* All (admittedly poor) cell phone pics by Gabe Sigler.
The 4th edition of Montreal’s Pouzza Fest was a 3-day celebration of punk rock, bad dietary choices, and questionable facial hair. Held in a series of venues in downtown Montreal, this year’s festival may have featured fewer marquee headliners than in years past, but more than compensated by booking a wider range of acts from across the broadly defined punk spectrum.
Friday’s opening festivities were unfortunately hindered by the night’s torrential rain, which made running between venues a pretty unappealing scenario. That said, there was still a 20-minute wait at Katacombes to get in to see Ottawa’s The Creeps, who were running through new songs off their upcoming Eulogies LP when I finally made it into the venue. Those songs seem to show the band progressing even further from their early pop-punk roots to a more complex and layered sound, while keeping their incredible ear for harmonies intact. Needless to say, Eulogies will undoubtedly have a permanent residence on my turntable as soon as I can score a copy.
At first glance, The Hold Steady may appear to be unlikely candidates for a punk rock fest, but the band has deep roots in the scene dating back to frontman Craig Finn’s and guitarist Tad Kubler’s time in Lifter Puller, the little-heard, yet highly influential 90’s punk outfit. I assumed this would be one of the trickiest shows to make it into, but was greeted by a veritable flood of kids exiting Foufounes Electriques following The Front Bottoms, the quirky indie-pop band that is intensely popular with the emaciated, under-21 set.
The Hold Steady set represented this current incarnation of the band well, mostly centering on the post – Boys and Girls in America era, but also dipping back to 2006 for “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” a mid-set highlight. The band’s tales of drunken nights and drug-fueled hijinks were a perfect fit for the festival crowd, pushed on by Finn’s manic stage presence, an odd-mixture of a preacher’s mannerisms channeled through a nebbish raconteur.
I jotted back to Katacombes around 1:00am to catch Vancouver’s SNFU, who were already in full swing when I got there. Led by the infamous Chi Pig, an amazing yet unstable performer with a long and sad history of drug and mental issues, the band has gone through countless permeations over the years.
With Chi Pig as the sole original member of the band, some of these lineups have been better than others, but this current lineup of grizzled middle-aged Canadian punk rock vets was easily the best I’ve seen the band in 10+ years. They tore through a ridiculous, nearly 2-hour career-spanning set, with a level of proficiency and energy that the group has been sorely lacking for some time. I could have done without their irony-free cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” at 2:30am, but it was still inspiring to see the band in such fine form.
Saturday was the most packed day of the festival, with shows running continuously for over 13 hours. The first band I caught was Baltimore’s Old Lines at Foufounes Electriques. A straight forward d-beat inspired hardcore band, Old Lines were definitely the odd-men out on a bill primarily focused on pop-punk, but they won over the small crowd, even inciting a small circle pit, no mean feat for a band playing at the awkward hour of 6:30pm.
Montreal’s own Barrasso were up next, and delivered a solid, but unremarkable set of throaty melodic hardcore in the Hot Water Music vein. The band features members of the unfortunately defunct Dirty Tricks, which boded well for them, but I may have simply reached my fill of shouty beardo punk for a while.
New Jersey’s Night Birds were next, and easily won the best intro of the fest with their spot-on Kids in the Hall opening theme cover. They then proceeded to rip through a tight set of their early West Coast-inspired punk rock, touching on nearly all of their releases, apart from their new instrumental surf EP. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 3+ years for these NJ maniacs to make their way back up here.
Chixdiggit haven’t played Montreal in a few years, and in our podcast with frontman KJ Jansen, he maintains that their last Montreal show was one of his favourites the band have ever performed. Needless to say, expectations for the Canadian pop-punk heroes were strong, and they once again put on an energetically silly set. With a good half of their set time taken up by the duelling schtick of KJ and bass player Kepi Ghoulie (of Groovie Ghoulies, and well, Kepi Ghoulie), the remaining time was evenly split up between their releases, with “Geocities Kitty” probably getting the most spirited sing-along of the night.
CJ Ramone was up next, making his third Montreal appearance in nearly as many years. CJ has switched up his touring lineup recently, adding in the legendary Steve Soto of The Adolescents on guitar and backing vocals, so expectations were pretty high for his set. While previous CJ sets were basically strictly Ramones covers, this set was mixed liberally with songs from 2012’s Reconquista LP, which, while not a bad record, led to a few serious energy dips during the set. The Ramones material that worked best in the set tended to be the harder edged tracks – “Psycho Therapy,”and “Strength To Endure,” which benefited from the fact that CJ had at least sung it originally. CJ obviously still wants to keep the Ramones legacy going, but until fans familiarize themselves with his solo output, attention spans are likely going to keep flip flopping during sets like this.
I was only a casual fan of 90’s emo vets Christie Front Drive back in the day, but the notion of catching their one-off reunion (and only show outside the US ever) was enough to send me scrambling over to Katacombes. The band played a typically understated but tight set, surprising, as they openly admitted that they had barely rehearsed for the show. The crowd was relatively sparse, but those in attendance looked stoked beyond belief, even though there was a noticeable lack of any visible chest-tapping (kids these days).
