M for Montreal exists in an unusual capsule of the Canadian music festival landscape. Occurring each year at the very end of festival season, mid-November to be precise, without the sun-drenched leniency afforded to outdoor music, the festival is tasked with delivering indoor programming impressive enough to buckle the onslaught of winter.
While there’s no denying the fact that the festival is primarily industry-facing, through a curatorial approach that amplifies the brightest spot’s of Montreal’s thriving music scene, there’s a palpable exploratory element to the festival—where each night highlights not only the capacity of the artist in the spotlight, but the vitality of the tightly-woven communities that gave birth to them. When you have access to the diversity of a city that consistently has several concurrent scenes generating buzz, like cooler than thou Montreal rap scene which has given rise to artists like Dead Obies, Nate Hussar and Lou Phelps, and more recently, Montreal-Toronto floater Zach Zoya, and the lyrically-dexterous Naya Ali, putting together stellar showcases isn’t an issue.
Canada’s penchant for helping midwife an ever-impressive, wide-reaching post-punk scene was on full display. For a genre that’s more than adept at responding to the reality of its environment, the fact that the most recent wave of excellent groups emerging from the city employ a unique blend of playfulness and urgency calls to attention the way giggling through stress (okay, maybe not quite giggling, but smirking?) can be a soothing mechanism. Unfolding live, it resulted in at least (1) stage-diving, mic-grabbing grandpa under a kaleidoscopic canopy of strobe lights during Corridor’s riotous midnight set at L’Esco. The night before, the below-freezing temperatures didn’t stop half of Pottery from hitting the stage crooning, belting, and shirtless. Local 5-piece Lemongrab returned the unbridled spirit of early 70s jangle-punk to an audience insistent on gobbling up the sheer precision of its energy.
P.E.I. artist Russell Louder was an obvious festival standout, whose meticulous mix of looping celestial melodies over the instant heartbeat of a malleable drum machine desired to soothe the chaos of the dancefloor. Coupled with an undeniably gutsy stage presence, there’s an excellent chance that Louder might be Canada’s next runaway success story. Elsewhere, Irish darkwave electronic sword-wielder Bad Bones thrilled and terrified with mythic, squealing synths, and U.K. J-Pop, indie hybrid group, Kero Kero Bonito made it clear that if a stuffed flamingo commands you to mosh, you have no choice but to obey.
At the expense of seeming pedestrian, M for Montreal reinforced what the programmers have already realized: that it’s entirely possible for a seamless blend of wildly dynamic artists—anglophone, francophone, and beyond—to organically coexist, not only on the same festival line-up but on the same bill, like Yiddish-Francophone artist SOCALLED’s opening set for Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher. For 4 consecutive days, I watched audiences not only embrace the shake-up, but thrive off of it, departing from shows puzzled and aching for more.
Taken as a whole, M for Montreal resolved to answer the long-standing, and ongoing, question of how to position a dynamic range of artists to an audience conditioned for familiarity: you mix em’ up, intentionally and thoughtfully. It means far more than challenging the linguistic, sonic, and cultural homogeneity of shows; it requires blending genres—and the communities that support them—to cultivate a wider music scene that combines and extends the devotion of audiences to include some fresh blood under its umbrella.