August 31, 2017
Set in the small Northern Quebec city of Rouyn-Noranda (population 41,000), the annual Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FME) brings together dozens of live acts from any number of genres for four days of music and community-building.
The latter is what really sets FME apart from the scores of other Quebec festivals – sure, there is networking at any festival, but the remoteness of Rouyn-Noranda ensures that those who make the trek up (a 7-hour drive from Montreal) are dedicated music fans. That enthusiasm, coupled with the easy accessibility of the town, lends the festival a sort of summer-camp vibe, with attendees frequently bumping into each other at the various venues or throughout the small city.
The audiences at FME are also very attentive – apart from a few quick photos, there was almost no cell phone usage at any of the shows, a welcome change from the barrage of white-light emanating from the crowd at most Montreal shows.
This year’s lineup featured a mix of international and Quebec-based acts, but the emphasis was on bands from Montreal, which makes sense given the relative proximity. With that in mind, it might be ironic to finally see bands from Montreal while so far north (when they routinely play here in town), but FME leads to that sort of discovery.
For one, apart from the shows, there isn’t all that much to do in Rouyn-Noranda. You can have an over-hyped poutine at Chez Morasse (lesson learned for next year), grab a pint (or four) from local micro-brew pub Trèfle Noir, or walk around the scenic Osisko Lake, which wasn’t much of an option on opening night as the temperature dipped to near freezing levels.
Just as local scenes and bands thrive and grow in small towns, the lack of distractions in Rouyn-Noranda leads you to watch as many bands as possible, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case in a bigger city.
Below is the best of what we caught from the Thursday shows at this year’s FME, which runs from August 31 – September 3, Check out our interview with FME co-founder and vice-president Jenny Thibault here.
Thus Owls at Agora des Arts
Kicking off the night at Agora des Arts, a converted former church, the Swedish/Montreal hybrid trio Thus Owls (featuring the husband and wife team of Erika and Simon Angell) delivered an enveloping and unique set.
Joined by three additional guitarists, spread out in a semi-circle amongst the crowd facing the players on-stage, the newly expanded lineup created an immersive atmosphere for the band’s otherworldly sound.
Featuring moments of doom and beauty in equal measure, the band focused almost entirely on new songs for this set, including one track that had been written just two days prior.
The set ended with singer Erika Angell throwing a virtual baton back and forth from the extended guitar players to her band, with each side trading off bursts of increasingly intense guitar-play.
If we are ever graced with another season of Twin Peaks, Thus Owls would fit in perfectly on the Bang Bang Bar’s schedule.
Philippe B at Agora des Arts
Montreal multi-instrumentalist Philippe B alternated between finger-picking acoustic guitar and piano during his quietly evocative set. The show served as a semi album-release for his fifth LP, La grande nuit video, released this past May on Bonsound.
Singing in French, Philippe B’s songs present introspective and tranquil slices of Montreal life, complete with references to Cinema Beaubien and Cremazie. Despite the sedate material, Philippe B was extremely chatty and personable on-stage, which lent the set even more of an intimate feel.
Andy Shauf at Agora des Arts
Next up was Saskatchewan’s Andy Shauf, who bolstered his laid-back solo folk sound with a 5-piece band. Nestled between the intersection of early 00’s indie rock and 70’s AM radio, Shauf’s work has a breezy quality to it, which translated into an equally smooth and relaxed set.
Pierre Kwenders at Scène extérieure Desjardins
Meanwhile, at the outdoor stage across the road, a large crowd braved near-freezing temperatures to catch performances from Pierre Kwenders and headliners A Tribe Called Red.
Just ahead of the release of his upcoming sophomore album MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, Congolese-Canadian performer Pierre Kwenders had the crowd jumping and swaying to his unique brand of multi-lingual, borderless dance music. With lyrics in French, English and African dialects, Kwenders draws on influences from Afrobeat, electronica and indie-rock to create a danceable sonic whirlwind all his own.
A consummate showman, Kwenders was dizzying to watch on-stage, bending his body in gravity-defying ways while pushing the already-amped crowd to shout out their appreciation.
A Tribe Called Red at Scène extérieure Desjardins
Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red then closed out the outdoor stage with a set of their pulsing, anti-colonialist dance music. Blending Indigenous music with beat-dropping electronica, the trio of DJ’s performed in front of a large screen displaying snippets of animation and clips of videos featuring re-claimed and re-purposed images of Indigenous culture in mainstream media. With plenty of shout-outs to the local northern Indigenous communities and by dedicating their set to all the women present, this was as inclusive and thought-provoking a dance party as one is ever likely to see.
Fuudge at Cabaret de la dernière Chance
Over at Cabaret de la Dernier Chance, Montreal’s Fuudge laid down some thick slices of sludgy psych-rock, intercut with moments of vintage metal and some straight-up dance-rock numbers. It was a beguiling mix to say the least, but the band’s zero-fucks attitude goes a long way, and the crowd ate up every moment of it, launching into a 90’s-style pogo pit from the opening moments of the set.
Slosh at Petit Theatre du Vieux-Noranda
Meanwhile, at the Petit Theatre du Vieux-Noranda, Paris’ Slosh were wrapping up their set with a bang, with their unique combination of frenetic dance punk coupled with a Scottish singer straight from the Ian Curtis school of morose vocal delivery. Just as their set wrapped up, he began taunting someone in the crowd who had apparently thrown beer on-stage, in a menacing enough way that it looked like he might jump into the crowd and settle it with some fisticuffs. It might all be part of the band’s shtick, but it was just the sort of jolt the crowd needed as the night ticked past the 1:00 am mark.
Atsuko Chiba at Petit Theatre du Vieux-Noranda
Montreal’s Atsuko Chiba then kicked into a mesmerizing set of epic post-rock that sounded like a cross between Rage Against the Machine and Mogwai –- a peculiar mix to be sure, but it works nevertheless. With multiple vocalists in the band, they are able to channel numerous styles and genres into their sound, incorporating bits of psych-rock, indie-rock and yes, even a bit of Zach de la Rocha-inspired vocal play into their hybrid sound.
Duchess Says at Petit Theatre du Vieux-Noranda
Montreal faves Duchess Says then closed out the night with an intensely wild and theatrical set. Singer Annie-Claude Deschênes is a total beast on-stage, with her bulging eyes and frantic hand gestures, perfectly timed to the band’s Devo-on-speed Moog-punk sound.
Despite getting on-stage at 2:30 am, Deschênes was quickly able to whip the well-lubricated crowd up into a frenzy, at one point leading them to crouch down en masse, before allowing them to launch back into the air (and each other).
Deschênes also spent time crowd-surfing / singing, and performing from within the crowd, bringing her own particular brand of off-beat energy directly into the faces of the sweaty audience. Let’s not forget half the venue overtaking the stage at one point, and the giant billowing white curtain that enveloped the crowd, which led to a whole other set of dance-floor shenanigans.
With an endlessly entertaining and chaotic late-night set, there was no better way to wrap up the first day of this year’s FME.