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Twelve Montreal Concerts of 2009

Posted by Greg / December 26, 2009

CrowdShot.JPGThe more year-end lists I read, the more assured I become of two things: 1. all of them are highly subjective whether it's Pitchfork or Rolling Stone or some nerd with a blog; and 2. there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoy the endlessly wide range of opinions and let other people fight over the details. Does Animal Collective really deserve this love-in it's experiencing with nearly every major music publication? I would say not, but I also don't care because I don't see lists as a competitive sport. For me it's all about reflecting on the year in music and learning about bands I missed or overlooked the first time around. Besides, Hospice by The Antlers was obviously the best album of 2009, so why bother debating it? (Sorry, I won't do that again.)

I can't pretend I saw enough shows to speak comprehensively about the Montreal scene in 2009. I realized a few days ago that I even missed virtually every big name that came through town - just off the top of my head, Phoenix, TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Fever Ray, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Jesus Lizard, Mastodon, St. Vincent, Sunset Rubdown... Really, I don't know what happened on that front. On the other hand, this was a great year for lower key shows in smaller venues, with up and coming bands (many of them local) that I hadn't heard of this time last year. Below I share my favorite moments from an exciting and unpredictable twelve months of music. I encourage readers to comment with their own concert experiences and fill me in on anything I missed.

In chronological order...

1. Harbourcoats at Casa del Popolo - Jan 24

A handful of Montreal's finest musicians fronted by Bryan Webb of The Constantines, this band took the stage on an icy winter night, filled Casa with haunting vocals and rootsy, gritty tunes, then disappeared into darkness. There was no album that I ever heard about, not even a myspace page where I could listen a second time. A scrappy cluster of Google hits gives no helpful information; I can't tell if they are still together, whether they plan on putting any more music into the world. But I sure hope they do.

2. tUnE-yArDs at Il Motore - Feb 6

If I hadn't waited so inexplicably long to plunge myself into Montreal music I probably would have heard of tUnE-yArDs before this night in February. Hell, I might even be in the band given how many Mile End-ers have played with its live outfit. The upshot was catching a musical act, not in its earliest stages, but at the moment when they knew they had made it.

Of course I shouldn't say "they" because tUnE-yArDs is the solo project of Merril Garbus: ukulele player, drummer, singer, and crafter of irresistibly unique songs. She and a dozen other musicians, faces painted and bodies draped in back, drummed and strummed through her rhythmically dense and catchy compositions. Their sound was massive in a way that can only be achieved with a room full of acoustic instruments pushed to the breaking point - a sensation I'd only experienced twice before, once with Bruce Peninsula and another time with Beirut. Fitting, since tUnE-yArDs had opened for Beirut at The Music Hall of Wiliamsburg only days prior. Garbus spoke of the experience with obvious elation: "We just opened for Beirut," she told us, "and friggin' Bjork was in the audience!" Now the band is opening for Dirty Projectors and showing up on major year end lists. I feel lucky to have caught this act at such an exciting time in its career.

3. Japanther/Ninjasonik at Sala Rossa - Apr 4

I can't say this show made the list for musical quality alone, and anyone who knows either band knows I mean this as a compliment. Both Japanther and Ninjasonik are at least as interested in starting a party as playing songs. Both share origins in Brooklyn's punk, hip-hop, and art school scenes, and both create something that is equal parts trash and art. Whichever one wins out depends on how trashed you are at the time. It's the musical equivalent of Duchamp's urinal.

Lest I make these guys sound too deep, let me be clear that their show was nothing but boozy, rowdy, sweaty fun. Ninjasonik hit us with witty rap lyrics ("Art School Girls" slays me) but were not above throwing on a well known tune and getting down with the audience. Japanther turned the show into an art-punk aerobics class with their unceasing, percussive energy. I will forever remember it as the night when a hipster chick in thick-rimmed glasses headbutted me twice in the mosh pit and gave me a bloody nose, then started kicking me when I bitched her out over it. Somehow we became friends after that. (What's up Nadège!)

4. Bell Orchestre at La Tulipe - Apr 19

Bell Orchestre's performance boasted by far the best musicianship I saw all year. There isn't much else I can say about the music that I didn't already put in my original review.

But aside from its sheer awesomeness, this show made me thankful to live in Montreal, where so many exceedingly talented musicians never put down their instruments. I'd seen most of the members in the preceding months in bands like Snailhouse, Torngat, and Harbourcoats (above), and would see others in a transcendent improvisational jam with White Pine Waltz on the last night of Pop Montreal. The music in this city just keeps on going, taking weird turns into different rooms and different fingers, sometimes stopping for a bow at a grand gala like this show at La Tulipe. It also just happened to be the first concert I reviewed for Midnight Poutine.

