After electronic-music series MUTEK kicked off the belated music festival season in the second week of September, POP Montreal will give fans of alt-rap, indie rock, electro-pop, neo-folk and areas in between an opportunity to finally see some freakin’ shows from Sept. 23–27.
Among the artists playing the festival this year are Lido Pimienta (“ecstatic electric cumbia”), Clerel (“classic R&B”), Tyleen (“hip hop swagger”), Backxwash (“mind-blowing metal rap”), Flore Laurentienne (“cinematic orchestral bliss”), Plants & Animals (“plants make jazz”), Land of Talk (“stream of consciousness rock”), Socalled (“basement jam”), Thanya Iyer (“pizzicato jazz pop”), Paradis Artificiel (“experimental electronic pop”), Antoine Corriveau (“the dark prophet of French folk-rock”) and a Hot Tramp Records showcase featuring Janette King, Maryze and Alicia Clara.
Unlike MUTEK and Nuits d’Afrique (coming up next week), POP — which also features film and art programming, a series of panels and an artisan market, aka Film POP, Art POP, POP Symposium and Puces POP — has the distinction of being the only music festival of 2020 (so far) that is happening on schedule.
According to festival director Dan Seligman, that’s partly due to luck and late-September timing. Exactly two months before the festival was due to begin, Quebec public health announced that indoor gatherings of 250 people would be allowed, and the city of Montreal lifted its moratorium on festivals.
“We were kind of hoping and going under the assumption that we would be able to do something,” Seligman says, “but we were prepared to go either way and do 100 per cent virtual if that was our only option.”
In June, POP’s multidisciplinary Funhouse mini-festival had to shift from a live happening in the Rialto to an entirely virtual event. Montreal artist Dominique Pétrin was enlisted to design a 2D virtual Rialto complex, which helped turn the streaming experiment into a success.
“We didn’t want to just do a straight-up Facebook live event. There was something not quite fulfilling about that experience,” Seligman says. “We wanted to build a site that somewhat replicated the idea of a festival, a communal experience of some sort. I thought it went pretty well. People liked the site.”
Funhouse was a bit of a dry run for an all-virtual festival, in case POP’s fall event had to go that route. Luckily that is not the case, though most of the live festival shows will be streamed via a bit of an upgraded version of the Funhouse/virtual Rialto site, and a number of shows that have yet to be announced (featuring Canadian bands streaming live from the ROC) will be exclusive to that platform.
Though POP’s 2020 programming is a lot lighter than their usual all-city venue takeover, there will be live shows in several spaces inside the Rialto (and on the theatre’s rooftop), at le Ministère on St-Laurent, in the small area behind Mile End micro-venue URSA and a few outdoor sites (backyards in Parc Ex and Outremont) still to be announced. To abide by public health rules and make audiences feel safe, the venues will have limited capacity, seated audiences, 30-minute sets, no bar service and (of course) mandatory masks.
“Any festival that is happening should be 100 per cent ready to comply with all the different regulations, and we’re definitely going above and beyond,” Seligman says. “You can’t get in unless you’ve bought a ticket in advance, and everyone who buys a ticket has to give us all their contact information so we’ll be able to do accurate contact tracing. We’re not doing multi-band bills, so if the audience shows up for a show 15 minutes or a half-hour before, you see the show and then you leave — you’re not going to be in the venue for much longer than an hour, max. Once the audience leaves, we’ll disinfect it and then we start again.”
“There are no drinks for a few different reasons,” Seligman explains. “The more people drink, the looser they get, and the main thing is if you’re drunk and you’re trying to talk over music and shouting in someone’s face, there’s a greater chance of spreading COVID than if you’re just sitting in your seat watching music with a mask on.
“It’s far from ideal,” he adds, “but we’re making efforts.”
Of course it won’t be the same — what is, these days? Though POP Montreal has staged plenty of large-scale shows over its 18 years, the festival is beloved for its festive vibes, late-night parties and shows that sometimes go down in small, sweaty spaces. Those things won’t be present, or as present, but given the circumstances I suspect a concert-starved public won’t be complaining as much as they’ll be celebrating. ■
This feature was originally published in the September issue of Cult MTL. See the complete POP Montreal show schedule here. For the Film POP, Art POP, POP Symposium and Puces POP programming, and to buy tickets, please visit the festival’s website.
For more Montreal music coverage, please visit our Music section.