We saw 21 bands at POP Montreal last week, and got a hug from Dr. Cornel West

Punks, post-rockers, rappers, soul singers, funk guitarists, a “power folk” act, an experimental orchestral ensemble and a political disco duo played POP 2023 last week, among many others.

Exemplifying the sheer stylistic diversity that’s been the hallmark of POP Montreal since the festival was founded in 2002, the 2023 edition had young Quebec hip hop artists, soul singers from Alabama and L.A., local punks, post-rockers and experimental orchestral outfits, political disco from Belgium, American rap legends and Dr. Cornel West. And more.

Venue-hopping from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, we came, we saw — it kicked our ass. Here’s our report from POP Montreal 2023.

Planet Giza

Planet Giza POP Montreal 2023
Photos by Cindy Lopez

Success has been a slow burn for the Laval soul/hip hop trio, and that’s a good thing. Planet Giza has graced the local scene for a minute but tends only to show up when they’ve got something to say. As such, they’ve managed to outlast peers from a decade back and others who have come and gone since. 

Their latest project, Ready When You Are, caught enough national attention from music tastemakers to make this year’s Polaris Prize long list. Rich co-productions from Rami B. and DoomX set up lyricist Tony Stone with subtle challenges to his versatile vocal range and give the listener something to sink into. 

Planet Giza’s greatest strength may be in never overplaying their hand. Their consistency and growth is a long game that still holds promise as they adjust and readjust the recipe without touching the formula. As for their POP appearance, a laid-back hangout with two thirds of Planet Giza was well received enthusiastically as the festival kicked off its 2023 edition with a free-for-all at l’Entrepot77. (Darcy MacDonald)

Martyn Bootyspoon

Back at the Rialto Theatre was another Montreal scene fixture in Martyn Bootyspoon, who played under some sort of half-dome while playing mostly skittering, glitchy, experimental electronic beats — often of the dark, gothy and grimy variety. You can tell he’s a Montrealer as he had an audio narration of someone talking about the importance of Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking in L.A.” playing over one of his beats. Hi-hats and flanger effects were abundant in his set, too, and the whole thing sounded like what I’d expect to hear at the most hip, exclusive Montreal rave. (Dave MacIntyre)

Charlotte Adigéry/Bolis Pupul

POP Montreal 2023 Charlotte Adigery Bolis Pupul

On the much more lively side of things was this Belgian duo, who I also got to watch at le Festif! in Baie-Saint-Paul back in July. An indoor environment like the Rialto already seemed to fit them much better than a free outdoor show in rural Quebec where people didn’t seem to know who they were — and they absolutely shone in that setting on Wednesday. With energy levels running high and the crowd grooving along enthusiastically, Charlotte and Bolis’s typically funky, danceable house rhythms paired with heavy sociopolitical commentary make for one hell of a contrast, and their onstage chemistry is palpable, too. (Dave MacIntyre)

Fireball Kid & Ura Star

Have you ever asked yourself what it would look, sound and feel like if a high-five could be a band? I hadn’t, either. But now I know the answer. And it’s every bit as jovial, sincere and mutually encouraging as you’d expect. With little other reason other than that I liked their name, and that their bio described them as inseparable friends since early childhood, I decided to follow my instinct and head to the Diving Bell Social Club to see what these Montrealers and their haircuts were all about. 

The titular duo’s weapons of choice are their mics and voices, their dance moves and the fond glances they often exchange. Flanked by two buds on guitar and bass and backed by a fifth pal on knobs, dials and limbs of fury, their high-energy bop channels boy bands, pop punk and a touch of Wyld Stallyns. These bros got busy being excellent to each other and partying on with the sizable crowd of friends and followers. Fireball Kid & Ura Star sort of feels like an inside joke, but it doesn’t take too long to get in on it. Their performance was heartfelt, and the band’s lust for life could easily suit larger stages and crowds.  (Darcy MacDonald)

