FME 2021: Quebec’s live music scene returns with a vengeance

The quaint city of Rouyn-Noranda is known for its extensive copper smelting industry, but this weekend it’s a breeding ground for sonic creativity and psychedelic wonder.

The first day of the Festival de musique emergente (FME) is a hazy blur, but a welcome one. After a gnarly near-eight-hour bus ride to the capital city of Northern Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, the lo-fi hip hop beats of local artist Mr. Sante are a blissful reminder of what real live music can be. The scruffy long-haired DJ has attendees bobbing and grooving to cinematic loops (his latest EP samples old Kung Fu movies) at the Scene Sirius XM main stage downtown.

Rouyn-Noranda has slightly more than 40,000 people, but it might as well be a small town, trapped somewhere between the aging architecture of the late 1980s and mid-1990s. Mr. Sante’s backdrop is an empty city street and a brutalist foundry smokestack.

For many, this is their first live show since 2019, so—restrictions be damned—they’re here for a good time. And that good time gets rolling as more people gather at the entrance of the main stage, marked by gigantic letters spelling “FME” protruding out of faux grass. The attendees seem eager, armed with their brand new vaccination passports. A girl is quite literally shaking as she hands her phone, emblazoned with the QR code, to the festival staff. Green means go and go she does—running like a bat outta hell and nearly smoking her head on the bottom half of the comically large F. Why is she so excited? Excited enough to cause herself involuntary harm at 7 p.m. on a Thursday?

Suddenly, a man—that looks as if Sid Vicious, Serge Gainsbourg, and Bob Dylan had sired a child—approaches the drumset on stage. A woman donning a magenta tracksuit with the words “APRIL WINE” on the back follows and takes the mic. With the snap of her fingers, a wave of luscious synthpop oozes over the grounds. This is Paupière, the flamboyantly neo-romantic bilingual two-piece born from Montreal’s underground. Now FME is really on.

People try their best to maintain the two-metre cluster rule as designated by the neon signs pasted to telephone poles, but as Paupière launch into their latest single, “Sade Sati,” festival goers lose their collective mind and begin linking arms, shimmying up to complete strangers.

This doesn’t last long. Droves of people slowly realize they still aren’t ready for normal concert etiquette and the crowd breaks up into pods again.

The first seated show is in the Immaculate Conception Church. A noisy shoegaze group takes the stage and the audience, sitting in pews, fixates on a golden harp. The band is No Joy, and backed by a blinding light show they provoke a sensory reverie. The harp is their focus instrument for their lighter dream-pop tracks. No Joy is a bit Mazzy Star, a bit Lush, but features bursts of nu-metal and trip hop. “These guys have played with Spacemen 3 before,” one audience member, decked out in a vest of band patches, says to his friend. The collaboration with Spacemen 3 makes sense and No Joy is a great pairing to the next artist, art-pop rocker Laurence-Anne.

What’s next? ‘80s African electro-pop sounds right. Enter Pierre Kwenders, a Congolese-Canadian artist who has been shortlisted for a Juno and longlisted for a Polaris Music Prize. His combination of French, English, Lingala, and Tshiluba makes for an interesting listen and his dance moves give a whole new meaning to the word rumba. The band’s diverse hand drumming, wah wah guitar licks, and humming synthscapes pulse under Kwenders’ (AKA José Louis Modabi) liberating lyrics about the transformational, transcendent power of love in our bleak world. His set is bewitching, especially on the Poisson Volant stage, which sits right at the edge of the night-covered Osisko Lake.

Following Kwenders is the winner of the 2017 Polaris Music Prize, Lido Pimienta (Miss Colombia herself), an energetic Colombian-Canadian who commands the stage with two effects microphones, blaring bass, and a Latin drumming section. She’s rocking a technicolour polka dot dress and shoes that can only be described as kaleidoscopic moccasins. Her wild fusion of cumbia, electro pop, and rapid fire Spanish libretto has the crowd dancing through the light rain.

