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Quebec’s Festival of Emerging Music offers surprises at every turn

September 10, 2015

Deerhoof, Ponctuation, and The Fleshtones highlight a truly unique event.

Deerhoof (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec is a bucolic utopia six hours north-west of Montreal. In this music-loving mining city, children, adults and the elderly throw down to pop-punk in poutine shops. Raves stretch until the early morning light, late ’70s cult acts are treated like rock stars, and hundreds of horns are raised for operatic metal. Perhaps most importantly, like New Orleans or Las Vegas, drinks can be ordered to go on the street with no questions asked about the contents of your yellow plastic mug.

I was sent here to write about le festival de musique émergente d’Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FMEAT, to avoid the mouthful), a four-day celebration of “emerging music” (whatever that means). The event seemed to spare no expense, from steak and seafood banquets to flashy venues (one of which was given a $2 million dollar facelift) to the cargo cult of music journalists flown in from Toronto, Saskatoon, Vancouver, and the UK.

The Toronto crew (Photo: Kat Stewart)

Our adventure began as we filed on board a tiny 10-seater prop plane. After getting past the novelty/fear of wobbling above the clouds and staring through the front window like a flight simulator, I happily indulged in some chocolate and cheese. We touched down at the equally miniature Abitibi airport and taxid into town. There, we were greeted by billboard-sized FME letters, a giant cobra built from hoop tunnels, and hyperactive kids chasing each other around BMX ramps. Off we go!

Deerhoof (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Night one of the festival began in full swing with a quintessential performance from Deerhoof. The San Francisco quartet have always straddled the line between frenetic and frenzied, cuddly and crazed, and this set was no different. There’s a lot to take in with the the jagged guitar riffs spiking left to right or the pep rallies of singer Satomi Matsuzaki, but drummer Greg Saunier always steals the scene. His broken French banter (pausing the show to apologize to his bandmates for only packing a single pair of pants) was hilarious, but Saunier’s loose-limbed fills squeezing into the cracks between beats were the true spectacle.

Les Marinellis (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Stumbling into the night and down the basement steps of le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda (PTVN), the next act I caught was Brooklyn’s Crushed Out. The two-piece sent the crowd into a tizzy with their revved-up performance, but unfortunately the bloozy barrage of their music blended into a dull thud. Thankfully, Montreal’s Les Marinellis were there to crank up the energy levels with some Black Lips/Demon’s Claws-inspired twang. Their releases from P. Trash, Burger Records, and Telephone Explosion (back when they featured Le Kid) should teach you everything you need to know, but catching this band in their sneering, beer-spitting, gold-sequined glory is a whole other experience.

Ponctuation (Photo: Thomas Dufresne)

After spending a few hours sitting poolside at the annual corn roast, I was primed to see Quebec City’s Ponctuation. I had witnessed brothers Gru and Max (no last names given) as a muscular duo, but now that they’ve added Laurence Gauthier-Brown on bass and fuzz organ, they’ve punched into a whole other weight class. This set was an obvious standout of the fest, with the dynamic trio busting out glam-stomp, pulsing motorik and psych-guitar wreckage, channeling Thee Oh Sees a hell of a lot better than other channelers. I’m happy to report that Ponctuation’s latest record La réalité nous suffit lives up to the tumult of their live show.

Duchess Says (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Duchess Says were up next, doing what they do best with an amped set of white-belted dance-punk. Singer Annie-Claude Deschênes was in fine form with her crowd surfing antics and thousand yard stare, but I couldn’t help but feel a touch of fatigue. They’ve been at it since 2003, and I’ve personally been down with the Duchess since 2008’s Anthologie des 3 Perchoirs, notable for its wubbed-out Six Finger Satellite cover. Yet for anyone who hadn’t seen them before (including a few members of our music crit crew) Duchess Says surely won some new fans.

