"I think we've grown as much as we can for right now," said Sandy Boutin, the driving force behind the Festival De Musique Émergente as he commented his festival's tenth anniversary. Considering Rouyn-Noranda's nine-hour commute from both Montreal and Toronto, he felt incredibly fortunate to be able to muse about capacity issues.
Once again, the little festival that could punched above its weight, with the well-conceived fest growing in both size and influence this year.
Helping kick off Friday's long list of events, hotly tipped Montreal band Peter Peter sounded tight at the Cabaret De La Derniere Chance, but aside from reaffirming that sax was indeed back in pop rock, they didn't journey far beyond echoes of dramatic, romantic '80s digitalia, and had a surprisingly light sound for a two-guitar band.
The main stage featured the first of many Karkwans at the fest, as singer Louis-Jean Cormier showcased his solo debut. His songs were more direct and percussive than Karkwa's sweeping pop, but he didn't shy away from coaxing sing-alongs from the enthusiastic crowd. The most memorable moment was a song towards the end featuring the chorus "Goodbye Charest" in a nod to the upcoming provincial elections, which proved to be a strong undercurrent of non-musical conversation around the fest.
With beer flowing and sing-along spirits high, Feist surprised and mostly delighted the crowd with her multihued remount of her catalogue in the wake of her more sonically expansive effort, Metals. Sideman Charles Spearin literally brought the noise to old faves like "Mushaboom," but all credit went to Feist's frenzied electric guitar work, which gave the proceedings a much harder edge than some expected. The crowd was pleasantly taken aback by her six-string skills, especially juxtaposed with her characteristically sweet vocals.
At the converted church known as the Agora des Arts, BC native Kandle didn't catch fire. Her inexperience combined with a hastily assembled band conspired against her in throwing up large swaths of feedback. Plants and Animals had no such problems and were a smart programming choice to end the night, with their no-nonsense (okay maybe a little nonsense) rock emerging as thrilling and contagious. It was a great performance made greater by a rabid crowd.
Saturday saw Quebec festival mainstays Fanfare Pourpour do what they do best -- skillful brass and manouche grooves for families and passersby -- before a free electronic set got a few people in gear despite its middling quality.
Further Karkwa sightings took place at the Paramount theatre when the band's percussionist, Julien Sagot pulled off a showcase of his critically acclaimed album from last year, Piano Mal. His finely wrought balance of soundscapes and progressive pop took a while to find its legs but was in full flight by set's end. Think Serge Gainsbourg meets Thom Yorke and Angelo Badalamenti in Africa. It was impressive to see an opening act called back for an encore.
No time for that, though, as Polaris long-lister Marie-Pierre Arthur (with partner/collaborator Francois Lafontaine providing even more Karkwa content) delivered melodic, riff-heavy tunes with shimmery vocals. The program guide suggested, "Un Feist Quebecoise?" but this was clearly off the mark given Leslie's new steez the night before.
The big spectacle Saturday was the very fun "Le Mix Des Chefs," where chefs, VJs and DJs mixed beats and beets and circus-like theatricality. Seriously, they handed out ampoules of gazpacho (which might have had a bit of beet flavour), along with chocolate, gravlax and something that came in a takeout container.
And then there was Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Agora. What to say? A small room, a big concept, a massive sound. Their ability to wring ecstasy from two punishing hours of music is unparalleled. There may have been a sliver of humour to tracks like "Albanian," which almost turned into a klezmer hoedown, but it remained a grimly focused hoedown.
The post-Godspeed electro-soiree featured live band Artist of the Year, which conjured up hyper-compressed beats, farty keyboards and a bit of trashy swagger. It was kind of silly but damned if you could resist at this point in the evening.
On Sunday at Evolu-son, the fashionably late ex-Patere Rose singer Fanny Bloom looked like Stevie Nicks and sounded more like Christine McVie at times, with her super-melodic yet highly electronically crafted singer-songwriter drama. Heavy on the heartbreak, perhaps, for the early evening, but she had earned fans from previous FME appearances and was much appreciated by the patient crowd.
The free Sunday show at a new outdoor stage constructed on the beach saw French chanson presented in three ways. Tom Waits-like Montreal bellower Bernard Adamus previewed his second album featuring a brass band anchored by a sousaphone. Its deep bass sounds maximized the energy of Adamus's barrelhouse shuffles. Dumas followed with generic-free main-stage-festival-style rock.
However, the closer was French-Canadian auteur Jean-Pierre Ferland, who most definitely is not an emerging artist. He'd been a major star in the '60s and '70s, and this 78-year-old eminence grise possessed a Neil Diamond countenance. He exuded old-school showbiz and his smoothly professional little big band churned out amazing soft-rock arrangements of songs that no doubt had caused some baby-making back in the day. But he channelled a little David Axelrod with the hippie-era "God Is an American," delivering a real slice of post-Quiet Revolution Quebecois cultural experience.
Speaking of definitive Quebecois cultural experiences, the FME metal show had the least industry presence and correspondingly greatest attendance by younger folks. Great sound in le Petit Theatre flattered Buffalo Theory, Obey the Brave, In Pieces and Unexpect.
FME 10 ended up messily and happily at the Cabaret with the countrified strains of Michele O and Isabeau et les Chercheurs D'Or. Where to go for the next ten years? Boutin is sticking with what he, the town and the Quebec music industry like best about the festival: the right size for the right locale, maximized by creative staging and curation that lets good music shine through.