REVIEWS: POP Montreal 2015

15 festival highlights feat. coup-de-coeur rappers, a legend that stunk it up, the great band-name controversy and the mind-blowing, bone-rattling sets we’ll never forget.


The line-up for The Reflektor Tapes premiere screening outside the Rialto. Photo by Cindy Lopez

It wouldn’t be September in Montreal without POP. For the 14th time since the festival began in 2002, POP Montreal mounted shows, parties, fairs, film screenings and art exhibitions in dozens of venues from Sept. 16-20, including 3.5 spaces within the Rialto complex on Parc alone — among them was the Clubhouse, a cool new addition to the festival experience, with guest chefs and DJs welcoming festival goers every night.

The Cult MTL crew partied hard and saw some great shows at the Rialto and a bunch of other venues, under the sun at the afternoon outdoor shows, in the bars primetime till midnight and back to the Rialto for the parties that ran into the wee hours.

Here are our reviews of the most memorable sets we saw at POP 2015 (for more visuals, see our festival photo galleries: Part 1, Part 2):

Besnard Lakes (Rialto Hall)

The local band known for their softcore psychedelic sound, echoing the mad-genius art-pop of Brian Wilson and Kevin Shields (among others) , used their POP Montreal set to experiment with an expanded line-up. The five-piece was joined by a dozen other musicians and singers, among them members of Stars, Thus Owls singer Erika Angell and country chanteuse Katie Moore. Rather than create a set-long cacophony of sound, the additional players brought sparkle and heft to different songs, never drowing out the beauty of the songs and their core elements, like co-lead singer Jace Lasek’s falsetto. The ensemble delivered the songs with substance and grace, and luckily that was enough — the show in the upstairs Rialto Hall was heavy on vibes but low on spectacle, the foggy light show further diminishing the view of the musicians, who were standing at the same level as the dense crowd. (Lorraine Carpenter)

Bully (Divan Orange)

For me, POP Montreal is always one of the most fun times of year — flying from venue to venue by bike in the cool autumn air (hey, we had that one day), running into friends at every turn, seeing favourite bands and discovering new music. One such discovery this year was Nashville’s Bully, who followed local boys-on-fire Heat at Divan Orange Sunday night — the two bands have partnered up for a five-week north-American tour which is just beginning. I’d been planning to switch venues after seeing Heat (who themselves played a blistering set of straight-up rock n’ roll, with frontman Susil Sharma oozing all the attitude of a young Lou Reed), but as soon as Bully played their first licks of hook-filled grunge, I was intrigued enough to stay, and I’m glad I did. Frontwoman Alicia Bognanno (who fills the roles of lead guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer and sound engineer) flipped back and forth between a raspy Courtney Love holler to sweetly expressive clarity with such ease it’s like seeing two singers in one. Add her personality-to-spare to the group’s catchy as hell, fast-paced guitar driven smashers and you’ve got yourself a new favourite rock band. (Lisa Sproull)

Cannibal Ox, Jean Grae, Wasiu (Club Soda)

After 14 years in absentia from Montreal, NYC’s indie champs didn’t miss a beat on Friday night. Accompanied by longtime homies Poison Pen, Swave, Double A.B. and DJ LoKash, the Crimson Godz balanced classics, new joints, guest sets and a smashing finale into what I’d call the rap show to see this fall, as they continue on their crushing journey across a full-out U.S. tour in the coming weeks. No Can Ox fan, new or old, will leave short of elated — trust. Jean Grae’s opening set was smart, sharp, sassy and excellent, and local hope Wasiu got the early crowd on our feet and in the mood from the jump. A superb showcase and a treat for rap fans. (DM)

Caveboy (Cagibi)

Another new discovery for me this POP was Caveboy (formerly Diamond Bones), an all-lady trio holding down two synths, a guitar, bass and drums whose highly danceable sound is somewhere between Tegan & Sara and Beach House, full of reverb and harmony and floating easily from fast-paced electro dance beats to languid waves of dreamy melodies that perfectly showcase the painfully pretty vocals of lead singer Michelle Bensimon. It was a hot and sweaty night more like July than September, but that didn’t stop Caveboy from climaxing their set with a blasting three-way drum session that saw all three members playing drummer Lana Cooney’s kit. The band is dropping a new album on Oct. 9 — get a taste of it with the recently released video (starring Tranna Wintour) for the album’s first single “Something Like Summer.” (LS)

The Cribs (Théâtre Fairmount)

It had been nearly a decade since melodiously crunchy and throaty all-bro trio the Cribs last crossed the pond to play Montreal, which is unfortunate since we missed the Brits when Johnny Marr was their guitarist for a three-year spell. No matter, as the youthful Jarman brothers – bassist Gary was unfazed by a broken hand he suffered the day before lugging gear – made it up to the few dedicated Montrealers patient enough to ride it out for almost 10 years by unexpectedly bringing out Sonic Youther Lee Ranaldo to recite from paper his spoken-word part on “Be Safe” from 2007’s Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever. A stellar, criminally under-attended rock ‘n roll show. (Erik Leijon)

