Writing about a previous edition of Pop Montreal, I said that certain music festivals feature so many tempting shows as to make the scattered rush between them “strangely serene.” This time around, it was tranquil in a muted sense. You couldn’t wander down the street and encounter a band like the precise, nimbly noisy Deerhoof playing some unfamiliar club. There were no agonized choices akin to last year’s between Venus X and Lil B, at least for somebody with my tastes; I invariably found only one set luring me at every hour of the night. But in that subdued, off-peak mood, several moments still seemed emphatic.
On Thursday I planted myself at the Rialto, a 1924 movie palace whose neo-baroque décor made it an unlikely setting to see Tim Hecker. In fact, there wasn’t much to see: he worked in near-total darkness, using the festival as the debut for a new Canada Council-commissioned piece, which joins the electronic musician’s trademark static crackle and some wintry improvisations to a pipe organ scored ahead of time. Hecker often uses organs during his performances, but almost always in a church or cathedral; the Rialto, gathering place for another kind of congregation, made the unseen instrument come off as a booming, rumbling enigma. The ultimate low end.
He was followed by Colin Stetson, Canada’s most ripped bass sax virtuoso. I’m not sure which mental and physiological techniques he practices to maintain that 10-minutes-at-a-time stamina in concert, but just as impressive, in a subtler way, was his unconstrained style, moving from sudden, keening bursts of intensity to passages where his horn sounded like a cello. He reminded me of those fish obliged to keep moving forward lest they die. (“I meant to premiere new things tonight,” we were told, less than two months after Stetson sustaining a hand injury, “but I broke bones in my body.”) At the Polaris Prize gala last week, my friend Carl Wilson described his music as “black metal,” rendered on brass instead of frets. The audience member who yelled out “FUCK JAZZ” may have been overly invested in this notion, or an idiot, but Stetson still makes jazz you can headbang to.
My highlight of Pop Montreal 2012 was the R. Kelly tribute, covers sung by former American Idol finalist Jacob Lusk and played by an all-star band of locals. It could’ve been, like many things, a casualty of white people, but Lusk never dwelled on the Trapped In the Closet era. He even got the crowd two-stepping. Despite its full backing band, this year’s Spice Girls tribute act was a more casual event—they just don’t have as deep a discography to select from—but I was delighted to hear junior-high-dance anthems like “Wannabe” or “2 Become 1” performed by five pretty close facsimiles, accents and all. (The audience, at a guess, was 95% female.) If their voices were a little too low in the mix, well, that’s a merit of making your whole group broad archetypes, more like a traditional boy band than anything else.
From there I rushed off to the first Canadian appearance by The-Dream, not in a state of unworried excitement. What if he only brought his recent, lesser material? You probably couldn’t write “Umbrella” in 15 minutes without an exacting internal editor, though, and Terius focused on deserved hits and hardcore favourites: “Shawty Is a 10,” “My Love” (sans Mariah), the elusive and drums-delaying “Fancy.” Performing in front of three raised platforms bearing his drummer and keyboardists, he seemed a much more confident vocalist than the one reported a couple of years ago, not long after his first moves from producing R&B towards singing it. Someone held up a sign proposing marriage (I think she meant marriage). No “Michael,” just Michael: he closed with a horny/heartfelt rendition of “Dirty Diana.”
Shuggie Otis, son of Johnny, is an artist better known through samples than his original work: Outkast copped a version of his “Strawberry Letter 23” for “Ms. Jackson.” His music’s genre-averse funkiness was an auspice of Prince; even as a session player he collaborated primarily with his father. Otis could’ve been a prolific one. He took the Rialto’s stage Saturday night with a cravat, shades (never removed) and seven sidemen, laying his toothy vocals onto big, flamboyant blues chords. Between songs he has the stage manner of a Looney Tunes wolf. Prolonged semi-obscurity did not gnarl his ego; he was generous in ceding the floor to other band members. Towards the end we heard four incredible solos consecutively, going from long, held-down notes to rapid fret-tapping, almost threatening or cajoling to abandon the number at hand. During a few of them, I would’ve welcomed it. Otis was a gifted but limited songwriter, a journeyman who lost out on the liner-notes ubiquity he maybe didn’t even want, and for once that weekend I found it hard to stop watching.