POP Montreal RECAP: Zola Jesus / JPEGMAFIA / Bill Callahan

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jpegmafia live montreal

Late September is always a special time for Montreal music fans. It’s when the city hosts its annual POP Montreal festival, agglomerating a staggering amount of music performances, film projections, workshops and other events into a compact five day period. Trying to best take advantage of the festival can be an intimidating adventure, with must-see shows overlapping in labyrinthine ways or staggered late into the night, and often necessitating cross-city commutes to get between venues. In the last few years, being a boring adult and having a glut of professional engagements in the early fall have kept me away from the festival. But in 2018 I wanted to change that a bit, and tackle the festival on my own terms. I saw three shows, over three nights, representing an eclectic mix of sounds and styles. I also had differing degrees of familiarity with these artists, which made it all the more fun.

Zola Jesus Pop Montreal

First up was Zola Jesus performing at the Rialto Theatre. On the cover of the band’s 2010 EP Stridulum, front-woman Nicole Hummel’s head is completely covered in a dark, viscous substance resembling heavy molasses or tar. Her eyes and facial features are completely obfuscated, leaving nothing but a dark, wet and shiny silhouette. It’s a striking image, one that’s at once intriguing, alienating and upsetting. As a photographer, I was really curious to see if they would tap into the power of that imagery in their live set.

Zola Jesus Montreal

In the opening moments of their performance, Hummel did just that. She emerged from the darkness of the gilded stage’s curtains, crawling on all fours in stilted manoeuvres, hair over her face, immediately recalling the malevolent spirit from The Ring. When she finally stood, the band, rounded out by a viola player and a guitarist, immediately launched into a bombastic set of goth-tinged synth-pop. Their sound was powerful and propulsive; it was dance music filled with drama that fit perfectly into the baroque surroundings offered by the Rialto.

However, as the show went on, I was also disarmed by Hummel’s humility and gregariousness. Her stage banter was funny, insightful and generous, a complete 180 from the creeping menace of her entrance and from the inscrutability and unease of that previously mentioned EP cover.

Devon Welsh Pop Montreal

My biggest surprise of the evening, however, was opener Devon Welsh. I was familiar with his previous project, Majical Cloudz, but I had yet to hear any of his solo material. Turns out, it’s fantastic. Welsh’s measured croon was instantly recognizable over these new compositions, and yet he occasionally allowed for stentorian passages of staggering power like on set highlight “Vision,” where his delivery reminded me alternately of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk. Majical Cloudz’ songs never reached for this kind of catharsis, but it suited the performer wonderfully.

Devon Welsh Montreal

Clutching his microphone with both hands, lightly bobbing with feet firmly planted in place, Welsh commanded attention through subtraction, his restraint and simmering intensity ably making up for a lack of theatricality and artifice. It’s a rare thing to be so enthralled by a performance from an artist with whom you have little to no familiarity. If you’re a fan of stately and mournful pop music, sung by a vocalist with a tremendous instrument, I would urge you to see Welsh’s next performance.

The following night, my POP Montreal excursion took me to Le Belmont for a night of hip-hop, where I caught sets by JPEGMAFIA and Sydanie. Both were fantastic for entirely different reasons.

Sydanie Pop Montreal

First up, Toronto’s Sydanie performed in front of a relaxed, yet receptive crowd. Spitting over muted production that evoked cloud-rap as much as it did grime and UK garage, the self-described bad rap mom was captivating. Her songs showcased a fine balance between verses filled with technical wordplay, tackling weighty sociopolitical topics, and supremely catchy hooks that demanded to be shouted back. The MC premiered a number of new records from upcoming projects, each one warmly received by the emphatic crowd, who danced and sung along for the duration of the 30-minute set.

Sydanie Montreal

A sense of positivity and community radiated from Sydanie’s music throughout her performance. I was not ready for how violently that feeling would be upended the moment JPEGMAFIA took the stage. Repeated chants of “PEGGY!” from the suddenly at-capacity crowd started echoing in the venue, and you could feel the anticipation reaching a fever pitch. As JPEGMAFIA opened with his verse from “VENGEANCE|VENGEANCE” off of Denzel Curry’s latest album TA13OO, it felt like a bomb went off inside the venue. Everything became kinetic energy, the crowd mutating into a pulsing, sweaty granfalloon of flailing limbs, Peggy himself ricochetting around the stage like a pinball, his on-record honeyed voice distended into furious screams.

jpegmafia Pop Montreal

I got elbowed in the head by teenagers at least twice and could hardly steady myself enough to focus my camera, but somehow I enjoyed it all immensely. JPEGMAFIA’s live show taps into an aggression that is only hinted at in his recorded output. On wax, Peggy deconstructs and satirizes the targets of his vitriol (toxic masculinity, the alt-right, institutionalized racism, and many more) through the lens of an erudite prankster, always at a bit of a remove. On stage, he takes a fucking sledgehammer to those same ideas and leaves them bloodied. This makes for an electric live performance, a space where his fractured electronic beats set the stage for a kind of public purging of demons between artist and concertgoers.

jpegmafia Montreal

On the third day, I was back at the Rialto to see one of my favourites, the enigmatic singer-songwriter Bill Callahan. Callahan’s presence on the POP Montreal line-up came as a bit of a surprise given that he hasn’t released a proper album since 2013’s Dream River and that he isn’t currently promoting any upcoming material.

His set was relatively spare, with Callahan on vocals, guitar and occasional rack-mounted harmonica, along with a second guitar player to flesh out the arrangements. Some of the songs suffered for lack of a larger ensemble of musicians. For instance, “America!”, a song whose themes are given greater significance by its odd strip-mall psych bounce and acid-soaked electric guitar leads didn’t make much sense as a quaint guitar duet. There was also a certain looseness to the performance that wasn’t always flattering, with some segments sounding under-rehearsed. This was a bit of a bummer, as when I last saw him supporting Dream River it all sounded so incredible.

Bill Callahan Pop Montreal

Hearing Callahan’s songs, with their crystalline economy of language and peculiar incisiveness, in the right place and at the right time, can help with making sense of the knottiest parts of life. As he strummed the lilting opening chords of “Riding for the Feeling,” I was immediately taken back to a moment seven years ago when that song first clicked for me. Leaning against my car, the stereo coming through the open window, waiting for a ferry to take me that much further from whatever I was running from. A late afternoon sun leaving everything a golden shimmer, waves clapping against the rocks on the shoreline, and that repeated mantra of “riding for the feeling,” and somehow feeling like I understood exactly what that meant. This is Bill’s power, and despite a somewhat uneven performance, I still caught a few glimpses of it that night. And for that I’m grateful.

bill callahan pop montreal

Review & photos – Jean-Michel Lacombe

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