5. Braids at Lab.Synthese - Apr 24

It feels like everyone in Montreal is in a band, so when I first met a member of Braids at a Mile End party early this year, I filed their name away with countless other local acts I intend on seeing someday. A couple months later one of my students asked if I'd heard of them and suggested I check out their show. Yes, I had! And I'm so happy I went.

I gathered several friends and crossed the train tracks to the weird and loveable industrial area below Petit Italia, home of the now defunct artist loft space Lab.Synthese. Braids went on around midnight and led us into their musical imagination - a place of ambient noise, washed out reverb, looping guitar lines, and mysterious droning overtones, all tied together with bouncy dual vocal lines. They returned to their native Calgary over the summer to record a full length album that I eagerly await alongside any other great release scheduled for 2010. I'm not alone when I say they're one of the best new bands in Canada.

6. Mixylodian, Wax Mannequin, Silly Kissers, Museum Pieces and I don't even know what else at The Outdoors Club - May 1

If I ever have children, and if they ever ask, "Hey dad, what's a loft party?," my answer will be a recounting of this night. Or at least the parts I can remember and divulge to minors. I certainly recall waking up the next morning to two separate phone calls from two different friends saying, "Oh my god, I think I did something terrible last night."

Leaving those stories aside, The Outdoors Club is not a real venue, just a thing that happened in an upper-Mile End loft on DeGaspe; a cavernous, wood-floored room with a giant window overlooking the Des Carrières Incinerator. Its location was kept secret, leaving everyone to find their way through friends of friends. The show gave way to dance party by 2am and reached its peak around 4am, the orphaned hour between last call and sunrise, when booze stashed in backpacks became more valuable than gold. I walked home in the morning light wondering what kind of trouble my friends had gotten into and amazed at how life could be so sweet. It was my last big night before Summer.


7. Young Galaxy at Il Motore (Pop Montreal) - Oct 1

Summer took me from the east coast to the west coast and left me with a giant scar on my upper arm and a craving for live music. It was only by late September that I finally resettled in Montreal - in time for the impossible marathon of music that is Pop Montreal. I had decided last year that I would buy myself a pass for 2009 and go nuts all five days. Young Galaxy came on the second day - my favorite overall, not least because a recently made friend came along for the whole ride. One thing you learn when wielding a pass is that only the most devoted and crazy music lovers are down for a full night of show hopping.

After seeing several bands and crossing several miles of Montreal pavement, boozed up from a 40 we split on the walk north, Young Galaxy lifted us off our sore legs with soaring, yearning, beautiful pop. It might be a meaningless coincidence, but their name perfectly captures their music: songs as vast and bright as the Milky Way, uttered with the hopefulness of youth. The same youthful confidence (some would say cockiness) that inspired them to walk away from Arts and Crafts in search of better offers. However you call it, this band is aware of its own greatness and wants its proper place among the stars. When they kicked into "Firestruck," their soulful set closer - boasting more harmonic melodrama than Purple Rain and more noise than a jet engine - for a precious moment, everything felt right with the world.

8. The Black Hollies at Barfly (Pop Montreal) - Oct 2

Late the following afternoon I took a long nap, drank coffee, and went out searching for more music. There was some stumbling upon takeoff: Japandroids had sold out, preventing anyone I knew from accompanying me for the night-closing trip to Divan Orange, and Barfly had reached capacity for passholders. I talked my way inside, only to catch the ridiculous and annoying faux-music of Moist Towlettes. I was vocally angry.

Then The Black Hollies saved the night with what I would name my favorite show of Pop Montreal. They come from New Jersey, but really, their home is in our collective rock n' roll conscience - channeling the spirit of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Sure, so does any band whose genre contains the word "rock," but this band does it extremely well. I realized that so few bands play anything blusey or soulful anymore, not because it's uncool, but because it's so goddamn hard to pull off properly. Between the unceasing tidal wave of drums and the barrage of screaming guitars, I lost my shit and yelled more times than I can remember. In the best way possible, The Black Hollies are not your common thinking man's indie band.

9. Vic Chesnutt at The Ukrainian Federation - Oct 26

It was Christmas afternoon, just under two months after he appeared at The Ukrainian Federation, that Vic Chesnutt was pronounced dead from an overdose of muscle relaxants. Speculation among friends and fans alike held that he had committed suicide.

At the risk of perpetuating the rumor, it is important to understand that he had battled depression, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies since a car crash left him paralyzed at the age of 18. I say this because his tragically short life should teach us a few things. One is that everyone should pursue their dreams regardless of whatever excuses they have for chickening out. Through all his troubles Chesnutt never put down his guitar and never stopped making heart-achingly honest and insightful music - a level of willpower I don't see in most completely healthy people. Another is that America needs a better healthcare system already. Chesnutt faced serious medical expenses all his life without holding insurance or making money consistently enough to pay them off, including this past year, when he spoke of owing the hospital between $35,000 and $50,000. It is unacceptable and even criminal that a successful artist with a common medical condition could still lack the funds necessary to cover his treatment.

