“We’re getting old,” said Dan Seligman.
POP Montreal turns 18 this year. Wrap your head around that. It seemed like our city’s most irreverent music festival would never grow up. So there’s a tinge of irony to the fact that the event has reached the age of majority, even as it continues to fight for the underdogs of the industry.
Seligman is going with it.
“It’s a nice accomplishment,” said the POP Montreal co-founder, who has remained at the helm of his event for close to two decades while providing sure-handed guidance for successive waves of staffers who have rolled through over the years.
“It’s hard to get too nostalgic. The festival itself is a celebration. Every year, it’s a miracle to be able to pull it together. But turning 18 is pretty significant; it’s pretty amazing.
“When we started, we had no idea what we were doing. We just wanted to do something interesting and fun. I was 25 at the time. We were in the right place at the right time, and we just worked hard and believed in what we were doing. It’s kind of cool to see it has become something of an institution, an established part of the cultural landscape of Montreal.”
Avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson will collaborate with saxophonist Colin Stetson and cellist Rebecca Foon in a sold-out improvised concert.
It could be said that POP Montreal is the most Montreal of the city’s music festivals, particularly in terms of representing our vast and ever-evolving indie music scene.
When POP popped out in 2002, Arcade Fire was two years away from releasing its breakthrough full-length debut, Funeral. That members of the now world-famous band and so many other local heroes continue to participate in the festival, year after year, speaks volumes about its place in the heart of the indie community.
Many of those names will again take part in POP this year, alongside international acts of all stripes, at venues big, small and unexpected, Wednesday to Sept. 29.
Some 300 acts will perform all around the Plateau and Mile End over those five days. You’ve likely never heard of most of them — and that’s half the fun.
The thrill of discovery remains a key feature of POP Montreal, where even headliners such as acclaimed chamber-pop singer Weyes Blood are below the radar of the general public.
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“It’s all about perspective,” Seligman said. “Some artists are really known and buzzed about in underground tastemaker circles, but 95 per cent of the general public has no idea who they are. One of our headliners, Weyes Blood, has been in Rolling Stone and Billboard, but your average cultural consumer in Montreal has no idea who she is.”
The American singer-songwriter, whose real name is Natalie Mering, released her critically acclaimed fourth album Titanic Rising this year. She brings her swooning, psychedelic chamber pop to the Rialto Theatre on Friday at 8 p.m. (Tickets cost $20.) Quebec chanteuse Helena Deland and Montreal ambient electro artist Markus Floats open.
In terms of headliners, at the top of this year’s programming banner are three women: veteran American avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, soul icon Mavis Staples and U.K. electro-soul upstart Tirzah.
Anderson will perform a sold-out, improvised set with sax beast Colin Stetson and Montreal cellist Rebecca Foon, Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Rialto Theatre.
“I’ve been reaching out to her agent for the last several years,” Seligman said. “She’s just someone we have huge admiration for. I wanted to come up with something interesting, so I pitched her on doing a collaboration concert with (Stetson and Foon). It’s part of the POP mandate to connect different generations of artists. She was like, ‘That sounds amazing.’ ”
Staples may not quite have Aretha-level renown, but she and her old band the Staple Singers are iconic in their own right. As an old-school R&B fan, Seligman jumped at the chance to bring her to town (Rialto Theatre, Sept. 29, 7:50 p.m., $50).
“POP has always had a lot of R&B, soul and funk,” he said. “She has a new album that came out earlier this spring, which Ben Harper produced and co-wrote. And she just turned 80, so timing-wise it was really good.”
Tirzah (Rialto Theatre, Thursday, 8 p.m., $25) is at the opposite end of her career: a young, edgy singer on the rise, mixing electronic and soul elements into an intoxicatingly innovative concoction. And as it often does, POP is getting in on the ground level.
“It’s going to be her first time in Canada,” Seligman said. “She’s this super-hyped British post-R&B pop artist, in that FKA Twigs vein. She’s one of those acts everyone kept asking about — saying, ‘Oh man, you have to try to get Tirzah.’ ”
On a festival landscape that’s persistently male- and Euro-centric, POP offers respite. You have to go six names deep on the poster — past New Zealand folkie Aldous Harding and Weyes Blood — to find a band with dudes, and tellingly they’re from Africa. Congolese groove collective Kokoko! (Piccolo Rialto, Wednesday, 11 p.m., $17) creates awesomely contemporary rhythms on handmade instruments.
