Quebec's Festival de Musique Émergente Felt Like Summer Camp
With Mauskovic Dance Band, myst milano., Nora Kelly Band (pictured), Vanille, Night Lunch, TUKAN, knitting and Saints Martyrs
Published Sep 05, 2023It was more than just the revived summer heat that brought a wave of warmth over Rouyn-Noranda, QC, this Labour Day weekend. Arriving at the isolated copper hub, you couldn't help but notice everyone's radiant mood in anticipation of their biggest four-day stretch of the year.
There's something about being in the orbit of Festival de Musique Émergente (FME) that makes people band together. With everything integrated into the city in a walkable range, it's easy to bump into friends you shared a drink — or a hotdog — with at other sets, trading hearsay about secret shows and the hotel's continental breakfast. Language barriers hold no weight while reminiscing about the swans you saw on your walk to the venue.
Quickly, you realize why people travelled across the country (and globe) to get here. Impeccable programming and organization aside, FME is just as happy to see you as you are to be there. It might as well be a summer camp: hosted around a lake, lasting connections with people you just met, BBQs and rejection of the real world galore. Partner that with gigs of unwavering quality and some very strong mushroom branding, and you have the perfect summer cap.
The only downside of FME is the FOMO you feel for every act you missed in lieu of another — in which case, it just means you'll have to make the worthy trek again next year. While there wasn't any losing, here are eight of the fest's most noteworthy sets.
Mauskovic Dance Band
Mauskovic Dance Band is for the rhythm section. It was easy to gloss over their live setup having no guitarist, as their two drummers filled up that vacancy with ease. Without their Afrobeat-inspired grooves, their tracks would be quite sparse, but their diversion between dual drummers and bassists lent a Saâda Bonaire-like quality. Though behind his kit most of the set, figurehead Nic Mauskovic was still commanding, with his Looney Tunes auctioneering never detracting from his beat. After a long commute to Rouyn-Noranda, a funky little dance was a much-needed wake-up call.
"I make bad bitch music, but I don't always feel like a bad bitch," myst milano. admitted between tracks. Everyone was invited to their slumber party as the rapper strutted effortlessly in sweatpants and a baby tee, delivering confessionals with natural charisma. Their presence was boisterous enough to support the backing track behind them, as their choreography streamlined from robotic purpose to vogue. Between these two points, le Petit Théâtre tripled in attendance, as milano. pulled from R&B, drum and bass and electronic — proving there's something for everyone in the uncanny valley.
Nora Kelly Band
Snugness radiated from Nora Kelly and her band, still glowing from the release of debut record Rodeo Clown last week. The bite to the country-pop star's voice elevated her vision to lofty heights; its twang brought grit to her delicate songwriting. She was able to imitate lap steel with her Gibson SG as the keyboards filled the empty space. Kelly cheerled as she raised her hand in unison with her beat, and this lighthearted composure defined her set. Her post-show ritual was personal hellos to the lingering crowd, giving her the benefit of a lasting impression in more ways than one.
The Ginguette chez Edmund was practically built for a set like Vanille's. The lakefront venue emulated a cozy backyard deck, cascading the afternoon sun over the planters filled with Black-eyed Susans and local foliage. Lush instrumentation softly enveloped the cross-legged crowd as Rachel Leblanc swayed in a red, "Wuthering Heights"-esque dress. She was one with the elements as her backing band employed autoharp, flute and rounds of guitars with harmonious whimsy. This sweetness was met with Leblanc's deep-bellied humour. She laughed heartily with us at her own jokes, somehow transcending the language barrier. For a moment, everything was in balance.
There are few bands as aptly named as Night Lunch, who seem as though they've never seen the sun. They don't play around with their take on '80s red-light districts, and their stage presence is a portal. There's a Roxy Music sheen to their melancholic sultry, with bits of saxophone cutting through the hazy air. It felt like a fantasy, making the step outside after the matinee all the more grating.
TUKAN's Saturday night closer had me kicking myself for missing their surprise show, so their cosmically announced third appearance became my redemption arc. Many agree that the Brussels four-piece was the highlight of the festival, and this triple threat of sets may very well cement them in the North American market. Massive pedalboards pulsated their live instruments, as their technical precision got them as close to a sequencer as humanly possible. Drummer Tommaso Patrix emulated a house-heavy 909 to a click, while the bass and guitar added a post-punk sensibility.
There was not a still person in either audience; paper fans waved, hands were in the air, strangers danced together. The movement never waned, as each song melted into the next with only one pause for a word of gratitude. By the end of their final performance, the band bowed to unwavering cheers. Wavily dancing with new friends might as well be the whole point of a music festival, and Tukan capitalized on that with precision.
No-nonsense guitar music is what knitting promised, and that's precisely what they delivered. They're the band you'd hear in an angsty teen flick where it always rains and the cynical protagonist is softened by a begrudging first love. Songs about baby carrots, people-pleasing cigarettes and the passage of time intermingled with straight-up indie rock, filling the void that Forth Wanderers left. Melodic guitar lines were backed by a stand-out drummer, wrapping up sweet stage presence with promising ability.
The last night of FME has always been for the metalheads, and even if you missed it, there was no better way to cap off the fest than with a midnight dark mass. Though more aptly described as an artful take on hardcore, Saint Martyrs became part of their own audience. Bandleader Frère Foutre chanted in the face of moshers and led call-and-responses of shrieks through the mist of a fog machine. It was all about the stage antics — pouring liquid over their own head from a medieval bottle, stripping from a priestly robe into bondage gear and fishnets, tearing the bass drum off stage while crawling like the human centipede — and for that, this was a nightcap for those who can reclaim their overstimulation only. The strobe lights and volume hitting over 110 decibels was overwhelming, but if you can stomach it, you may find solace in your personal little hell.