When reading a bunch of CMJ coverage last month, I came across a story in the Village Voice about how CMJ isn’t a place of discovery anymore. Everyone knows going in who is going to blow up (like Drums this year, or Surfer Blood last year). It’s sort of predictable, in a way.
Inspired by that, I’ve decided to come to M for Montreal — a four-night festival designed to showcase Montreal-based bands (and general Canadian bands in the neighborhood) and position the city as a musical epicenter worthy of international reportage — (mostly) blind. Apart from the bands I wrote up in my preview piece — PS I Love You, Dears, Priestess, AIDS Wolf and Suuns — I haven’t listened to anyone here. I really want to have the experience of getting my socks rocked off by some band I’ve never heard of. Most music festivals are too expensive for you to not come in with a micro-managed schedule of familiar bands you want to see. But in this case, I have literally no expectations for 75 percent of the lineup.
(I also have no interest in seeing another draw for the festival, human boning machine Gene Simmons, who is here representing Simmons Records and filming an episode of his reality show, Family Jewels. The CBC dudes I met on the bus seemed pretty stoked that they might get to see Simmons’ bologna face; me, I’m just hoping he doesn’t try to add me to the tally of people he’s humped — which is something like 4,500, just a few more than mine….)
Back to the music: Montreal is, of course, a musical epicenter, but not every band from Montreal is the Arcade Fire. So this is a big deal for bands here that don’t get international coverage. A lot of the delegates here are here to network with band officials, radio people, publicists, and so forth, which probably makes this the best soundtracked business conference of all time.
My “blind” approach served me well last night, when I was floored by the experimental haziness of Montreal (by way of Calgary) band Braids. I had heard from a French delegate that they were fantastic, but nothing prepared me for this; the billowing art-rock the four-piece whirled up was one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time. There are too many influences in there to count — Deerhoof, Portishead, Cocteau Twins — yet it’s wholly original. The band recently signed to Kanine, the label that broke Surfer Blood and Chairlift, so expect the same for Braids when their debut album, Native Speaker, is released in January.
Check the awesome “Lemonade” right here:
In a bit of horse-trading, the first night’s showcases were sponsored by Iceland Airwaves and the Great Escape, two festivals similar in spirit to M for Montreal in Iceland and England. Iceland Airwaves’ showcase was all Iceland, all the time. The first band was an impossibly young septet called Retro Stefson, a band that’s oldest member couldn’t have been older than 20. Retro Stefson specialize in Pixi Stix sugar-rush prog dancers, with songs that sometimes stretch to seven or eight minutes. Their songs are all in Icelandic, all energetic, and all just not quite ready for the big time. They tried damn hard to make people get into it, though; they led the audience in multiple dance instructions, and even had a goofy Icelandic rap.
The other band from Iceland, the acoustic folk whisperers Lay Low, were often overshadowed by the crowd’s noise — but then again, so was the MC — but of the bands I saw yesterday, they probably have the most commercial appeal. Imagine an Icelandic Norah Jones doing songs for a Western Depression-era film, and you wouldn’t be far off.
Great Escape sponsored the aforementioned Braids and Montreal’s pre-eminent new-wave punks, We Are Wolves. Unfortunately, by the time We Are Wolves were set to go on, I had been awake for something like 20 hours straight, and I was exhausted and went to my hotel to crash. So, sorry We Are Wolves: I heard your set was awesome, and that you’ve improved since last year. To make it up to you, I’ll buy one of your ever-present T-shirts.
As for me, I’m looking forward to today’s sets by PS I Love You, the band I’m most excited to see, AIDS Wolf, and other official Montreal selections. And I’ll be here reporting about M for Montreal until Sunday, so be sure to check in through the weekend (or Monday, if things get away from me) for coverage.