I feel deeply privileged that I can always remember him for one of his final live performances. Chesnutt sat on The Ukrainian Federaiton stage flanked by members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mount Zion, and Fugazi, all of whom played on his most recent album, At The Cut, and seemed humbled to contribute their talents to such an amazing man's art. "Fuck the Ukrainians!," Chesnutt yelled, as he returned for one encore after another and blew past the venue's curfew. Everyone kept hoping for a little more before he left.

10. Dan Auerbach at Le National - Nov 8

The praise that I showered upon The Black Hollies for playing gutsy blues rock could just as well apply to Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys frontman simply knows how to write a riff. If you're a guitar player and your name isn't Eric Clapton or something, I promise Auerbach could play anything you play a hundred times better. Whatever you wanna call it - soul, talent, balls - Auerbach has it, and this is especially apparent when he's playing live, doing his thing right in front of you.

Auerbach rolled through songs from his solo album Keep it Hid with a live crew consisting of psychedelic rock/soul outfit Hacienda and Patrick Hallahan of My Morning Jacket. After catching a few too many sloppy or underdeveloped indie rock bands recently (none of them mentioned here, of course) it was refreshing watching such a talented and tight group of musicians conjure the devil's music for two hours.

11. Murder Ford Monument at Casa del Popolo - Dec 5

Lest that poke I just took at indie rock made me sound cynical, I wanna be clear that I am overjoyed by the number of excellent new bands hitting stages around Montreal these days. One of them is Murder Ford Monument. Their anthemic, Springsteen-esque "Black Moon Lake" has been blasting on my iPod headphones for several weeks and I've been telling friends to check out their self-titled debut album. One such friend complained of the sound quality at their recent Casa show - he said the guitars were too loud and harsh and made it hard to enjoy the songs. I agreed, but for a very particular reason: Murder Ford Monument have outgrown small rooms, and I hope (and fully expect) they move to bigger and better things in 2010.

12. Malajube at Metropolis - Dec 18

Speaking of outgrowing small rooms, I first saw Malajube play a small club in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu when I rode along with opening act Bonjour Brumaire (a band that sadly broke up this year, just before releasing an album of new material). The place was cramped at best. I watched from the side of the stage, which meant I could see the intricacies of their masterful performance, but the mix sucked and there was no room for their music to breathe. After that I always said I needed to see them play a bigger venue.

Fast forward to December 18th when they rocked the shit out of a massive crowd at Metropolis. I stood back as far as possible - top of the balcony, center - and experienced the show in its largest form. The mix was perfect, their sound huge and all-consuming. Malajube are a veteran Montreal band at the top of their game, bringing a level of intensity and precision all their own, and any other music act would do well to study them. This show came off as a well deserved hometown victory lap. I couldn't imagine closing my year on a better note.

20091228VicChesnutt.pngVic Chesnutt (November 12, 1964 - December 25, 2009) at the Ukrainian Federation. See more photos here.

Photograph of the crowd at Japanther and Ninjasonik's Sala Rossa show taken by Benjamin Verdicchio.
Photograph of much-missed concert venue and artist space Lab.Synthese taken from City Center's blog.



Nathan / December 27, 2009 at 05:56 pm
"If you're a guitar player and <b> you're </b> name isn't Eric Clapton or something, I promise Auerbach could play anything you play a hundred times better."

I'm emailing your supervisor. Say goodbye to your grad funding.
Lady Marie / December 28, 2009 at 02:42 pm
OMG Vic Chesnutt past away?! I'm flabbergasted! Vic yelled Fuck the Ukrainians!, after i told him that he couldn't just leave like that! For me, that night was magical, he delivered every song with such emotion You could of heard a fly in the crowd, everyone was hanging at he's every word. I still have goosebumps just thinking of it, there was something special about that performance.

He will be missed.
Lady Marie / December 28, 2009 at 03:04 pm
Here's a picture from that nights performance, i took it when everyone had left, he was signing autographs while the crew was picking up after there performance.

October 24, 2009 at the Ukrainian Federation

Greg / December 28, 2009 at 03:12 pm
Thanks so much for the photo! Do you mind if I paste it at the bottom of the article? Will give you photo credits. What a great concert - if you were the one who made him come back, then many, many thanks!
Lady Marie / December 28, 2009 at 03:48 pm
He was talking to a woman in the front row...Yeah that was me. Like i told you, i had goosebumps from that performance, i just didn't want the night to end.

Yes you can paste the picture, i have a couple more, but the lighting and my camera where not cooperating...so there not great quality. But you're welcome to them, i have a clip as well. It will be on my flickr page.
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