Maky Lavender

Playing a surprise show on the Ubisoft rooftop (he didn’t even know it was a secret gig when I talked to him before he performed), West Island rapper Maky Lavender showcased his wit and quiet charisma in a stripped-back, almost MTV Unplugged-like setting early Thursday evening. Though he also sings from time to time (not unlike Dominic Fike when he does that), rapping is still his biggest area of expertise, and he can spit excellent bars in both official languages. Even if some came to the show not having a clue who he was when he was revealed as the performer, most everyone walked away happy after it ended. (Dave MacIntyre)

Sauf les drones

Sauf les drones POP Montreal 2023

If Montreal is known for giving the world any specific musical genre, it might just be experimental post-rock (GY!BE, anyone?), and Sauf les drones delivered exactly this during Cult MTL’s own showcase at l’Entrepôt77 Thursday evening. Blending elements of jazz, indie rock and baroque pop into a rich instrumental post-rock sound, this six-piece collective makes for a strong opener for this kind of show, and I’d love to see what they can do in an indoor setting next time. (Dave MacIntyre)


If l’Escogriffe is as perfectly anxious and sweaty a shrine to loud, live music as a rock ’n’ roll fan could envision in their wildest delirium dream, Sam Woywitka is the Jungian archetype for the job. Of course, l’Esco far outdates Woywitka’s relocation from his native Vancouver Island to Montreal a few years back. But on Thursday night at POP, the venue housed real “If you build it, he will come” vibes for SAMWOY’s paeans to the evergreen power of guitar-driven, teen-dream symphony. 

Imagine the urgency of Jane’s Addiction without the glammy elements, and the paranoia of Minutemen expanded past the inherent one-and-done compositional themes. Sprinkle it with those little pebbles that get stuck in the soles of your winter boots, and you’ve got yourself some SAMWOY.

The contrast between Woywitka’s size and presence and his humble, whatever-goes energy is undeniably appealing. Crunching down on power chords and rant-singing his way through dope jam after dope jam, backed by an innately timed rhythm section, SAMWOY is among the rarest exceptions in modern music: a rock band that actually fuckin’ rocks like they wanna.  (Darcy MacDonald)


ANJIMILE POP Montreal 2023

Directly contrasting the instrumental and less-upbeat sound of Sauf les drones is Boston folk artist ANJIMILE, whose music is far more acoustic-driven and non-instrumental. Their stage banter was pretty hilarious, too (“We’ve been in Montreal for a day, we got some fire-bomb Chinese food. That shit was delicious”), and their relatively calm voice fit neatly with the style of music, which still boasted some traces of a more post-rock type sound. The three-piece band carries a lot of power between them. (Dave MacIntyre)

Bell Orchestre

Bell Orchestre POP Montreal 2023

A band some will recognize thanks to Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld (of Arcade Fire fame), Bell Orchestre put on a musically complex and highly enjoyable set befitting of a headliner for this type of showcase. Horns, tubas, trumpets and Parry’s upright bass — with some of the bass lines veering into highly groovy territory — were the central components of their set, adding depth and richness to their expansive instrumentation, with some synth effects here and there for good measure. Outdoor shows at nighttime are clearly where this band is in its element, and they seized the opportunity big-time on Thursday evening. (Dave MacIntyre)


Hailing from the First Nations community of Gesgapegiag and the far south of Quebec, rapper Q052 was first brought to my attention by Montreal musician and frequent collaborator ALIAS, who has collaborated extensively with the Mi’kmaq talent. 

Q052’s recorded material oscillates between more straightforward hip hop sounds and rap/rock aesthetic with heavy nods to Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill. With a full band backing the MC as he ripped through an uncompromising rhyme assault on political and cultural hypocrisy in this province and across the country, Q052’s live show pays tribute to his musical and ancestral roots with integrity, embracing his own performativity without taking himself too seriously except when it counts. 

“Where are my Indigenous peoples at?” he asked, receiving a loud cheer from the floor of the Diving Bell.

“I can speak English here, right? We’re on Mohawk land, right?” he said, leading a rousing chant of “Fuck Legault!”

“Let’s talk about ‘truth and reconciliation,’” he continued, proceeding to impersonate the Pope’s ‘apology’ to Canada for the inexcusable, at the taxpayer’s expense of $52-million, while bureaucrats took a day off.