Peregrine Falls (Photo: Thomas Dufresne)

Back down to the basement for Peregrine Falls, a burly post-rock duo with the emphasis on rock. It’s a lot to live up to their bio description (“a crossbreed of the Dead Kennedys and Ornette Coleman”), but the Vancouver two-piece showed off pummeling sludge riffs, groovy fusion-like swing, and slowed things down to an eerie shimmer. See their song “Gaza” for an especially goosebumpy example of the latter. Bearded burlers Gordon Grdina and Kenton Loewen are veterans of the Vancouver avant-jazz scene, playing with everyone from Mats Gustaffson to Dan Mangan. No, really.

The Fleshtones (Photo: Louis Jalbert)

Night two concluded with the most energetic act of the weekend: The Fleshtones! That might surprise you considering these lifers first oozed charisma onstage at CBGBs in 1976 (and want you to know about it with their song “Remember the Ramones”) but rest assured this is no mere retromania. Dressed to the nines and ready to get nuts, the quartet pulled off every trick in the super-rock rulebook: Shredding solos on top of a chair, conga lines through the crowd with their wireless guitars, push-up contests in the place of a mosh pit. I was so entertained that I came back the next night for a second helping, with the setlist expanding to include covers of Teenage Head (“Lucy Potato”), The Guess Who (“It’s My Pride”) and Led Zeppelin (“Communication Breakdown”, natch). Catch Fleshtones fever by any means necessary.

Chewbaka (Photo: Jesse Locke)

Saturday morning was devoted to a trip to Refuge Pageau, a shelter for wild animals in need of rehab. Residents on the mend include baby bears, arctic wolves, foxes, owls, hawks and a porcupine named Chewbaka who won my heart. If you’re in the Abitibi region, I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to escape the animals of the music fest for something a lot cuter. Bonus points to our tour guide for the best Instagram account I’ve ever seen. Fuck le crossfit!

Geneviève et Matthieu (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Returning to Rouyn, I had minutes to race over to the Centre d’exposition to catch local performance artists Geneviève et Matthieu. Though their music is described as a cross between Serge Gainsbourg and Stereo Total, the duo played their true hand with a Les Georges Leningrad sticker on their keyboard. Like that dearly departed and occasionally despised Montreal art-freak troupe, Geneviève et Matthieu conjured some wyrd Quebec sex-magic. Between songs charged with eroticism and Jabba the Hut vocal effects, the pair smashed their papier mache art objects and folded up into a giant taco balloon (there’s really no other way to describe it), all while being watched by a falsetto-singing man in a leather jacket and loincloth eating a bag of chips. More than any other performance, Geneviève et Matthieu kept the crowd captivated.

The Dodos (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Like Deerhoof, The Dodos are fellow artifacts of the aughties with a homebase in San Franciso. The duo of Meric Long (guitar) and Logan Kroeber (drums) were joined by the late Chris Reimer of Women shortly before his passing in 2012. Here, the original two-piece were firing on all cylinders, but also seemed to be hindered by the average FME set length stretching past the hour mark. Maybe I’m too used to the 30 minutes/no encore festival standard, but The Dodos’ emotional, drum-driven workouts seem best served in short bursts.

Safia Nolan (Photo: Christian Leduc)

Following another late night with The Fleshtones, the final day of the fest started slow. The first act I caught from the balcony of Agora des Arts was Safia Nolan, a 23-year-old singer who broke up her heart-on-sleeve melancholy with mumbled banter about Harry Potter. Montreal’s Seoul (formerly known as Cherry Chapstick) hit the stage next, and though they were advertised as “ambient R&B”, the band’s revelation as Phoenix-lite synth-pop left me a bit cold.

Fortunately, Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse were there to overtake the evening with some cartoonishly over the top (and wildly entertaining) metal. Growled vocals, synchronized hair whips, and machine gun blast beats would be nothing new on their own, but the band fully committed to their chosen theme with a masked opera singer, symphonic samples, plus a costume of frock coats, painted faces, and bow ties. Banter was read from Dante’s Inferno and spaghetti in bags was sold on the merch table. Needless to say, the crowd ate up every minute of it, so I made like Corpusse and surrendered to the passion.

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