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Reflections: Musical memories in Montreal

Having recently moved from Montreal for a stint in suburban Boston (an area which boasts a paucity of culture and charming air of dulled desperation), I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on a few musical memories from the past few years in my favorite city.

I’ll start with Tam Tams, possibly my single favorite thing about Montreal (although drinking on terrasses and the general enthusiasm for bring-your-own-wine dinners make likely contenders.) Every Sunday, a laissez-faire drum circle gathers near the base of the statue at Parc Mont Royal, and by two in the afternoon, the park and surrounding woods are absolutely overflowing with picnickers, families, LARP-ers, slackliners, drinkers, acid trippers, dancers, food peddlers, drug peddlers, sellers of ambiguously-ethnic knick-knacks, and scores and scores of weather-happy sunbathers that all spin out from the tireless percussionists and the giddy wall of dancers surrounding them.

I was walking by at ten or eleven one incandescent morning this May, an hour at which the human wall was still but a ring, the sunlight clean and perfect, the drummers framed against pink blossom trees on green slopes as intricate polyrhythms swirled out of their fingers. Then a light breeze blew, and all the petals swirled through the air at once and seemed to blend into the tumbling drumbeats, a cripplingly lovely visual-sonic textile, a bewildering and perfect synesthesia. I don’t think there was ever a place I felt more viscerally compelled to remain than right there.

This spring also boasted a fantastic Mardi Gras electroswing night at Divan Orange. Old Time Honey, a cheeky bluegrass/calypso/zydeco/Cajun-inspired band, played swinging, frenetic dance numbers, and just when I thought the mood was at its zany peak, a vaudeville-esque strip dancer appeared on stage. Another electroswing night, at the velvety Lion D’Or, was equally exuberant, but in a wealthy-1920s-speakeasy-meets-and-falls-in-love-with-EDM sort of way.

These bimonthly-ish electroswing events have definitely been the “trendy evening out” of 2014. Sure, the flapper thing has been way overdone in the college-girl-theme-party set, but the commitment to the aesthetic, undeniable quality of music (Lion had a live electric violinist playing over the DJ set), ecstatic (...) energy of the dancers, and sheer fun of it all quickly nixed my overly-sensitive contrivedness-detectors. (Besides, redoing this aesthetic makes a hell of a lot more sense than, say, redoing choker necklaces, which seem to be making a worrisome comeback in the northeastern US this summer. Isn’t it too early to bring back the 2000s circa Britney? I guess our generation’s penchant for retro-recycling knows no limits.)

Standing out in memory in terms of other electronic music was a little show promoted by the Pop Montreal organization last August, held on a grim industrial pier jutting out into the river somewhere near Rue University (an area full soot-stained brick and probably the roving ghosts of nineteenth century mill workers.) It was one of the most bizarre concert set-ups I’ve ever seen; arriving in the black dark of well-past-midnight, it looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, like I’d only just been pulled out of the Matrix, humanity was all hidden away, everything was quiet and still except for the muffled noise emanating from the little platform at the distant end of the cement pier. We were facing away from the city, and spectral metal towers graced our skyline. The dance floor was exuberant but also kind of zen. Between sets, people were calm and kind with each other. The DJ's choices traced and cultivated the happy mood of the crowd and fostered a sense of togetherness without the benefit of an enclosed club space or a wild light show. I imagined we were all dancing to the end of the world.

Another night this spring I went to La Sala Rossa, the high-ceilinged, dubiously-solidly-floored concert space above the municipal Spanish club’s restaurant, in order to see an audio-video performance described in tantalizingly vague terms in the Suoni per il Popolo festival handbook.

The first act was dreadful. Two keyboardists sat somberly in front of a full-wall projection of a depressing-looking Scottish mountain holding slow-shifting drone notes for over forty minutes of torture. In between acute bouts of wanting to kill myself, I could see that the projection was actually a video, and fog occasionally receded a bit and then rolled back out. Thrilling, I’m sure. I get that it was conceptual, and I tried unsuccessfully to appreciate that the notes slipped briefly into more major tones when the sun peaked out, but I found it all unbearably pretentious. Maybe I would have had more luck if I’d been on ketamine.

