of old Legion Hall turned popular indie venue after the Arcade Fire took residence there for a string of sold out shows in 2007. The city’s supply of traditional concert venues having been thoroughly exhausted by Pop’s far-reaching programming meant many shows had to be housed in unconventional rooms like pubs and halls, and even high-profile gigs, like German krautrock legends Faust and, um, that guy Destroyer, had been relegated to seemingly makeshift “alternative” spaces like this one, the experience of seeing live music within not unlike watching public speaking in an elementary school auditorium. But in general this creativity with venues is to Pop’s credit, for it only accentuates the sense of regional community permeating the festival entire. And if nothing else, the makeshift spaces make for a pretty singular experience—it’s not just seeing Faust, a welcome and rare opportunity under normal circumstances, but seeing Faust in what is essentially an old Shriner’s club.

15. AND NOW WE SLEEP I left Faust feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but I suspect that both a) this had more to do with long walks and my heavy intake of beer in the afternoon than the band itself and b) that I was very much in the minority with said opinion. The crowd received Faust more fanatically than I’ve maybe ever seen a crowd ever receive a rock band—they got two fucking standing ovations, which, given how awkward it was to stand and re-sit in those uncomfortable wooden chairs, is certainly an impressive feat—and that audience-wide extolment doubled both my exhaustion and my disenchantment with the experience (in the way that only unwavering extolment on the part of everybody but you can further disenchant), and by the time we got out onto the street I wanted nothing more than to be back at home in front of my Xbox with a slice of Ontarian pizza and a beer whose brand name featured no accents whatsoever. I had reached my breaking point: too much smoked meat, too many bagels, too many signs I couldn’t read, too many alternative venues, too many crowds, and way too much live music—in short, too much goodness for my poor little mind to wrap itself around and my poor little body to physically withstand. I’m from Ottawa; I’m not used to seeing more than one good show a month. At Pop I’d seen dozens in three fucking days. I didn’t need Wednesday or Sunday to add to the experience because, hey, I was satiated. I loved every second of Pop Montreal and next year, when I’ve finally recuperated and forgotten its more arduous facets, I will gladly embrace it again. Pop Montreal is not only the best music festival in the world, it is unstoppable—I’m simply not strong enough to shoulder the weight of its greatness. And so then, as on Sunday and every day for a week and a half after, I sleep.