Frog Eyes / PS I Love You / Smokes Piccolo Rialto, Montreal QC, August 21

Frog Eyes / PS I Love You / Smokes Piccolo Rialto, Montreal QC, August 21
Photo: Matt Bobkin
The night's proceedings at the Piccolo Rialto, the basement venue of the iconic Montreal theatre, were a merging of two worlds, collided by local promoter Noah Bick and his Passovah Productions for their third annual Summer Festival. Featuring heavyweight headliners PS I Love You and Frog Eyes, the bill was padded by six up-and-coming local acts with only 15 minutes to make an impression before their time was up.

One local band in particular that stood out for the better were Smokes, a baroque pop quartet that merged raucous vocals, guitars and drums with beautiful classical violin melodies. Opening with "Snakeskin," the band demonstrated a sound very reminiscent of fellow Montrealers Silver Mt. Zion, with interplay between stunning strings and raging rhythms, but with a pared-down, poppier sensibility to set them apart. While they were only able to squeeze four songs into their slot, they demonstrated some diversity: later numbers showcased more of Patrick Cruvellier's classical violin hooks that stood out among the cacophonic torrent around it, led by Nick Maas' ferocious howling vocals, spitting out lines like "the horror was in your eyes." Smokes definitely made the best of their short set, and here's hoping they continue to spread their furious, melodic pop as they grow and develop as a band.

The out-of-towners definitely drew the largest crowds of the night, with Kingston-based rock duo PS I Love You storming the stage for 45 minutes of in-your-face rock, with a little bit of guitar theatrics. Paul Saulnier was on triple duty as he sang — or, rather, yelped — shredded on a series of guitars and operated a bass pedal with his feet, but despite this delicate balancing act, he didn't seem to stumble. Saulnier's between-song presence was timid, but the guy was a tour-de-force once the music started. While he's not known for being the most precise guitarist, what he lacks in fastidiousness he makes up for with the raw passion he exudes, plus his penchant for wild guitar hooks. Tracks like "Advice" and "Friends Forever," from newly-released For Those Who Stay, were crunchy and catchy, with blistering guitars and floor-rattling bass.

While most eyes (and, given the multitude of parts he handled, ears) were on Saulnier, praise needs to be given to drummer Benjamin Nelson, who handled the kit with aplomb, and definitely brought the fury when he needed to, like in the intro to "Butterflies and Boners," off their 2010 debut, Meet Me at the Muster Station.

Carey Mercer, the eccentric mastermind behind Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach, and also one-third of British Columbia indie rock supergroup Swan Lake, released his latest Frog Eyes album, Carey's Cold Spring, last fall alongside the news of his cancer diagnosis, but rereleased the album earlier this year with reports of being cancer-free, and was finally able to bring the new tunes to a live setting. With Frog Eyes taking the form of a quartet featuring Mercer at the helm, the idiosyncratic indie rockers tore through a set composed mostly of the new tracks, weaving boisterous guitars and drums with Mercer's unrestrained yelping howl.

The calculatedly messy music of Frog Eyes, much like the bands that preceded it, seemed like it could explode into hundreds of pieces in front of our eyes, yet the quartet handled all of the noisy flourishes with skill. The rhythm section was tight, holding down a solid backbone while Mercer went wild at the front of the stage, and keyboardist Shyla Seller played vaudevillian keyboard lines that added sweetness to the rest of the intricately abrasive instrumentation.

The set took a more melodic turn during the sombre "Claxxon's Lament" and the lovely "A Latex Ice Age," from 2003's A Golden River; both tunes were beautiful and warm-feeling, even with Mercer's throaty howl sonically punching the audience at every turn. Another standout was the shifting, evolving "Hornet's Fury Into the Bandit's Mouth" from Mercer's Blackout Beach project, which greatly benefited by having a tight full band behind it.

Mercer's mesmerizing presence wasn't exclusive to the songs, but his between-song banter was unbelievably hilarious and thought-provoking. From his anecdotes about his songs to his thoughts on BC city Kelowna, Mercer's scatterbrained delivery and introspective musings kept the set going as he tuned his guitar after every song, working the crowd in a way that only a veteran could. The band closed with "Don't Give Up Your Dreams" from Carey's Cold Spring, a poignant, rollicking tune whose uplifting lyrical message was augmented by the band's triumphantly stormy sound.

While the three star bands of the night took different instrumental approaches, all proved that sounding noisy and unrestrained can be as effective as precision. Despite being at different points in their careers — from the upstarts in Smokes to the newfound stardom of PS I Love You to Frog Eyes' veterans — the three bands carried a similar penchant for giving it their all.