“Fuck apologies! I’ll take the $52-million!” shot back one fan.

Executing in-your-face message music while also rocking a party requires a sense of nuance on the back end when every punch is intended to land. Q052 and his band swing with the balance to make it all work. (Darcy MacDonald)

Candi Staton

Candi Staton POP Montreal 2023

POP Montreal has a knack for booking arguably under-appreciated musical legends for big shows at the Rialto Theatre (Mavis Staples and Ronnie Spector come to mind), and this year they roped in Alabama soul queen Candi Staton for a Friday evening set. Performing with a hugely talented backing band all wearing shirts from Staton’s tour merch, the 83-years-young songstress wasted little time commanding the crowd’s attention, whether she was singing ballads or full-on disco tracks like “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You Got the Love” (the latter of which some may recognize from Florence + the Machine covering it). Her personality and sense of humour shone through, and the crowd cheered rapturously when she revealed she’s cancer-free after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. People all the way up in the balcony were standing up, dancing and singing like their lives depended on it, and the whole thing was truly a joy to watch. (Dave MacIntyre)


Annahstasia POP Montreal 2023

Playing a genre she describes as “power-folk,” Annahstasia gave what was hands-down the most compelling and emotionally stirring set I saw all week. Comparisons to Nina Simone in her voice and timbre are hard not to make, and her voice is similarly one that can stop you right in your tracks. The use of haunting strings and folky guitar-plucking (think Nick Drake for the latter) add another layer of emotion and power to her music and performance. Her set was nothing short of spellbinding, her control and power over her contralto range — one that’s deep, expressive and evocative in equal measure — is hugely impressive, and I cannot wait to see where she goes from here. Fittingly, she’d get a standing O, one so loud that you couldn’t hear her introducing her band as she walked off stage. (Dave MacIntyre)

Russell Louder

Russell Louder POP Montreal 2023 photos

I was largely unfamiliar with this singer, songwriter and Prince Edward Island native who now calls Montreal home. Despite their rising profile over the past few years, I had no idea how rich and powerful Louder’s vocal delivery is in concert, nor how truly compelling their performance was about to be. 

Louder led on guitar throughout most of the set, backed by a tight drummer and guitarist who seamlessly kept up with a clean backing track filling in crisply for bass, keys and string parts. Songs about love, friendship, family, jealousy and human acceptance are indie pop staples for a reason. Louder’s heartfelt, danceable excursions brought to mind a curious stylistic combination of Sarah McLachlan and LCD Soundsystem (a pairing I had never imagined, much less thought, “Hey, great idea!”).

A concert experience in the wide-open setting of POP Montreal’s annual sundown series on the Rialto Rooftop is hard to dislike. It’s a special place with a tranquil view and vibe all of its own. The gorgeous pink/orange autumn sunset did its job. But Louder, who released a new LP the same day, showed the crowd some serious business. (Darcy MacDonald)

Shabazz Palaces

Shabazz Palaces POP Montreal 2023

Ishmael Butler has gone by several AKAs over time. And while his legacy as Butterfly,  one third of influential hip hop group Digable Planets, will forever be synonymous with mid-’90s Brooklyn. The evolving experimental nature of Shabazz Palaces harnesses more from the historically creative waters of his native Seattle and digs further toward newer refutations of time and space than the reinventive jazz hip hop the Planets aligned themselves on, three decades gone.

With a revolving door of co-contributors, Shabazz Palaces has been Butler’s central muse for the past 15 years. “Avant-garde” was too simple and overused a descriptor from the jump. If the group’s 2011 Sub Pop debut was an obviously radical shift from an arguably safe lane for Butler, many years and several projects later, he’s still an artist more interested in the journey than the destination. Some Shabazz Palaces projects have been more accessible than others. But that’s entirely besides the point. Butler is infinitely more interested in finding out than in proving anything. 

All that said, on Friday, Butler and a new, four-piece band treated POP Montreal to a near-perfect show. Tried and true, diasporic jazz that culled from the astral planes of the ’60s and ‘70s met moments of uncalculated danger and playful improv. But it also echoed further from a past that longtime fans of Butler in all his iterations will appreciate. 

