Quebec's FME 2021 Offered a Glimpse of the Future of Music Festivals
Backxwash, Lido Pimienta, the OBGMs and more pave the way for live music's return
Published Sep 08, 2021"I don't know if a town this size in Ontario would ever book an act like myself or Backxwash or Pantayo," says Lido Pimienta during a roundtable ahead of her headlining set on the first night of the 2021 Festival de Musique Émergente.
The Polaris Music Prize winner is not wrong — on paper, the Quebec mining city of Rouyn-Noranda, located eight hours northwest of Montreal and boasting a population of around 43,000, seems like an unlikely place to host a diverse range of boundary-pushing artists. And yet, that's what FME has been doing for nearly 20 years, bringing musicians from all over the world to its tiny corner of the planet for a celebration of the weirdest things the music world has to offer.
This year, 18 months into a global pandemic and with a fourth wave looming over Quebec and the neighbouring province of Ontario, FME did things a little differently. Compared to last year's event, in which artists performed multiple shows at minimal capacity, FME 2021 started to resemble its typical proceedings, including standard set lengths, Montreal label Bonsound's annual pool party, plenty of secret shows and the festival-closing "nuit metal." But only artists from Ontario and Quebec played the festival, and venues were limited to a fraction of their capacity, making it harder for people to commit to FME's typically fluid venue-hopping setup.
In the end, however, it all contributed to a feeling of community between attendees and artists alike, the sense that everyone is a part of something greater built on an appreciation of thought-provoking art and culture, with music of all stripes available on any corner, and headlining opportunities offered to artists who have typically played clubs or side stages.
"I feel, more than anything, just honoured to be in a festival that focuses on Quebec artists," says rising Montreal R&B singer Janette King. "I don't know what I was expecting from this festival, but I feel like it surpassed my expectations. It's great to see how many artists of colour they have on their lineup, especially being a festival that's in a primarily French-Canadian town. So that's great, to see that diversity."
And it's being wholly embraced. Pimienta recounts, "Our [tour manager] said that there was an elderly couple that were walking by and they sat down through our soundcheck and they said, 'Oh, that's Lido Pimienta, I'm so excited to see her show.' So that makes me feel welcome."
Pimienta notes the precariousness of live music — it's too early to consider it fully returned just yet — but she wasn't going to let this one guaranteed opportunity to perform to a crowd go by. "I see every show as an opportunity to be better, and to express the music better, and to make the music come alive in a more professional, poignant, nuanced way," she says. "This might be the last show that we play for the rest of the year. And I'm just very conscious about that. That, at any moment, it all ends. So I just want to be great."
Due to limited capacity, we couldn't see everything, but what we did see was uniformly a reminder of what we love about live music, festivals, and the many facets of alternative music from Quebec and beyond. Here's the best of the fest.
When Backxwash first played FME last year, she told the crowd about her intention to win the Polaris Music Prize. We all know what happened next, and the rapper celebrated her clairvoyance with a headlining performance at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda that showcased her mastery of all elements of live music performance, with dizzying visuals and lighting accompanying her furious metallic hip-hop. Despite having only been releasing music for a few years, her set came off as a greatest hits, underscoring her prolific consistency, having released three excellent albums and an EP in the last two years. While the accompanying short films and light show posited Backxwash (and her creative director Mechant Vaporwave) as a true visionary, she certainly wasn't relying on them to make an impact. She proved as much during the subdued number "Redemption," which found Backxwash sitting cross-legged on the floor to a black screen, and during her outdoor secret set two days later at an auto garage where she performed with no lights, no visuals, and just as much captivating intensity.
Barry Paquin Roberge
Quebec's answer to Jethro Tull (if only because they have a flautist) are a septet making upbeat, detail-rich, funkified disco rock, like the lovechild of Chromeo and Talking Heads. Though their open-air set coincided with the festival's lone night of rain, BPR helped the crowd dry off by helping them dance the damp away. There were a lot of hits from their recent album Exordium to Extasy, but the biggest highlight was "Pawnshop Bargain" from 2017's Voyage Massage, which featured searing guitar solos, exuberantly shouted gang vocals and, yes, a killer flute riff to bring it all home.
Capacity was always going to be an issue for noise-rock duo Crabe — their late-night set at local dive bar Cabaret de la Dernière Chance filled up early, leaving most fans stuck watching the set from outside the bar via a livestream. But it turned out it wasn't the dernière chance for attendees to see them. At a festival marked by secret sets, Crabe played the most secret one of all, one that went largely unreported to even the organizers itself until it began — a midday set from an apartment balcony where their DIY ethos and thrashy, stop-and-start rock tunes were on full display for all to see and hear. Plus, Martin Poulin-Légaré swung his guitar onto the other side of the balcony and played it off the fence. It was like watching Steve Irwin feed a crocodile while holding his baby.
