Deep in northern Quebec, nestled in a landscape of lakes and trees resembling a Group of Seven painting, lies the mining town of Rouyn-Noranda. Approximately 700 kilometres north of Toronto, it’s home to approximately 41,000 residents, though it feels significantly smaller. It’s a town with a disproportionate number of hotels, a proportionate number of Tim Hortons, and one bowling alley. It’s a town where you can go to a dive bar and order a shot for $5 and still have enough change to play a John Mellencamp song on the jukebox. It’s a town that’s rough around the edges, but if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised by its inhabitants’ friendliness and generosity (of course, having even a basic grasp of French helps). Since 2002, this is where the Emerging Music Festival (aka Festival Musique Émergente, or FME) takes place in late August.
Thanks to generous government funding, the organizers have been able to put together lineups better than many of your average, run-of-the-mill Canadian music festivals and there was a heavy media presence despite its remote location. This year’s FME offered something for everybody from death metal (Baltimore’s Misery Index) to family-friendly Afrobeat (Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars) to lo-fi synth-pop (Montreal’s Mozart’s Sister). True to the festival’s “anything goes” spirit, there were also a handful of surprise performances in unexpected places, like Rennes, France alt-rocker Laetitia Shériff playing outside a 24 hour poutine restaurant.
The festival got off to a strong start courtesy of Halifax singer-songwriter (and strong contender for the title of Hardest Working Man in Canadian Music) Rich Aucoin, who brought his usual bag of tricks (confetti, a rainbow parachute, various YouTube videos) and a handful of new feel-good pop tunes from his upcoming The Little Prince-inspired album Ephemeral. Backed by only one drummer, his older material benefitting from new, more muscular arrangements, he wasted no time starting a dance party on a closed off downtown city block. For his final act, he crowd-surfed using an actual surfboard, winning over even the surliest of local teens celebrating their last weekend before heading back to school.
While Montreal’s best-known recent musical exports have skewed towards pop (Arcade Fire, Grimes, Majical Cloudz), the city is also a hotbed of great garage rock bands. The Ding-Dongs, a collaboration between Bloodshot Bill and King Khan’s occasional right hand man Mark Sultan (aka BBQ Show), provided a ‘50s-indebted rock ’n’ roll soundtrack for some lively two-step dancing Saturday night (fittingly, the bill also included a set from New York’s Miriam Linna, former drummer for The Cramps, Maureen Tucker, and others).
Consisting of members of CPC Gangbangs (R.I.P.), the underrated Duchess Says, and Red Mass (who also played the festival), psych-punk outfit PyPy put on one of the best sets of the week, turning the crammed Scène Évolu-Son into a sweatbox. Even when one of their members donned an orca head mask, co-lead singer Annie-Claude Deschênes drew the most attention, shrieking and rolling around on the ground. Pushing through the bottleneck of people lining up to buy their 2014 album Pagan Day, sweaty bodies were greeted by a welcome late summer downpour.
Influential Canadian post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor made all the headlines last year after winning (and subsequently decrying) the Polaris Prize for their long-awaited fourth album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, but de facto spokesman Efrim Menuck’s other band Thee Silver Mt. Zion has been the busiest in 2014, releasing the excellently titled Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything in January. Their Friday night set at Scène Paramount, a converted movie theatre with a top notch sound system (Rouyn-Noranda’s abundance of well-equipped venues puts larger cities to shame), had a queue before doors opened. Menuck kept the stage banter to bare bones song introductions while the band faced off in two lines like combatant armies, marching in time to drummer David Payant’s beats in the middle.
After rumours of a secret Arcade Fire appearance turned out to be for naught (the Montreal band played a hometown show the previous night), Sunday featured a performance from one of the group’s frequent collaborators and touring members, Owen Pallett. Apologizing for being fatigued, he lead his band through a career-spanning set (heavy on this year’s In Conflict), with a small boy in the front row mimicking Pallett’s drummer’s actions. He might have been setting the table for the night’s headliner, Quebec folk rock hero Daniel Bélanger, but the standing ovation the violinist received after ending with the one-two punch of “This Is The Dream Of Win & Regine” and “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” was every bit deserved.
Capping off the festival in fine style was Ought, another Montreal act who have enjoyed plenty of attention in 2014, and whose onstage confidence has grown in leaps and bounds due to nonstop touring and festivals. Backed into a tight corner, lead singer and guitarist Tim Beeler towered over an attentive but stoic audience, delivering carpe diem sermons and a taste of their upcoming EP. Until next year, FME.
Max Mertens ate poutine for supper three nights straight this week and has no regrets - @Max_Mertens
All Images by Graeme Phillips