POP Montreal 2023: In Review

POP Montreal took over the city’s Plateau district from September 27th through October 1st, 2023. Oh, those halcyon days of two weeks ago, the nights were warmer, the world was maybe just a little bit less screwed up and the sound of music spilled out onto the sidewalks of our fair city.   

Barnacle at Casa Del Popolo, Sam Cummins (right) Allison O’Reilly (Left)

While the bigger name shows like Martyn Bootyspoon and Islands might have drawn larger crowds, all the cool people could be found on Saint Laurent Boulevard at Casa Del Popolo. Even CJLO’s own unflappable host of Hooked on Sonics, Omar Sonics, was hanging out for the evening of music that featured Avec Plaisir and Barnacle. Alt-rockers Bonnie Trash were also on the schedule but, unfortunately, one of the band members caught the Covid blues, forcing the cancellation of the show. Because of this, the two bands left standing Avec Plaisir and Barnacle hit the stage a bit later than expected. Fortunately, those in attendance hardly blinked an eye and the shows went on without missing a beat.

Avec Plaisir, a self-described indie punk quartet that consists of Sam Winsor and Sébastien Vézina on guitar and vocals, Julien Besner on bass and vocals and Maxime Verreault on drums. Their debut album, released in 2022 was simply titled, An Album and that laid-back attitude was quite apparent during their forty-five minute or so set that included songs from said album, like “Jarry St.” and “Jeep Cherokee Influencer.” The band tried to get the audience involved in an old-school circle dance adding a bit of oomph to the evening, to which Avec Plaisir took it up a notch adding a bit more reverb and energy. 

When Barnacle took the stage, the small venue had filled up and a buzz of the first night of Pop Fest excitement filled the air. Led by the strong vocals of lead singer Sam Cummins, Zack Bruce on guitar, the steady beat of drummer Raph Sandler and the pounding bass provided by Allison O’Reilly on songs like “Uncle Chucky” and “Sunblock,” one could not help but to shake about.

 Day two of POP Montreal saw Club L’Esco host the album launch of Montreal singer-songwriter Sasha Cay's latest album, Spin. Alphonse Bisaillon kicked off the evening with a solo endeavour of him and his keyboard that entranced the appreciative and abnormally quiet audience with his pop melodies and quirky storytelling. Up next was Montreal music producer Sam Woywitka’s latest project SAMWOY. A band that denies explanation preferring to let the listener join them on their sonic journey.

Unlike the quiet and attentive audience during Alphonse Bisaillon’s set, the audience during Sasha Cay’s set was the chattiest I had been around in quite a long time. No matter where I wandered in the small venue people seemed more interested in catching up with their mates than what was happening on stage. The low volume of the vocals on songs like “Shadowboxing” and “Blackfly” certainly did not help matters. The sound did get turned up three-quarters through the show which seemed to help drone out all the incessant chatter. Closing out the evening was the Montreal post-punk band Sunforger. 

Candi Staton at Théâtre Rialto

The third day of the POP Festival, Friday, was Rhythm and Blues night at the Rialto Theater. Caribbean-Canadian artist Janette King’s fusion of R&B and house had the Rialto audience dancing in their seats. After the up-and-coming artist Janet King, came the four-time Grammy-nominated, who as a teenager toured with Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson, Candi Staton. Her mash-up of “Stand By Me” and “Stand By Your Man” stood out as well as a couple of songs made popular by Elvis Presley, “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Taking a break from the music, POP Montreal welcomed presidential candidate Dr. Cornell West Saturday night. Speaking at a packed Rialto Theater Dr. West discussed society's spiritual decay and the virtues of love and John Coltrane. Right next door at the Rialto Hall CJLO was presenting a duo of performers. Singer-songwriter Hiroki Tanaka and Los Angeles-based Hand Habits.

Balaklava Blues at Entrepôt77

All week the festival was graced with beautiful fall weather and the final day, Sunday was no different. One of the few outdoor venues, Entrepôt77 was hosting a band I was looking forward to checking out. Unfortunately, the mid-afternoon start time might have been a bit early for some as the turnout for Balaklava Blues was quite disappointing. Like really disappointing, I'm pretty sure I could have taken a head count with my fingers and toes. The professionals that they are, they played as if the Big O was filled with adoring fans as their set closed to a climatic rendition of “Shelter Our Sky” and “Let Me Out.” Towards the evening the venue filled up for the hip hop artists El Mega S.P.R.M and Gayance. Over at the Rialto Theater folk artists Beyries and Bonnie “Prince” Billy played to a full house. Both solo performers had no trouble commanding the attention of the audience. A fitting end to the festival was the encore when Bonnie “Prince” Billy played a cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Queen of Denmark.”

Spread over five days, POP Montreal is a marathon of musical mayhem and I’m sure there was much that I missed while I was seeing other bands. In the end, the twenty-second edition of POP Montreal will be remembered when people say, “remember when we saw (insert favourite band here) in that tiny hole-in-the-wall bar.” 

Beyries at Théâtre Rialto


Clifton Hanger hosts Brave New Jams, every Saturday 10-midnight on CJLO.