A new Shabazz Palaces album, Robed in Rareness, arrives in late October. And if this tour stop was any indicator, unlearning is a more fruitful psychic shift than reinvention. (Darcy MacDonald)


Bahamadia POP Montreal 2023

If Shabazz Palaces took fans on an outer space voyage, Philly rap legend Bahamadia — arguably the hardest female MC to ever rock a stage, and certainly among the most multi-prolific — brought us squarely back down to the pavement and to the foundation of underground hip hop music.

Joined by fellow culture elder DJ Eclipse (who counts membership in conspiracy rap poster children Non Phixion among his many affiliations), Bahamadia invited the crowd on a listening journey through decades of greatness, weaving classic solo material together with legendary collab verses from her work with the Roots, Talib Kweli, Roni Size and J Dilla. 

Hip hop vets with equally impressive resumés can — and have — made that type of nostalgia awkward. Bahamadia made it her mark, without missing a single syllable, in a display of total breath control, for a 50-minute set that started strong and built up to a fever pitch. 

Under the semi-shelter of l’Entrepôt77, and without bells or whistles, mega-stage lights or pyro, but only rhymes, skills, her DJ and a microphone, Bahamadia gave POP Montreal the best MC performance of festival season 2023.  (Darcy MacDonald)

Barber for the Queen

Barber for the Queen POP Montreal 2023

This local five-piece has been playing underground shows since 2017 here, and their set opening for la Sécurité and PYPY on Saturday evening served as a good proving ground for this young band. Inspired by funk and disco — with psychedelic effects and groovy wah-wah guitars, though some of their guitars veer into surf-rock territory — in a way that makes them not unlike Australia’s Parcels, these guys’ tunes had a clear effect on those in attendance, as they got folks up and dancing toward the front even as they knew more music was still to come later. (Dave MacIntyre)

La Sécurité

La Sécurité POP Montreal 2023

A friend of mine in the crowd remarked that whatever else la Sécurité may represent, they carry their look, sound and aesthetic with a quintessentially punk-rock Montréalais attitude. I’d add that this attitude predates scene self-awareness. It’s older than Foufs, and that’s pretty damn old. 

That’s not to say their music should be so simply qualified. The individual musical backgrounds of la Sécurité members (most of whom came to the group with at least one foot on the ground of Quebec’s music industry) are probably part of what shapes their collective ability to compose songs that stand as solid examples of multi-genre influence. Their intention is authentic, even if there’s nothing especially new under the sun about their sound. 

Having seen the band live several times since their inception last year, what I’m happy to offer in terms of critique is that they started out strong and keep getting better. Music fans were already excited about them before their arrival, so speculating about their potential would be the review equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Just like proud Montrealers, la Sécurité knows they’re cool. That’s kinda the point. (Darcy MacDonald)


PYPY POP Montreal 2023

Following la Sécurité was PYPY, who band gave an even more hard-hitting set with plenty of raw, aggressive energy and powerful, guttural screams to add an extra sense of oomph. Fronted by Annie-Claude Deschênes of Duchess Says, this band plays pure, straight-up garage rock with some obvious ‘80s new wave influences on their sound, with Deschênes’s stage presence not unlike the Karen Os and Kathleen Hannas of the world. The guitars even boasted some metal-like chugging, if all of that weren’t enough, and I’m glad I stayed to watch them. (Dave MacIntyre)

Dr. Cornel West

It seems strange to review a speaking engagement. And the prospect of critiquing renowned social and cultural commentator, acclaimed philosopher, scholar, civic activist, writer, moonlight musician and Black leader Dr. Cornel West, who recently announced his intention to run as a third-party candidate in the 2024 U.S. election, is downright daunting.

Instead, I’ll share an anecdote. I happened to be standing outside the Rialto Theatre, minding my business and putting the final touches on that Shabazz Palaces review, when a white SUV pulled up to the curb on Parc Ave. 

An attendant for the festival walked over and opened the door for a passenger who turned out to be Cornel West.

I had a choice. I could stand there and pretend I wasn’t kind of in awe, or say hello when the ex-Harvard prof emerged.  