The festival really went all out on the “secret” shows this year, which made checking their Twitter account for last-minute updates a near-hourly prerequisite. So when “Tim Barry Secret Rooftop Show” pops up on your feed, you best make haste.
Somehow performing on barrels of hay (?) atop Theatre St. Catherine, Tim Barry led a quasi campfire sing-along, opening the floor to friends of his to perform, including members of Two Cow Garage. Tim Barry is probably the most straight forward performer you can see these days, and watching him in such an intimate setting was definitely a fest highlight.
I cut out of Tim’s rooftop party to catch Laura Stevenson at Underworld, which turned out to be a bit of a clusterfuck, through no fault of the band. To begin with, a “secret” second Chixdiggit set was announced following Laura’s set at the same venue (at 2:15 am), so throngs of wasted Chixdiggit fans began filling the venue as she took the stage. Now, far be it from me to judge anyone’s musical tastes, but I don’t think the trashed bros waiting for Chixdiggit to play were necessarily the right crowd for the moody Appalachian-influenced folk rock of Laura Stevenson. Apart from a few diehards in the front of the stage, the crowd was so loud that I had to get way up front to make much of anything out. Which is exactly when the power cut out.
For an awkward few moments there was zero power on-stage, with no word from the sound person on when (if?) it would be restored. The band looked totally nervous and confused, and just as Laura was shrugging and taking her guitar off, the power suddenly came back, and they were able to finish their set. Laura Stevenson was one of the acts I was most looking forward to seeing this year, and they honestly deserved much better. Hopefully they’ll return for a headlining show soon enough.
Chixdiggit finally took the stage around 2:30, and also had their share of sound issues. If the band was relatively drunk at their 9pm set (well, everyone apart from the clean-living Kepi), then they were pretty knee-deep 5 hours later. They did mix their set up in the nearly one hour they played, including, about 5 back-to-back renditions of “Quit Your Job”, before finally calling it a night / morning.
I’m probably too old to be getting home at 4 am from a pop-punk show, so I decided to take most of Sunday off, show-wise. Besides, I needed to conserve my energy for the back-to-back Dillinger Four and Lillingtons sets (much) later that night. In fact, the first band I managed to catch was Drag the River at 10:00pm. The band are touring as an acoustic two-piece on this tour, and were strangely scheduled to play at the cavernous Foufounes Electriques, sandwiched between two energetic punk bands. As much as I love both Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price, this was another unfortunate scheduling snafu, as their moody songs about love and loss seemed to fly over the young crowd’s heads, apart from a small yet vocal contingent of beardos singing along.
The Menzingers were up next, and kids uniformly lost their minds. There is no denying that this Philly band may (or may already be) the next “breakout” punk band. If one can gauge a band’s success by how awkwardly their fans stage-dive, then the Menzingers are on their way to some Foo Fighters- level fame. The energy on-stage, and in the room overall for the first 20 minutes of their set was truly impressive, even for a casual fan like myself. The problem is, only about half of the bands’ material is really that strong, and just like on record, when the hits come they hit HARD, but then there are 2-3 tracks of mid-paced tunes that wander about aimlessly before you get another hook-soaked anthem. I get why kids love this band, but I’m still not entirely sold yet.
Dillinger Four were up next, and absolutely slayed. Yes, everyone always gushes about the band, especially at a Festival, where they can seemingly do no wrong by simply sauntering on-stage, but this was perhaps the best time I’ve ever seen them. The band had a total take no prisoners approach, not resting on their punk rock laurels, but pounding out a relentless set that proved once again why they are so revered in this scene. They even changed up their setlist for the first time in what must be years, playing a solid chunk of their Versus God LP, and toning down their legendary between-song banter, although bassist Paddy Costello still had some choice bits, including a great story about the airport security staff on his flight over.
As much as I love Dillinger Four, there was absolutely no way I was missing The Lillingtons, in one of the few reunion shows they’ve played since regrouping last year. The 90’s sci-fi-centric pop-punk outfit led by Kody Templeman (also of Teenage Bottlerocket) were set to play at the ungodly hour of 1:30 am on a Sunday, but still put on probably the most fun set of the entire festival. The band actually put some effort into the show, breaking their set up in 4-5 song chunks, interspersed by audio montages of vintage sci-fi flicks and news reels. Maybe it was the crowd, a rowdy mass of fellow 30+ers, all eagerly awaiting their first chance to see a band they’ve been listening to for ages, but this was by far the best vibe of any of the shows I caught at Pouzza, a total throwback show that relied simply on catchy as hell songs about girls and outer space.
Overall, this year’s edition of Pouzza Fest did an admirable job of uniting the nearly endless factions of the punk-verse over 3 days. There were some strange scheduling choices, but for the most part, things ran incredibly smoothly. However, there are still way too many bands – a good 1/4 of the lineup could be slashed, and I doubt anyone would notice. The venues outside the St. Laurent core should be dropped (I’m looking your way Piranha Bar), because no one is walking 20 minutes out of their way to see a bill stacked with 8 unknown bands. Booking smaller bands should be a prerequisite for a festival like this, but they need to be incorporated into bills that people will actually see, otherwise they are simply an additional few lines of band names to add to the lower quarter of a festival flyer. Here’s hoping that Pouzza continues to evolve next year, and keeps providing a legit punk rock festival right in our own backyard.