Now in its eleventh year, the Emerging Music Festival has become a creative forum that annually transforms the town of 40,000 into a vibrant creative hub. For four days, the tiny downtown core gives itself over to the festival completely, with every possible venue and bit of street space packed with concertgoers and performers. What makes EMF unique from other festivals, however, is that it inhabits every nook and cranny of the city; you never know when an unannounced performance will break out. This year artists, not bound by their official sets, set up on street corners, in alley ways and in the library for impromptu shows. Last year, for the festival's tenth anniversary, Patrick Watson played a secret show on a sandy spit in front of the Noranda mine; this year, Chantal Archambault played in the parking lot of a local mechanic's garage on Saturday evening. There is a sense of unexpected wildness that permeates EMF; you never know when you might turn a corner and discover something new.
The festival's official programming kicked off on Thursday (August 28) with a sleek, high-energy set by DJ Willm during the opening mixer. Later, the Dejardines outdoor stage was occupied by Mauves, the breathtakingly talented guitar playing of Karim Oullet, and a joyful set by Misteur Valaire. The Agora des Arts, a beautiful 500-seat venue in a converted church, was transformed by the oppressive heat, feeling much more like a cool lounge in hell. There, the Vasts played a squalling and uplifting set, their ebullient playfulness driven by trumpet; Pawa Up First were more scattershot, their sound splattering and brassy; and the Besnard Lakes seemed to play within a cocoon of smoke. Each swelling, wailing swoop of the music was an act of transfiguration; they play to transform.
Friday (August 29) began with rain, cooling Rouyn-Noranda and creating a pensive, meditative mood that the music alternately supported and demolished. The Cabaret de la dernière chance was packed to the gills for the emotive, deliriously catchy pop of Alex Nevsky, defying the grey outside. Inside Agora des Arts, Fôret unleashed a shivering, verdant set that was at once frail and full of spiralling energy. The surging, swooping songs of Groenland had at once a childlike playfulness from the melodica and ukelele, and a strange sense of gravity from violin and cello, shifting between effervescence and structure. Playing nearly in the dark, lit only by a deep, abyssal blue, Suuns combined a reverberating wall of throbbing urgency with a prickly, popping anxiety. While de facto headliner Blonde Redhead played an intimate show at the Paramount Stage, Cabaret de la dernière chance brought the noise. Bonvivant put on a set of somehow-refreshing old-school punk rock, played with filthy joy; Dig It Up brought a slightly bluesier rock tone to the punk; and the legendary Dayglo Abortions capped off the night. The punk show was a sweaty, delicious antidote to the introspection and subtlety of the earlier programming.
Saturday (August 30) began early, at noon, with a family show by the twinkling, high-energy Maï Taï Orchestra. Foxtrott were an early highlight on the outdoor stage, while throughout the afternoon and early evening, impromptu performances (like Chantal Archambault) popped up like mushrooms from the damp ground. When evening hit, Amantani entertained at the Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda with smooth, smirking garage rock, and Hey Sugar unleashed a shamelessly '70s hard rock swagger. At Agora des Arts, Maica Mia combined a blazing wall of guitar distortion with ethereally lovely vocals, followed by a cool but repetitive set from Parisian pop orchestra Mermonte. That performance was capped off by a radiant, multi-layered set from Esmerine; the former duo are now performing as an octet, and as the show progressed, they were joined by more and more musicians, each contributing a new, liquid tone to the waterfall of sound. As the night went on, Indian Handcrafts turned up the volume with a crashing, smoke-drenched noise set at Au Diable Rond, and for those who could stay up for the 2am electro show at Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda, Rich Aucoin brought his incomparable brand of ecstatic energy. There were also reports that Eric Lapointe played an unplugged secret show at 4:30am, at Chez Morasse poutine.
Rather than slowing down, the final day of EMF will unquestionably be the loudest. The Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda will be taken over by the festival's metal night, featuring Cryptik Howing, Origin, Dying Fetus, and the venerable Voïvod. At midnight, the post-/pop-punk of Cafeïne will give the festival its final jolt.
While larger-scale festivals in big cities may be able to provide fests dominated by stratospherically famous headliners and huge venues, EMF is doing something entirely different. Every show is an intimate experience, every moment holds the potential for surprise and transformation. More than that, it is an entirely immersive experience; the town becomes the festival, and for its four day run, every moment and environment is permeated by music. What may have begun as an act of blithe selfishness has become one of the most magical, transformative and generous festivals in Canada.