The second set (Phillip Jeck, Michaela Grill, and Karl Lemieux) made up for it, and then some. I can’t really remember what the music was like (it was electronic, from a laptop, not cheerful, but not as dirge-y as the openers), and all I can say to describe the video was that it was the closest representation I’ve ever seen of the human mind in that trance-like time before falling asleep, when you’re not yet dreaming, but you’re seeing things behind your eyelids you wouldn’t be able to if conscious. Shapes appear and recede, things spin round and round and then spin into other things, colors morph and bloom. It’s all densely layered and hard to focus on. At one point in the video you could, maybe, see a woman dancing behind some other things for awhile, and then turn into a mouse, or maybe just a shadow. For awhile the screen split into three panels that moved at different rates, sometimes. The music lined up in a way that I could appreciate as an artistic stab at mapping the audio landscape in color and shape.

In terms of music that I would actually listen to on my iPod or in my house, a resounding shout out here to Alice Russell, a saucy, funky, pop-soul power-crooner who uses both live brass and bass-heavy electronic super-beats for backing. I saw her perform at Le Belmont (an unexpectedly awesome place to see a live show; I’d only ever been there for its real clubby, dubsteppy dance nights, but the dirty setting actually had a quaint intimacy for this sort of thing, and a pleasingly mixed-age, mixed-language crowd.)

Also the Cat Empire (alternative rock with heavy ska and Latin influence), long favorites of mine whom I saw at Metropolis. Their albums are tight and polished, but the live setting allows them burst into exuberant sax solos that wind on for a glorious forever. They really shine at this type of improvisation, but it wouldn't necessarily translate well to record. The band’s live energy and delight was heady and infectious; the atmosphere felt intimate and super jam-party, despite the big venue. It was definitely the best large-venue concert I’ve ever seen.

A quick shout out for Japanese-pop-band-night at Divan Orange and the bemusing mosh pit it somehow engendered, as well as Ms. Satchmo, a sassy brass band with a killer lead singer that I saw at Upstairs several years ago. Also, Les Deuxluxes, my favorite of the Etoiles-du-Metro consortium of up-and-coming local bands. I’ve noticed fellows Street Meat gaining marked notoriety since I first saw that kind of attractive guy balancing on his upright bass in Place Jacques Cartier several years ago, and I’m hoping the same for Les Deuxluxes. The amount of power and skill in Meyer’s rocking bluesy vocals is just silly.

There are dozens of others I should write about, but I’ll close for now with another image of Tams, from one of my last nights in Montreal. I was in mourning over my imminent departure, aching through to my marrow, and I didn’t want to hang out with anyone but the city itself. I wandered around for awhile, hands in pockets, and ended up at the park sometime after ten, when the drums were still raging and the dance-floor still dense (if much smaller) The sun-hordes had departed from the Elysian fields, stragglers (on average, a little more unwholesome-looking) lurked around the periphery with cans of beer and joints. I sat on a wall scant feet from the drummers, and, after repelling a few would-be suitors (that’s tooting my own horn a little much, “undiscriminating opportunists” would be closer to the mark), lost myself in the pounding rhythms. Eventually a bagpiper from the other side of the park strode over, dick-ish face set in place, and, like an obnoxious goose, proceeded to troll everyone with incessant, atonal blares (what terrible, terrible instruments bagpipes can be.) Shirtless men with coke-concave chests growled their protest. Barefooted women in sarongs threw up their hands disgustedly. The drummers faltered. But then, lo, the pied piper simmered down and decided to join the party. He shifted into long, wailing drones filled with nervous energy. The drums picked up and wove around them, African beats mixing with Celtic mysticism in a glorious dance that sounded as old as creation. The dancers lifted their hands in exultation. Feet stamped out ancient patterns in the dust. I got up and joined them. I spun round and round, the stars spun in the sky, I grinned up at the twirling angel statue, the whole city grinned back, the bagpiper reeled and rolled among the dancers, and leaning back, face furrowed, threw his whole body into another note of supplication offered up to the heavens. That’s how I like to remember Montreal.

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