“It’s perfect late-night dance music,” Seligman said. “I feel like they’re the perfect band for Montreal — they make Afro beats but with all live instrumentation, with almost a kind of punk element.”
Kokoko! is followed by three more women: Atlanta rapper Yung Baby Tate, Quebec singer-songwriter rebel Safia Nolin and Parisian ambient artist Félicia Atkinson.
And then you get to Nick Cave.
“We just got lucky in terms of his scheduling,” Seligman said of booking the (other) dark knight for a stop on his Conversations With Nick Cave tour, Friday at 8 p.m. at Église St-Jean-Baptiste. The singer has played POP before, so it was an obvious fit, even if most festival-goers won’t have a chance to hear what he has to say.
“It sold out in two hours, but we were able to get some of our (passholders) in. Basically, if you have a POP pass you’re eligible. We’re doing a contest for 30 people with passes; we’re down to our last 10.”
Adventurous festival patrons will be intrigued by Ivory Coast country-soul duo Jess Sah Bi and Peter One, whose 1985 debut Our Garden Needs Its Flowers was re-released last year on the label Awesome Tapes From Africa, to enthusiastic reviews.
The two musicians had relocated to the U.S. separately and were working day jobs when they were contacted by Awesome Tapes From Africa owner Brian Shimkovitz about reissuing the record. They perform Sept. 28 at 9:30 p.m. at the Rialto Hall ($20) and will sit down for a free talk about their experience, earlier that day at 12:30 p.m. at Piccolo Rialto.
Another hot tip is arty electro act Teto Preto, discovered by Seligman on a trip to the Brasil Music Summit in São Paulo, performing Sept. 28 at 11:30 p.m. at Piccolo Rialto ($15).
“They’re this amazing dance collective led by this incredible frontwoman (Laura Diaz),” he said. “It’s almost like an art installation — one of the performers is just doing interpretive dance.”
And timing is everything as POP presents Toronto rapper Haviah Mighty, whose full-length debut, 13th Floor, won the Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album on Monday. She performs Friday at 11:30 p.m. at Piccolo Rialto along with Ian Isiah and Yung Baby Tate ($17).
Those paying attention may have noticed an increase in shows taking place at one of the Rialto’s many venues, including the main hall and smaller locales on various floors ranging from the basement to the roof.
“We actually take over the entire Rialto,” Seligman said. “The owner has been great — he’s like, ‘Here’s the keys, do what you want.’ The fact that it has five different rooms that we can use for different things makes it easy for people to just go to the Rialto at 7 at night, stay there until 3 in the morning and see 10 different artists. It’s the central hub of the festival. Everything revolves around that.”
The Rialto complex has become the hub of POP Montreal. “The fact that it has five different rooms that we can use for different things makes it easy for people to just go to the Rialto at 7 at night, stay there until 3 in the morning and see 10 different artists,” says Dan Seligman.
Graham Hughes /
Not that POP has given up unearthing new venues all over town. Additions this year include Martha Wainwright’s recently unveiled Ursa, just down the block from the Rialto on Parc Ave.; and the new Skatepark du Mile-End, under the overpass at the corner of St-Laurent Blvd. and Van Horne Ave. The festival will host an outdoor barbecue and free shows at the latter location, Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Sept. 28 and 29 from noon to 7 p.m., including a 20th-anniversary performance by Montreal punk band the Sainte Catherines as well as a surprise show by another well-known Montreal band to be announced in the coming days.
Added to that are various offshoots including the daytime POP Symposium panels, Art POP exhibits, the craft fair Puces POP, the music doc screenings of Film POP and Kids POP activities, and you’ve got a multi-pronged panoply of POP offerings for culture hounds of all kinds.
“There’s so much happening,” Seligman said. “We try to find that right balance of well-curated music and challenging new sounds, while maintaining the feeling that you’re part of something big, so that you’re a little overwhelmed by everything but not so much that you don’t know what to do.
“It’s going pretty well.”
AT A GLANCE
The 18th POP Montreal festival takes place from Wednesday, Sept. 25 to Sunday, Sept. 29. For programming information and to purchase tickets, passes and packages, visit popmontreal.com.