I’m unable to catch the Maky Lavender/Cadence Weapon/Backxwash hip hop extravaganza due to limited capacity, but I am able to witness the trippy funk stylings of Hippie Hourrah, a relatively new Montreal group bringing together members of The Besnard Lakes, Elephant Stone, and Les Marinellis.

Day 2

The next afternoon starts on a high note with an industry-only barbecue pool party thrown by the dynamic label/press house/booking agent, Bonsound. A couple of strong-poured bourbon lemonades are just what the hangover ordered. Sadly, no one is brave enough to actually jump in the pool, but we are delighted to see and hear Paul Jacobs perform a hallucinatory set combining a bit of the old with new tracks off his latest album Pink Dogs on the Green Grass.

A few children at the adjacent school playground have their faces pressed against the fence. Some look bewildered, amazed by the long-haired man singing songs about Christopher Robbins. They are hence referred to as the Paul Jacobs kids—a small joke between myself and a few other media professionals. Our second dose of Paul Jacobs isn’t far off, as he plays again tonight.

Toronto’s Ducks Ltd. perform passionate jangle-pop in the Cabaret De La Dernière Chance. It’s danceable—but depressing if you really clue into the lyrics. Themes of societal decline and personal turmoil loom large. Think the Smiths meets Real Estate and you’re close.

Hot Garbage sounds nothing like its moniker. The Toronto psych outfit, dressed all in black, has a textural sound—ripe with dizzying guitar melodies, heavy white noise bass, and post-punk drums. The visual backdrop filled with optical illusions and bright phantasmagorical colours is perfect for the psychoactive downer vibe the group is going for.

Next is more Paul Jacobs. He and his band seem even more energetic during this outing, perhaps drawing life from the electric hues of red, green, and blue they’re bathed in. While the sound was pretty mint during the Bonsound performance, Jacobs’ freaky choruses sound all the sweeter inside Le Petit Theatre.

Then, the OBGMS (an acronym for the Oooh Baby Gimme Mores) unleash a fury of sweat-drenched punk rock. The crowd is not ready, many are still glued in their chairs due to the restrictions. It’s kind of a bummer because this is a band made for mayhem, begging for a mosh pit. Still, their set is fire and the dreadlocked lead singer is a marvel to witness as he runs around stage like a madman with a reason.

Right as The OBGMS are wrapping up their set, Montreal’s colossal post-rock/krautrock three-piece Yoo Doo Right are setting up across the street for a “secret” show. You wouldn’t know the show’s a secret by the cadre of locals and festivalgoers gathering around immense amplifier stacks that almost create a fort around the trio onstage. A friend of the band is handing out ear plugs—for good reason.

Yoo Doo Right releases a thunderous wall of sound and the stairs, leading up to a bird’s-eye view platform behind them, begin rattling. Some crowd members announce that they heard the band from five blocks away. People sway to the rolling frequencies as others are paralyzed in awe. Simply put, Yoo Doo Right has a sound that can vapourize tears. I decide that the atmosphere of the industrial brick building, dark tangerine and midnight blue stage lights, and cosmic music makes this a highlight of my FME. And the group is playing another set on Day 3, opening for The Besnard Lakes. It’s safe to say I’m a happy camper.

The CRABE show is full up, but the venue decides to project the band onto the wall of the venue’s backyard patio. From the projection, the set is lo-fi, you can only really make out the drums. Inside, it’s a totally different beast that can’t really be described. Surreal aggressive punk? My mind is still in a trance from experiencing Yoo Doo Right so the final moments of the night are spent wandering the streets with no clear destination.

Day 3

The third day begins with a tasty dose of poetic RnB from Janette King. In the basement of the church she takes the audience through her soulful What We Lost album and surprises everyone with a rendition of Radiohead’s “Nude.” I’m usually not one for covers, but Janette King keeps the spirit of the song and offers a new reinvention to the haunting track.

