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Party, Die: Five Days of Pop Montreal

Posted by Olivier / October 6, 2008


Pop Montreal is a contradictory mess of elitism and egalitarianism. On the one hand, it’s about which bands are cool and which bands are not. It’s about who you know and what shows your connections will help you get into. And, at the end of the night, it’s about the ultimate stratification question: which after-party are you going to?

But Pop Montreal has admirable egalitarian aspirations. Shows are cheap. Events like the Pop Symposium and Puces Pop are really all about openness and community engagement. And anyone who volunteers for the festival is blessed with something close to an all-access pass, which gets you to what it's really all about: music.

This year, with my volunteer pass in hand, my bike back from the shop with a fresh tire, and a week of reserve sleep banked in anticipation, I was determined to be a mobile, tireless, Pop Montreal ninja. Read on for highlights from the week.


After warming up with the French-language election debate, my Pop starts off with a bang at the You Say Party! We Say Die! show at La Tulipe. The Vancouverites have the crowd eating out of their hand- so much so that in a back alley after the show I overhear a drunken, somewhat unstable fan ask enticing YSP!WSD! frontwoman Becky Ninovic if he can be her boyfriend.

From there, it’s off to the Portugese Association on St. Urbain to see Toronto’s Woodhands. The duo has everyone dancing and even inspires a crowd surfer who rides the waves of 3 AM ecstasy for at least five minutes. My own attempt at surfing is much shorter and comes to an unglamorous end when the crowd decides that it makes more sense to watch the show that hold up my awkwardly distributed 165 pounds.


Using another election debate to warm up for a POP night, Sarah Palin sends me off warmly to Jason Collette at Petit Campus. I don’t like this venue, and I don’t like this band. I’m not sure what I’m doing there. Like a good marine, I cut my losses and soldier on early to the next show, where I see the star of this year’s Pop Montreal. Not a person, but a place: Cinema L’Amour, a gorgeous former theater now used as a porn cinema on St. Laurent and Duluth. I had no idea this place existed, and while the performer, Li'l Andy, played a beautiful set of Neil Young covers, I was mesmerized the entire time by the theater, packed with people at 2 am, none of who seemed to be engaging in the usual practices of the cinema.


My day starts off with a performance by punk legend Lydia Lunch at Main Hall. Her spoken word poetry supported by background instrumentals has flashes of brilliance, though she loses me with a pretty boring critique of geo-politics, including an allusion between the Spanish Civil War and the current war in Iraq which doesn’t really make sense.

From nihilistic punk I head to the other end of the Pop spectrum to see Burt Bacarach play the beautiful Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste near the corner of Rachel and St. Denis. The 80 year-old hit machine, backed by a nine-piece band, performs song after song about love, and surprises no one when, introducing the encore, he says: “Now I’d like to sing a song about friendship and love”. Shocker. Still, the former McGill undergrad does give shout outs to his alma mater, and the baby boomer couples all have a little sparkle in their eye as they leave the church, hopefully thinking ungodly thoughts.

Later on at the National, Atlantic Canadians Wintersleep play too much cookie-cutter rock for my liking, but heading over to Blue Dog Motel, the night is resurrected when Quebecers Wintergloves play a solid set on the tiny dance floor. The bar is packed wall to wall, and when 3 am rolls around, seemingly the entire crowd shuffles across the street to an afterparty in the lounge of Mainline Theatre on St. Laurent. Open to the public, with cheep beer and improvised collaborations between partygoers and pianists in the theatre space, this is the best and weirdest party of the festival.


Convinced the night before that I had no more energy to finish the weekend, sleeping in until 5 PM changes my mind and I start off the evening at a sold-out Dodos show at Sala Rosa (I may or may not have impersonated a friend of mine to get in, though security wasn’t exactly rigourous considering his ID picture featured a Mohawk). These excellent San Franciscan indie rockers put on an upbeat show, and from there it was a quick ride to catch Sister Nancy’s set at Club Lambi. The reggae legend draws a boisterous sold-out crowd that doesn’t seem swayed by the news that K-OS is playing a last-minute set elsewhere. By the time she throws down "Bam-Bam", the crowd is in full-fledged reggae ecstasy. The night ends at an outrageous apartment party on Bernard and St. Laurent featuring an unnamed punk band alternating with an unnamed DJ, and a legion of unnamed partygoers having a hell of a time.


