POP Montreal 2021 Proves That the Show Must Go On
The 20th anniversary of the festival included standout sets by Backxwash, DijahSB, Cadence Weapon and Islands
Published Sep 28, 2021The 20th edition of the POP Montreal festival was, for many, a return to the individual and collective joy of live music. A joy so valuable that, even had the fest underdelivered, it would have been more than enough to entertain all but the most disillusioned of concertgoers. Thankfully, the event — which ran in venues across the city from September 22 to 26 — was excellent.
Putting on an anniversary fest comes with high expectations, but the pandemic threw a wrench in some of these — the prime example being Soccer Mommy and Pomme's cancelled appearances due to ongoing COVID restrictions. Instead, this landmark go-around had, among its performers, a coterie of Quebec-based acts and a healthy spread of artists from across Canada. Like any well-rounded festival, there wasn't just the music on offer. POP included screenings of music-related films, like a documentary on the legendary punk band Fanny, as well as symposiums on topics like the potential for labour lobbying within the music industry.
Was it a typical fest? Well, there's no simple way for a city-wide festival put on 18 months into a pandemic to come anywhere close to typical. But it was close. There were a number of Mile End venues like the regal Théâtre Rialto, where Montreal institution the Besnard Lakes and their wall-of-sound crescendos helped open up the celebration along with psych-pop upstarts Vanille. But POP's key stroke of improvisation came by setting a good chunk of the shows at a makeshift venue on Rue Bernard, dubbed l'Entrepôt 77. The fest required proof of full vaccination for all shows, and the outdoor l'Entrepôt shows gave attendees the opportunity to mark the end of an uncertain summer with a great slate of afternoon-to-evening performances.
Live performances are naturally fleeting, but it's the best ones that allow the audience to become unstuck in time, at least for a moment. More than could be expected given recent times, this year's POP Montreal managed to provide at least a few of those. Here are the best sets of the fest:
Photo by Louis Longpré
How else do you kick off the final evening of POP Montreal? The energy at Backxwash's show was something to behold seeing, as the only thing louder than the bass was the cheers from the crowd urging an encore. In fact, this was the most packed audience at l'Entrepôt that I had personally seen, and with good reason. Last year's Polaris Music Prize winner entering the mosh pit herself during the second round of "DEVIL IN A MOSHPIT" sums up the festival more than anything else. Her special guests turning out to be the second showing for the artfully psychedelic SUUNS was an unexpected but complementary pairing, and provided a stark contrast to the headbanging to come.
Cakes Da Killa and DijahSB
Photo by Coralie Daigneault
DijahSB's Thursday gig might have been on the short side at around 23 minutes, but it still delivered. Hearing tracks from this year's Head Above the Waters was a delight, and they were funny and engaging on top of that. They were followed up with Cakes Da Killa's appearance as the only American rapper, whose DJ offered up 10 minutes of instrumentals before one of the most danceable shows of the fest. Adorned in a fringed dress, Cakes made the best use of the small stage by parting the seas of the crowd to form an impromptu catwalk, tossing flowers to attendees.
Photo by Viven Gaumand
The Toronto rapper took a hybrid approach to his Friday show, which was part live band and part backing track. Some of the most passionate tracks were renditions of his Polaris-shortlisted Parallel World tracks "Skyline" and "Senna," but he also made time for his earlier material. This was preceded by a number of artists throughout the day, including Waahli, whose jazzy bilingual raps, plus a bit of spoken word, made for a great mid-afternoon surprise.
Photo by Coralie Daigneault
POP Montreal featured a few firsts for the artists themselves, including the debut festival outing from West Island native FERNIE, who appeared at Le Ministère on Friday — also the release day of his debut album, Aurora — and at the Clubhouse floor of the Rialto on Sunday. Were it not the beginning of the day, his dynamic vocals could have made the latter performance a festival-ending showstopper for the 30 or so people in the audience.
The dream pop singer's Saturday-night closer at Le Ministère with bandmates Nick Schofield and Yolande Laroche mostly featured tracks from her upcoming sophomore album, set for release next April, giving the crowd a stellar first look at an ethereal, vaporous set. The venue's close quarters and Roby's relaxed stage presence made the set feel all the more personal.
ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT
There was also the second-ever live performance from the new collaboration between Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Efrim Manuel Menuck and Ariel Engle of La Force and Broken Social Scene. While a bit of a strange choice for an 8 p.m. show, it was clearly one of the most highly anticipated acts in the fest. Despite a bit of a late start, which included snatches of unseen performances behind closed tent curtains, their hauntingly beautiful synth loops made for a sonic smokiness that dissipated and overpowered at all the right moments.
Photo by Coralie Daigneault
The Montreal-via-Vancouver singer also worked overtime on Saturday, with an afternoon secret show involving a stunning cover of Radiohead's "Nude" followed by a sold-out performance at Ursa. The former set took place on the hidden-away patio of coworking space NOMAD Life and, with not much more than her voice, made for a contained and intimate concert.
Islands and Menno Versteeg
POP ended as it began: with a big show at the Rialto. Versteeg — formerly the longtime frontman of Hollerado — provided excellent banter to an into-it crowd and closed with a brand new song about the "fuckin' idiots" at the Met Gala. Lastly, late lineup addition Islands put on a dazzling light show to match their experimental art rock. At nearly 90 minutes, the former Montreal locals put on one of the longest shows of the fest, appropriate for anyone trying to fit in every minute of music they could.