Why would I pretend? I took the chance to say hello. He approached me and extended his arm, first shaking my hand and then pulling me toward him for a warm hug.

“How are you getting along?” Dr. West asked me.

“Like everybody else, man,” I replied. “I’m trying my best.”

We exchanged a few more quick words, and he entered the theatre.

Later, in a predictably animated and wide-ranging conversation with moderator Oscar James, West touched largely on a recurring theme of catastrophic catalysts in modern history; examined the individualistic components of what he called “deep love” in the human spirit and likewise the factors that influence different forms of integrity. 

They discussed the maturity of empires and the lack thereof in the American experiment; the distinction between greed and wealth, success and well-being as marketing ploys, the value of having a cause over having a personal brand, and corrupt leaders as modern pharaohs. 

In other words, they talked about the genesis of the blues.

Did this recap give Dr. West’s exercise in consciousness-building at POP Montreal due credit? Frankly, that would be an impossible task. I’m just out here doing my best to try to get along. (Darcy MacDonald)

El Mega SPRM

Directly preceding Gayance’s homecoming set at l’Entrepôt77 on Sunday was this local rap outfit. El Mega SPRM (pronounced “supreme”) is described online as being just one guy, but he had three other dudes behind him, each of whom look incredibly young (no older than 22). Dripping in charisma and swagger while performing on an extended wooden platform, the beats they rapped over extended from trap to cloud rap to DJ Mustard-esque bangers, and the four members occasionally swapped lead duties depending on the song. They’ve got great bars, too, and the crowd — which looked empty when they started before seeing an influx of people when they were about four songs in — increasingly ate it up as they kept going. (Dave MacIntyre)


Gayance POP Montreal 2023

The DJ, composer/producer, singer and globe-trotting Montreal talent took a moment to grace POP with a full band performing cuts from her 2023 Polaris Prize-nominated project Mascarade on a somewhat overcast, unseasonably warm late-afternoon show on the last day of the festival.

Gayance was seemingly up against a cosmos bent on being the trickster. Her bass player was stuck at the airport. Her laptop was being a pain in the ass. Then, at one point early in the set, the PA at l’Entrepôt77 gave out for a few frantic minutes.

Did this stop the bombastic performer from giving her all? Hell nah. So with the support of an absolute murderer’s row of talent on stage beside her to improvize and keep it together, when the universe finally let go of its push-pull, Gayance and friends soared.

Roll call: Sarah MK, Janette King and Judith Little joined Hua Li on keys and vocals, guitarist Raveen and drummer Harvey Bien-Aimee to share the stage with the lady of the hour. 

It’s not unfair to say that Gayance has something to prove by inviting such highly experienced stage performers — some of Montreal’s most incredible vocal talents among them —  as she begins to experiment with bringing her electronically informed rhythms to the analogue world. 

The front woman’s singing, it must be said, has improved tremendously. She can hang, but I’m not sure that that’s even half of why this was such a great show. What Gayance has inside her that cannot be taught, learned or imitated is beyond showmanship. 

A personality that entertains is one thing. An instinct to stay poised, work with the flow rather than fight against it and take on real-time challenges to make them part of the show indicates true gravitas. And because of that, the crowd didn’t just enjoy Gayance’s show. We felt it. (Darcy MacDonald)


Closing out my 2023 POP experience was Vanille, who gave a gorgeous set at Sala Rossa on Sunday evening. The singer-songwriter born Rachel Leblanc played with a six-piece backing band (including a flautist as well as a drummer who played his tambourine like a hi-hat), and the venue proved to be an excellent environment for her dream pop-like voice, lush studio-quality instrumentation, and almost Middle Earth-esque folk tunes. With an old French film playing on a projector in the background (attendees were given film strips from the movie during the show), Vanille’s high-pitched coo of a voice fits like a glove with the refined, elegant music she sings over, and she sounds both subtle and expressive at the same time. It’s the kind of music I’d want to hear while being driven on an old-timey carriage in the countryside, and that’s exactly the note I wanted to end my POP on this year. (Dave MacIntyre)

To see all our photos from POP Montreal 2023, please click here.

For more on POP Montreal, please visit the festival’s website.

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