Determined not to give up on the last day of the festival, I am still too exhausted to avoid watching the Celine Dion movie on CBC, a train wreck I can’t take my eyes off. I make it to the National just in time to see Wire’s encore, and the veteran punk band puts on a good show, though as a complete neophyte to the band I have to wonder if they always looked this nerdy. The night ends at a party for Pop volunteers at Club Lambi, featuring a great indie rock band with a terrible name: Passion Pit. The headliner is rising Quebec star Ghislain Poirier, but halfway through his DJ set, I look at the crowd of gyrating concertgoers and know that I have no more energy to give. Like a soldier honourably discharged, I hand friend and fellow Poutiner Goran my half-drunken beer, and head home to sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.



anne / October 7, 2008 at 02:07 pm
pop montreal is not egalitarian in any way whatsoever. it is elitism of the highest order. shows may be cheap, but who gets the cut? the venue, the techies, and the "security" people pop employs for ten dollars an hour.

volunteers are underused or misused. i know a guy who worked every day over eight hours a day, and got the same volunteer bracelet i got for only working six hours doing barely anything.

this is honestly the worst run festival that i have ever been a part of. montreal is so "it" right now that pop montreal still gets great bands that will come play for little to nothing. but in a few years when the "it" of montreal wears off, this festival will not bring in good acts, because the way the festival is run is utter SHITE!

you can't run a festival for "the industry". the music industry is not what makes montreal, sorry guys. it's the artists. who should be paid at least a significant portion of the door, rather than the door going to the sound guys etc. that's just lame. why not print off big shirts that say, "i'm awesome because i'm part of the industry". they'd save money, and more money could go to the artists.

needless to say, some of the shows were freaking amazing, and the fest keeps bringing in great acts. and i sincerely hope changes are made so that pop montreal can continue in perpetuity.
Jer / October 7, 2008 at 04:11 pm
Yeah. I've always felt that pop was a tad (if not extremely disorganized). Not only are there issues like those anne mentions, but there are problems every year with people getting turned away from shows even though they have bracelets, or tickets (see Ben, the random fest-goer from texas' posts from last year's pop)

After balking at the price of some showcases (and the varying prices of the one kind of beer you could get at most venues), I wondered what the split was with the cash. Anne, do you or does anyone else know the exact split? My guess is that it varies by artist and they are probably paid a set fee (rather than taking a cut from the door)

I can't agree with you Anne, though, that sound guys (and some of the other "peripherals) don't deserve a cut...they work tirelessly and their efforts are key to the success of the festival. But of course the musicians are the only reason this fest even matters in the first place. If they aren't being well-treated, there's a serious problem that does threaten the viability of the fest in the future.

Anyone know of any details? Musicians, why not chime in?
anne / October 7, 2008 at 09:49 pm
i'm sorry if i gave the impression that sound guys, techs, and other non-performing artists do not deserve to be paid for what they do. you are quite right to point out that "they work tirelessly and their efforts are key to the success of the festival". i'm repeating you, because i feel like debasing their work was not my intent, my intent was to emphasize that it seemed like they were the only people getting reimbursed fairly.

there is absolutely no need for "security" at a fest like this. gear and such can be watched over by techs, and well trained volunteers. it is shameful that people were being paid ten dollars an hour to make sure doors were locked, when there are many honest hardworking volunteers that would do that work for FREE.

i would also like to emphasize that my volunteer bracelet (which got me into two shows for free, amounting to over 50$ dollars) was NOT deserved. i did not have to work hard for the free pass, nor were there any consequences to me not being a good volunteer. needless to say, i didn't give it back! which i'm sure scores me points in the 'going to hell' column.

i don't know what the deal is with artist payment. i do know however, that some of my local artist friends were turned away rudely from the notman house party on sunday because "the party was for staff only", which turned out not to be true, and that it was essentially a nottman house popularity contest!

i was thinking about my earlier post today on the bus, thinking, 'gosh i must sound like i'm harboring jealousy for the cool kids or something'. and fine, i guess i sound like that. i love music, and love the great things that pop has to offer us: the symposiums, film pop, puces pop, the afternoon shows, and a line-up that makes me all tingly inside. the fact that there is an air of elitism to the fest is totally unnecessary. and utter inefficiency is simply LAME.
Olivier / October 8, 2008 at 10:53 pm
I think you're right that there's elitism at pop. But there's elitism everywhere in the music industry- I'd be surprised if south by southwest didn't have parties only certain people could attend. The key is how you deal with it- on Saturday we were turned down by POP people for some party happening on St. Catherines, so instead we got on our bikes and went to the un-exclusive house party I wrote about, which turned out to be a blast.

As for the disorganization of the festival, I'm sure you're probably right, but from a festivalgoer's perspective, it's only the final product that matters. Of course, if lack of organization discourages good talent from coming here down the line, then there's a problem...
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