Sunday, 25 August 2013

Passovah Summer Music Festival 2013

Passovah Summer Music Festival  |  Il Motore

                                         PHOTOS  |  MARCIA LAFORTUNE

Summer is full of music festivals in Montreal. There’s the Jazz Fest with its sprawl across the Place des Arts. There’s Osheaga in August, filling up the island with out-of-town girls in flower crowns. There’s the much-awaited Pop Montreal, on the cusp of fall, scattered throughout various venues across the city. And then, since summer 2012, there’s the Passovah Summer Music Festival.

James Irwin
Passovah Fest doesn’t have huge stages or passes that cost hundreds of dollars, but it’s anything but small. Featuring an impressive array of around fifty musical acts, Passovah Festival’s three days are bursting at the seams with local talent. Each evening is composed of short and sweet sets no longer than fifteen minutes. It’s like a live mixtape of current Montreal sounds.

And behind every great mixtape is a great curator. Noah Bick, the man behind Passovah Festival, started the festival in summer 2012 “around the dead of summer” to showcase local bands. Bick has been involved in the Montreal music scene since he was a teenager, working for both Pop Montreal and Blue Skies Turn Black. Bick’s Passovah Productions has been promoting and supporting local music for five years, though this is only the second incarnation of the summer festival.

 “My social life and my work life are kind of mixed,” explains Bick with a grin, sitting in a booth in Nouveau Palais the day before the festival is set to begin. “A lot of my friends are in bands,” he says, pointing out various musicians in the room. Through all of his work in music, it seems as though Bick knows nearly every anglo Montreal musician in existence. Talking about the Montreal music scene as he knows it, Bick describes it as a very “positive and nurturing environment” where “people help each other out.” Why have two or three high profile acts when you could instead give the stage to a whole roomful of musicians?

The music festival features three evening shows as well as two day shows (with longer sets). After some quick scoping, I decide on Saturday and Sunday night: just these two nights will contain close to thirty acts, which seems like a manageable amount.


Adam Kinner

I arrive slightly too late on Friday to catch first act Eternal Husbands, a last minute addition to the fest, but am just in time for Mehdi Hamdad. The singer-songwriter’s enthusiasm emanates from his constant grin, despite the still fairly empty room. Hamdad sings in both French and English; he believes that “people respond to emotion first and foremost.” The songs traverse grand expanses in terms of volume, as many begin softly and escalate into a wilder, louder sound. His self-described “compulsion” to play music truly comes across in this set – as it does for others in later sets. Throughout the night, noticeably absent is the usual semi-awkward stage banter so often needlessly inserted between songs. Instead, almost every act takes a moment to reflect on how great all the other bands playing are. Also gone is the usual hierarchy of openers vs. main acts; as Bick explains, smaller acts are sandwiched between larger ones. “It’s not necessarily first is the worst,” Bick says. On the posters plastered over the wall, every band’s name is the same size. It’s a mixed bag in the best possible way.

After Hamdad is Slight, whose sound swirls and pounds throughout the room. It’s music that’s easy to get lost in, the kind that makes you think you’re on the verge of an epiphany, though you never quite get there. Following them is Holyoak, whose songs encompass grand ideas carefully whittled into simple, honest lyrics.

Honeyman and the Brothers Farr take the stage next and immediately fill up Il Motore with harmonies and handclaps. Each member has a distinct voice, and they each take turns leading the group through a song. These fellas know how to craft harmonies that seem immeasurable in their immensity. Even their hand clapping is grand. I have never seen a full-body hand clap before, but now I have, and boy, is it a great thing.

Ohara Hale
The next two hours are filled with a wide variety of sounds. There’s Brahja Waldman’s saxophone and Pietro Amato’s distorted French horn. Caroline Keating’s voice has a precise clarity that is stunning with its grace. Brother Fay plays several songs with a slight Grimes-esque quality, while Broken Obelisk’s exploratory sounds prove that wildly experimental music can be intriguing instead of off-putting. It’s an interesting mix. Though not every act appeals to me, during each set you can spot at least one person who is absolutely entranced by the music. This person’s appreciation subconsciously manifests itself as a grin, slowly stretching wider with each song. It’s the beauty of the show: there’s something for everyone. And, well, if you don’t like it – there’s someone new on in ten minutes.

Pigeon Phat shakes up the audience with their goofy, earnest tunes. They take the stage dressed in extravagantly bizarre costumes, complete with fake mustaches and face paint. “You wanted the worst? You got the worst!!!” one member yells right before they launch into their opening song. “PIGEON! PHAT!” the singer screams into the microphone, against a cacophony of instruments in the background. It’s ridiculous, it’s outlandish, and it’s far from the peak of musical genius. But they’re catchy. They’re fun, and their enthusiasm is impossible to shake off. For the first time all night, the floor in front of stage is packed with dancing bodies. Hands reach up to catch band t-shirts that are being projectile-launched into the audience. Pigeon Phat packs an unprecedented energy into their fifteen minutes, and when they’re done, everyone looks around with the same expression – a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and genuine delight.

Charlotte Cornfield
It’s a strange act to follow, but Asthma Camp does well with their head-bop provoking sounds. The lead singer is barefoot, sheds his shirt, and sings into the microphone with a sharp-edged gentleness. Their music is good, but seeing them perform as a trio is even better. The drummer’s arms maneuver with a focused floppiness I’ve never seen before, and the other band members have quirky moves that echo the beats in the background.