Whoever said "no shirt, no shoes, no service" hasn't told Ducks Ltd.'s Tom McGreevy. The barefoot lead vocalist of the Toronto outfit had his stompers on full display during their early-evening dive bar set. Playing tracks from their recently expanded and reissued Get Bleak EP and their forthcoming Modern Fiction album, the band were super synchronized, particularly impressive given that it was their first performance with their new touring rhythm section. It's a testament to McGreevy and Evan Lewis's tightly wound jangle pop, which comes off as if Real Estate were able to handle their own in a bar fight, with a nice undercurrent of confrontation and fearlessness to underscore their good-natured backbone.
Each FME set was a reminder of what we love about music, but the OBGMs' headlining club show was a reminder of what we missed the most about live performance. The Toronto punk rockers weren't content to just shut up and play the hits — lead singer Densil McFarlane doled out an endless stream of antics and theatrics that left the audience hanging on to his every move. This included endlessly shit-talking his hometown, shredding his guitar while lying off the stage, commanding his bandmates into breaking things down for the bridge (to give some more room for crowd engagement, of course) and conducting the band and crowd while lying on the ground. FME had plenty of great rock bands, but McFarlane was undoubtedly the fest's biggest rock star. Watching the concert photographers leap into action every time he pulled out something else from his bag of tricks was almost as exciting as the tricks themselves.
The musical equivalent of a Chekhov's gun is when an onstage instrument is left unplayed, leading to plenty of anticipation as to when and how it will be used. This is especially true with Montreal polymath Ouri, who has developed a reputation for melding a variety of instruments in exciting ways, from harps to electronics. The bulk of her set found her and a pair of backing musicians twiddling with a variety of keyboards, mashing up Ouri's light-as-air R&B vocals with jazzy pianos and darkwave electronics, making the unused lap steel and bass guitar all the more perplexing. The curiosity paid off near the end, particularly with new single "Felicity," a gorgeous duet with guest vocalist Antony Carle augmented by Carle's skulking upper register and Ouri's slide guitar accents.
Opening night show (Lido Pimienta, Pierre Kwenders, Pantayo)
There was no single event that represented the hope that FME bestowed upon the future of live music in Canada than the kick-off event for the festival's open-air main stage, Le Poisson Volant, featuring a trio of artists who should be swimming in main stage opportunities. Each set was a powerful reminder of the convergence of culture and groove. Pantayo's blend of pop hooks, R&B atmosphere and kulintang percussion offered a swift rebuke of Westernized notions of intervals and dissonance; Pierre Kwenders aimed to turn the entire crowd into Drake's album artwork with his pelvis-first dance moves and funky, intricate Afropop; and Lido Pimienta gave last year's Miss Colombia (released weeks into the pandemic) the live renditions we've long been waiting for.
At first, I wasn't sure if I was so entranced by Montreal synthpop duo Paupière because they were the first set of my first festival in two years, but I quickly realized that they were the real deal. Between Julia Daigle's ethereal vocals, We Are Wolves member Pierre-Luc Bégin's exuberant live percussion and the upbeat electropop backing tracks, Paupière were a warm welcome to the excited crowd — warm because everyone's blood was pumping furiously after dancing to their tunes.
Montreal post-punk quintet Visibly Choked may have had one of the smallest profiles heading into the fest — their forthcoming debut EP has yet to be officially announced, and their FME set was one of their first-ever live shows. But anyone who caught their late-night set in the basement of the Petit Théâtre seemed to spend the rest of the festival talking about how great it was. Like X-Ray Spex gone post-punk (assisted, in part, by members' participation in acts such as Yoo Doo Right and Pottery), Visibly Choked astounded both lyrically and instrumentally. Lead vocalist Gabby Domingue was utterly captivating as she spat out rapid-fire strings of words in English and French, cleanly delivering some of the best lyrics of the festival, including clear gold medallist "You're such a fucking bummer / I can't believe I sucked your dick last summer." The rest of the band matched her energy, bounding into the next song mere moments after wrapping up the previous one, with distorted guitarists balanced by a clean (and endlessly smiley) rhythm section.
Secret shows (Gayance, Seulement, Yoo Doo Right)
To help combat the limited capacity, several artists ended up playing open-air secret shows in public spaces in the area. While typically shorter and with fewer frills than the proper, scheduled sets, they were great at showcasing artists to passers-by who would otherwise have missed out while also introducing the out-of-towners to the many sites Rouyn-Noranda has to offer, like Gayance's set outside iconic fast food joint Chez Morasse (come for the poutine, stay for the killer "Hollaback Girl" remix) and Backxwash playing in an auto garage to compensate for her super-sold-out headlining set two nights earlier. Other secret standouts included Seulement, the new electronic project from Technical Kidman's Mathieu Arsenault, which blended operatic vocals with trance-y electronics (with some metal growls for good measure, which he also delivered during his guest appearance at a Crabe set) and Montreal trio Yoo Doo Right, whose moody, hypnotic post-rock hit just that much harder under the clear night sky.