Jess Glynne (Le Belmont)

As far as palpable hype goes, no artist blew into this year’s POP with as much wind in their sails as the 25-year-old British pop singer. She’s the featuring vocalist on the unavoidable Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be” and Route 94’s “My Love,” and her new debut album could position her as the next U.K. blue-eyed-soul star to emerge from their current glut. Belmont was packed for her first Canadian show, where she was backed by a full band and backing singers. It started off slowly, as if Glynne was almost surprised by the positive reception she was receiving on foreign soil. She eventually found her groove after covering Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own.” She’s green, but closer “Hold My Hand” hinted that Glynne will grow into a starring role. (EL)

KROY (Divan Orange)

With beautiful and versatile vocals, tightly constructed melodic tunes and a diverse palette of very cool beats and synth sounds, the other project by Camille Poliquin (who’s half of Milk & Bone) doesn’t sound like a side venture at all, and it’s not solo either. KROY is usually a trio live, but at this Sunday afternoon show they played as a duo (minus a drummer), with both Poliquin and her stage-mate keeping their hands busy with keyboards and controls. The material ranged from upbeat almost-pop to moody ballads, some of it riding a majestic Björk-like arc, some of it echoing the kind of creepy music-box chants you hear in evil-doll horror movies. With a room that had very little atmosphere to speak of (this was the free brunch where hundreds of people showed up for free food and promptly left), it was all up to KROY to lay it on, and they did. Give them a light show and a little dry ice and there would be magic. (LC)

Jai Nitai Lotus, Lady Ace Boogie, Princess Eud, Ded Kray-Z (Club Balattou)

I headed up to this jam to support the brother Jai Nitai Lotus and his band. Small showcases can go a lot of ways at POP, and hidden gems can get lost in the shuffle. I found a couple of diamonds as I two-stepped through the predictably dope, crisp Lotus set (that’s actually bullshit, I was sitting) into the absolute illness of relative Detroit unknown Lady Ace Boogie, who battered — I mean really bruised — that mic until everyone in the room knew her name for keeps. And then, without warning, for me, Haitian pop-rap duo Princess Eud and Ded Kray-Z, straight off the plane from their homeland, danced, sang, rapped and shook it — all as their DJ cut non-stop on CDJs — to the delight of everyone. POP is all about discovery and this was my coup-de-coeur of the fest, for sure. (DM)

Lyric Michelle (TRH-Bar)

A flight delay caused Houston’s Lyric Michelle (and if you can’t figure out that is a rapper name, I can’t help ya) to miss her slot at Friday’s Can Ox show. Luckily a slot was found for her Saturday at TRH-Bar’s Chuggo & Friends showcase. Not a second was wasted as the spoken word poet turned MC gave her first-ever Canadian audience a 360-degree taste of her styles, from pensive to party rocking. The small crowd and all our attention was drawn straight to the stage from the first word to the last. I saw several examples of powerful female rap performances over the course of the fest, but this particular artist stands out as one to watch out for on the current rap landscape, regardless of gender. Then Chuggo brought out a couple of strippers and it all went to hell — the good hell.

Giorgio Moroder (Église St-Jean Baptiste)

Rubbing shoulders with the Daft Punk robots in recent years may have brought renewed interest to his musical legacy, but Friday night’s show saw Giorgio Moroder-produced classics like “Take My Breath Away” and “The Chase” maddeningly reduced to modern-day mainstream EDM remixes. After all, this is the man who caused Brian Eno, upon hearing “I Feel Love” for the first time in 1977, to proclaim that it would change the sound of club music for the next 15 years. This suspiciously seamless DJ set (which was paced to perfectly match the accompanying visuals) felt like he was pandering to current commercial trends. Kudos to POP Montreal, however, for re-introducing us to the real star of the show: Église Saint-Jean Baptiste. The church glittered and dazzled with an impressive display of projected lights (used to fantastic effect by opening act Organ Mood) that accentuated the stained-glass windows, original chandeliers and Baroque architecture. (Mike Sallott)

Nancy Pants (Divan Orange)

Can we call Nancy Pants a supergroup? The band features the ever-dynamic Ohara Hale, scene stalwart Adam Waito and drummer Jeremy MacCuish (also of Smokes, Nanimal and Parlovr). Opening up with “Happy,” the set was a blast of high energy right from the start, with Hale’s hearty yelping and cooing adding an extra layer of elemental vibrancy to the band’s hook-filled power pop blasts. Hale’s energy turned out to be too much for her guitar strings, one of which snapped within the first couple of songs, leading her to crowdsource a replacement guitar from the audience. Back on track shortly after that quick derailment, the set continued with a mix of hits and new material, inspiring flare-ups of crowdsurfing at the front of the packed house. Nancy Pants is one of those bands that you just know you’re going to have a fun time with, and the teaser of new songs presented at POP gives us more than enough reason to keep coming back. (LS)