Wake Island follows with a louder sound. Their sound has a dark edge; the vocals and the instruments ramp each other up to one dizzyingly built-up climax after another. “On the good nights, the song come alive and morph into new entities,” singer Philippe Manasseh says. Each song here is its own entity – a seemingly uncontrollable outpouring of emotion that is tossed back and forth and, finally, masterfully wrangled into place by the four musicians. It’s exhilarating.

Special Noise close the night with tunes that are even louder and drums that just keep on going and going. The front of stage is lined with fans leaping around and demanding more. If you’re the kind of person who feels like it’s not a real show unless you go home with your ears ringing, you’ll love Special Noise. After this last set, DJ Miracle Fortress puts on dance tunes for the rest of the night.


The Receivers
Round two of Passovah: Sunday night. To my disappointment, I once again miss the bus and don’t make it in time to catch Nanimal, a band that includes ex-members of Parlovr. With song titles like “Karma Kamikaze” and “Picnic on the Moon,” Nanimal is definitely worth a listen. I finally reach Il Motore in time to catch the last moments of Cinema L’Amour, a duo that proves you don’t need a big band for big sound. Just be careful when Googling them.

Saxsyndrum are up next. They play an acoustic set, scrapping the usual electronics but losing none of the catchiness. With a saxophone, double bass, violin, and drums, Saxsyndrum’s music has a seriously sweet beat. You’ve never heard string instruments this danceable. Though the audience is still small, everyone is grinning and moving halfway through the first song. The sheer lung power of the saxophonist is also admirable: it’s like the epic sax man on the YouTube, except this is actually something you’d want to listen to for hours on end. I dare you to try to stay still to this music. You can’t. The double bassist stays onstage for the next set by Holobody. They break the three-to-four-song standard and play one continuous piece. Their sound is calmly disorienting; it sounds like you’re a tiny pebble being sucked up into a melodic vacuum of sound. Beautiful harmonies complement the sound as it becomes smoother. It’s like tumbling through air.

Singer-songwriter James Irwin takes the stage next. He tells the audience he’s just emerged from the woods, and when he begins playing, it’s easy to imagine this music in an empty forest or around a campfire. Irwin’s songs are elegant in their simplicity. They’re unassuming and their subtlety is entrancing. It helps that he’s also a great songwriter.

Following is Greaser, the surprise guest of the night. A man of shorter stature takes the stage, enveloped in shadow. He wears a bright red trucker hat and has a microphone draped around his neck. When the first notes of harmonica wail out, it is unmistakable that this is none other than Leif Vollebekk. His sound is different than his previous material, although not any less captivating. It’s a loud sound, a busy sound, and a full sound: with distortion on distortion, the music is buried in itself. One thing remains the same, though: this man really knows his way around a harmonica.

The next couple of acts include great vocalists, both male and female. Charlotte Cornfield’s beautiful voice is accompanied by both accordion and double bass. Cornfield jokes about how they’re all so different – in one rehearsal, one member said the music was too loud, another said it wasn’t loud enough, while the last one said she just wanted to play jazz – but the sound is well balanced. Other strong vocals are provided by Norvaiza, who complements his singing with the mandolin, and Michael Feuerstacker, known for playing with Snailhouse. Ohara Hale, lead singer of Mori, has an incredible voice that slips out effortlessly; she sways and leans into the sound as she sings, “look who’s got the gun now.” Adam Kinner provides a nice interlude between the various vocalists with his serious saxophone skills. It’s gentle but haunting, it layers onto itself, and it’s perfect for spacing out into a strange daydream.

Reversing Falls are second to last, and their sound is rougher around the edges than most of the music so far tonight. It’s gritty in a good way. Their last song, “Curse This Place,” is a particularly great one, with its brutally honest statement: “I would really love to stay here… but curse this town.” Miracle Fortress closes the night – and the festival – as the “unofficial headliner” (according to Bick). It’s clear they have a following, as the audience gets noticeably riled up for their set. The music is intense – the kind of music that has sharp corners instead of rounded edges. It’s fast, with fingers moving across instruments so fast they’re a blur, and propels the festival to a close. Afterward, Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire takes on DJ duties and kicks off a great Sunday night dance party.


The Receivers
The festival may be over until next year, but Bick already has plans for next year’s festival: he hopes to expand with the help of more funding. This year’s festival was pay-what-you-can, with some proceeds going to the Immigrant Workers Centre. For Bick, the festival also goes beyond just music. This year’s partners included Mile End food favourites Chez Boris and Nouveau Palais. Food also snuck into Bick’s online interviews with almost every band, when he asked where to find the best pizza in Montreal. “I really like pizza… and I know that there’s not good pizza in Montreal,” Bick says. “It’s problematic!” It’s true – and with all the effort put into setting up the festival, the least that Bick deserves is to know where to find a good slice.

Bick also has no intention of taking a break anytime soon. Throughout the year, Passovah puts on at least one show a month. September is already full with album launches for How Sad and Feral and Stray, as well as a Pop Montreal day set at Divan Orange that features many familiar faces from the summer fest. One thing’s sure: there’s no shortage of music. “There's a good feeling in the air in Montreal these days. Things are brewing,” adds Philippe Manasseh. And there’s always next year’s festival to look forward to.

It might be a crazy idea to try to showcase fifty bands in one weekend, but it’s a crazy idea that works. Well done, Passovah.

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