I have the chance to see Maky Lavender during the press dinner at Le Paramount. As we all tell media war stories, Maky Lavender performs his catchy hip hop with grace and attitude. He also has a live guitarist and DJ live-mixing the tracks, giving the set more power than a pre-recorded rap show.

“I make rap music for me and no one else. So many rappers, it’s about the big cars and money. That game is stupid as fuck, so I don’t play it,” he tells me over poutine a few hours later.

I catch the tail end of the experimental electronic group Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu. I can only describe the mere minutes I saw as dark, humourous Kraftwerk fused with a French version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Time for more Yoo Doo Right and this time it’s inside. I do the sensible thing and arrive loaded with earplugs to save my ear drums. An older local couple asks me why I have “plugs in my ears.” As the drums kick in I pass them a couple extra pairs and say “trust me.” The show is once again roaring, and the room fills with droning, moonstruck chords, gargantuan bass, and caveman-style drum fills. I could see this band again and again and still be impressed.

Next is The Besnard Lakes, a group that is a clear influence for Yoo Doo Right and any other Canadian psych rock/post-rock band in the last decade and a half. The Besnard Lakes play their songs as professionals, never really breaking their rockstar stances, and slowly melt the minds of everyone in the room. They come out for an encore and play the 2007 hit “Devastation” off their The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse record and the room vibrates with pulsating energy.

Downstairs I watch Visibly Choked, a brand new experimental punk group from Montreal. I can safely say that in my close to 10 years covering live music, I have never seen a band so visceral.

The lead singer’s stage presence is primal as she twists and throws herself across the stage, almost ripping her red velvet dress, screaming about how much she hates a certain personl or feeling. The words are pretty indecipherable, but the sentiment is there and it’s raw. Underneath complex frantic guitar, tight basslines, and pounding drums (courtesy of the same drummer as Yoo Doo Right) she wails in elated agony. Members of the other bands (Ducks Ltd., Yoo Doo Right, The OBGMS, etc.) look perplexed and astonished.

Day 4

By the fourth day, I’m overstimulated. Perhaps still in shock from the Visibly Choked set. I stumble into the sweet electronic trip-hop of OURI. It’s the palette cleanse I need, but fatigue is hitting me like a truck so I skip most of the last day until FME’s famous Metal Night.

Tumeurs, from Malartic, Quebec, starts off the night with their brand of filthy, carcinogenic death metal. The lead singer is sitting in The Thinker’s pose, sporting a hospital gown, and screaming into the mic as he slowly rolls in a wheelchair. The light show is mostly a wall of blood red. Very fitting.

Soon after, Reanimator serves a fresh bout of thrash metal, and the singer’s thick French “Fuck Yeahs” after every track are amusing. The band’s last song has everybody launching their empties at the stage, at the loving behest of the band.

Voivod, a group certified as one of “the big four” Canadian metal bands, takes the stage and run through their setlist of futuristic prog metal. After just shy of 40 years in the metal business and a few unplanned lineup changes, Voivod has still got it.

I’m running on fumes at this point, but I have to see FHANG, a new Montreal synth-punk two-piece who just released their self-titled album. The duo has an excessive amount of gear on stage: various synths, pedals, a drumset, a double bass/guitar, and three mics. They somehow make it all work, pulling off the set with what looks like ease, giving the audience a different—more nuclear—set than what’s on the album.

Valence ends the festival with gyrating art-pop that gets the crowd to stand despite the seating restrictions.

My experience at FME leaves me with a big stupid grin on my face. It feels like Quebec’s live music revival and though not all the music was my speed, every act I saw was stellar. Hats off to the programmers and curators.

I’m told multiple times throughout the festival that this is only a taste of what FME is normally like. Next year is the 20th anniversary and it promises to be bigger than anything they have ever done. What the hell do they have in store? I’ll definitely be going to find out.

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