Chuggo and the crowd. Photo by Cindy Lopez

Park BBQs (Quartiers POP)

For the first year ever, POP set up a little tent stage and a BBQ pit in the green space adjacent to its festival HQ on St-Urbain, and for the first two days of the fest it was magic. On Wednesday I caught the tail end of an ass-shaking set from Afro-Latin outfit Fanfarai and the much-merited ballyhoo of surprise special guests Ought. Thursday opened my ears to the psych/punk/funk of Samito and his live power trio, the weird and wicked MPC/Moog driven soul of Sene & Denetia, and the near death experience of Chuggo’s dog. That last one is a joke. Apparently the neighbours have no sense of humour, though, as daytime noise complaints from people with nothing better to do managed to shut down the musical component for the remainder of the weekend. Power to the people, I guess. (DM)

Where’s Chuggo? (Quartiers POP)

During a short break in the action at Thursday’s BBQ, as Cult MTL photog Cindy Lopez and I relaxed with a drink and some almonds, care of the Tangerine promo booth – by the way, top-notch candy ‘n’ snack swag, dudes – a rather disconcerted young gentleman entered the small green space with one question on his mind: “Where’s Chuggo?” He approached Cindy and I and bellowed his inquiry in our ears. Then without waiting for our reply, he ambled zombie-like over to the Tangerine booth and asked the promo reps again, frantically, “Where’s Chuggo?” It must be noted that he was wearing headphones and yelling his query into his cell. It then appeared that he asked a contest ballot box situated on the bar his burning question. Unsatisfied by the results, he wandered back to the street, presumably in further pursuit of Chuggo. Dude – you missed Chuggo. #WheresChuggo (DM)

The Sonics (Fairmount Theatre)

The five piece garage-rock, proto-punk pioneers jammed hard, fast and loud, with three original members, to a boisterous and bewildered crowd who had been properly primed with a raucous opening set from local faves les Breastfeeders. The Sonics played a mixture of old standards (“Louie, Louie”), cult classics like “Have Love, Will Travel” and “The Witch,” as well as a number of cuts from their new LP, This Is the Sonics. These defiantly triumphant septuagenarians may not write songs about psychopaths and drinking strychnine for kicks anymore, but they still wail — a point underscored by virtue of the fact that their new songs, (taken from their first new album in over 49 years and recorded entirely in mono) held up well alongside the old stuff and had the kids hollering and stomping on the floorboards somethin’ fierce. (MS)

Renny Wilson (Divan Orange)

Sometimes with festivals of this nature, cool bills that are stacked with up and coming talent get buried in the program. And that is a shame. However, if there is one thing I have learned over the past couple years at POP Montreal, it’s that pulling an “Irish goodbye” and dashing off to another venue frequently pays off. So, don’t be afraid to ditch your friends. Hell— if I hadn’t, I might have missed the opportunity to catch Renny Wilson and his band of merry, manic punks doing their take on Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero,” along with other cuts taken from last year’s solid Punk Explosion. (MS)

IMG_8445 Saxsyndrum - La Vitrola

AP Bergeron and Justin Wright on stage with Saxsyndrum. Photo by Lisa Sproull

More memorable moments:

A few quick shoutouts to some of my favourite moments of the festival: Saxsyndrum’s joyful and exhilarating Friday late-night set at la Vitrola, which saw cellist Justin Wright and Year of Glad’s A. P. Bergeron joining forces with the duo (Dave Switchenko and Nick Schofield) for a set that included a blistering rendition of their Giorgio Moroder tribute cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” One of my big regrets of the fest was missing the same foursome playing Year of Glad’s songbook at Theatre Fairmount earlier that same night, but at least I made the afterparty.

Other notable sets for me included Fredericton’s Motherhood on Thursday night at Barfly (who tossed in a couple of bluesy tracks alongside their usual catchy power pop), Saint John’s Little You Little Me, Friday night at Cagibi (which was hands down the most explosive and riotous example of headbanging, thrashing, crazy fun garage rock I saw all fest), a midnight Doldrums dance party Friday night at Club Lambi, the always exciting new school riot-grrrls Heathers at Brasserie Beaubien late Sunday night (sample lyric: “This is our creative community; don’t fuck with our ingenuity!”), the last few minutes of Braids’ set at the Piccolo, which I feel so lucky to have caught just before they finished, and the spot-on throwback cover bands Play Guitar (Talking Heads) and the Smiffs (the Smiths) at the festival’s closing party—there’s just nothing like hearing some of your favourite songs of all time being played live. Highlight moment: When Stars’ Torquil Campbell joined the Smiffs on stage for a song and a spliff.

See photos of these artists and many more in our POP Montreal 2015 galleries: Part 1, Part 2.