Ever since 2002, Pop Montréal has taken over venues across town one week a year for a far-ranging festival that balances established names and emerging acts. With some of the locals describing this year as feeling like the first “true” iteration of the festival since COVID, the excitement feels particularly palpable; there’s an electricity in the air while you drop in on wildly different artists just a few blocks away from each other.
Like many festivals of its length, Pop boasts a dense lineup but isn’t five full crowded nights. After the soft opening vibes of Wednesday, Thursday felt like the official beginning of the fest’s 2023 iteration. While people thronged the downtown venue MTELUS trying to get into the Men I Trust gig, I wandered around the edges of Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood, where much of the festival is based. It was possible to catch Anjimile and Bell Orchestre playing in a tent next to a train track, and then watch Canadian up-and-comers like Boyhood in a small cafe down the road.
But the main attraction of the night felt like a series of electronic artists in the basement of the Rialto Theatre. While the theatre itself is a gorgeous old-world room, there’s also the Piccolo downstairs for the late-night performances. When you first enter, it almost feels as if you’re descending down a service staircase, and then you pass through a little bar and enter a darkened subterranean club. It’s the kind of space that justifies people saying Montréal can feel like Europe.
Much of the Pop Montréal lineup is a little left of center, and that goes for many of the electronic acts they have booked playing into the early hours of the morning. These are not all 1AM dance party artists, but ones prone to spacey head trips for the blearier hours of the night. Case in point: On Thursday, the one-two-three of LaFHomme, Kate NV, and Loraine James provided a bizarre electronic odyssey to close the evening.
Right on the heels of her great new album Gentle Confrontation, Loraine James was the headliner of the night. She gave a mesmerizing performance, all the clatters and glitches reverberating around the room at Piccolo. True to the music the British producer makes, the performance was not without propulsion, but the atmosphere was more meditative. At turns beautiful and unnerving, James’ set was the sort of performance that compels you to stand in the corner, let it wash over you, and get very lost in your thoughts.
While that was stunning in its own right, Kate NV’s set more or less stole the show on Thursday. If you listened to her Album Of The Week honoree WOW back in February, you already partially know the deal: the Russian artist’s music is playful and eccentric without devolving into quirky nonsense. But onstage, she structures things differently. For much of the early portions of the set, Kate NV leaned on more restrained, fragmented material — pinging notes and clattering glass beats, music structure almost abstracted into pieces that refused to congeal. Someone described it to me as a sound that felt like it was “connecting your brain cells,” which was apt; you could almost feel the squiggly lines being drawn between erratic jumps in the music.
But Kate NV didn’t stay in that place, instead pulling off a sort of magic trick across the set. From those burbling beginnings, she gradually moved into her more “direct” material — beats cohered, synths became warmer and catchier, and she began abandoning her synth station to yelp into the mic while thrashing around the stage jubilantly. In the very beginning of her set, it was more like you were witnessing an art piece, and then she gradually worked the crowd up into a throbbing frenzy. By the end, it was a cascading, weirdo celebration, which in turn felt like a fitting symbol for kicking off Pop Montréal — there’s some truth in the first half of the festival’s moniker, but you will see artists bend the form to its outer limits. Kate NV did that in mind-blowing fashion on Thursday, kicking open the door to a weekend of further exploration.