Vibrant Montreal brings new Canadian rock sound to world scenes
Posted on Thursday, May 10, 2007 (EST)
Montreal, the Canadian city known for its fierce winters, has become an international hotspot for a new wave of indie bands.
The Montreal band "Arcade Fire" during a performance
© AFP/GettyImages/File Kevin Winter
PARIS (AFP) - Led by trailblazers Arcade Fire, guitar-wielding groups have been touring overseas, winning fans and have everyone wondering about the secret of the city’s sudden success.
Alongside the rock scene, electronic acts such as DJ Champion, Kid Koala and Tiga have made "based in Montreal" a fashionable stamp of quality.
In the process, the image of Canadian music, once dominated by pop crooners Bryan Adams and Celine Dion, has been redefined.
"Montreal is an extremely cosmopolitan and open city," said homegrown singer Pierre Lapointe, giving his reasons for the new vibrancy.
"We couldn’t care less about origins. What we look for is good music and interesting ways of doing things," he added during a stop in Paris.
Montreal is home to about two million people, making it the biggest city in the French-speaking eastern province of Quebec.
Music journalist and commentator for Canadian cable channel MusiquePlus, Nicolas Tittley, puts the vitality of the guitar scene down to North American influences.
The Montreal band "Arcade Fire" during a performance
© AFP/GettyImages/File Kevin Winter
"Rock, country, blues, folk. Basically, all the music movements linked to North America are not foreign for 'les Montrealais'," he said in an interview.
Indie rockers Arcade Fire have sold a million albums worldwide, according to their record label, and fellow groups Wolf Parade, The Bell Orchestre, Patrick Watson, Stars, The Besnard Lakes or The Dears are following in their footsteps.
The francophone movement includes Ariane Moffatt, Karkwa, Ghislain Poirier, Les Trois Accords and Malajube.
Malajube is threatening to cross the language divide and break into English-speaking markets after the group’s new album "Trompe-l'oeil" won plaudits from US reviewers.
Although Montreal is a majority francophone city, most people can speak (and sing in) both languages and the city is also home to a large, well-integrated ethnic population.
"The openness that we have in Montreal is quite unique," said Laurent Saulnier, programmer for the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Francofolies de Montreal event.
"Few cities in the world have access to so many sorts of music from everywhere: France, USA, Europe, South America, or Africa."
The cross-over of influences and culture is also seen in the music collaborations.
Pierre Lapointe, The Dears, Les Trois Accords and Loco Locass, a rap group similar to the Beastie Boys, make guest appearances on the Malajube’s album.
Critics snipe that the hype will not last, but for the moment at least, a new, fresh face has been put on Canadian music overseas. ©AFP
DURING the 2000 presidential campaign, the candidate from Texas fielded a question from Canada: “Prime Minister Jean Poutine said you look like the man who should lead the free world into the 21st century. What do you think about that?”
When George W. Bush pledged to “work closely together” with Mr. Poutine, Montrealers fell off their chairs laughing. It wasn’t so much that the Canadian leader was, in fact, Jean Chrétien, but that the “reporter” — Rick Mercer, a television comedian — had invoked the city’s emblematic, problematic, comedic junk food dish: poutine.
A gloppy, caloric layering of French fries, fresh cheese curds (a byproduct of Cheddar making) and gravy, poutine goes deep into the Quebequois psyche. Somehow, Quebec’s rural roots, its split identity (Acadian farmers or Gallic gourmets?) and its earthy sense of humor are all embodied by its unofficial dish.
This may be one reason that until now poutine has not traveled well. True, it was on the menu for years at Shopsin’s, the quirky West Village restaurant that closed this year, but so was nearly every other known foodstuff. But recently, it has materialized in a handful of cities across the United States. In New York City, it is on the menu at three highly divergent establishments, and this time it shows signs of taking hold.
Andy Bennett, the chef at the Inn LW12 in the meatpacking district, recalled his reaction on being told (by the Canadian faction of the inn’s owners) that poutine must be served. “I said, you’ve got to be kidding me. Then I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get away from it.”
Mr. Bennett, however, was converted. “You have to embrace these things,” he said. “Now it’s our biggest selling item by a long stretch.”
“I think it’s going to be across the city soon,” he said. “It’s going to stick without a doubt.”
Mr. Bennett’s choice of words was apt. Poutine is an extreme stick-to-your-ribs concoction, whose name is said to derive from Quebequois slang. According to the dominant creation myth, in 1957 a restaurateur named Fernand Lachance, when asked by a customer to combine fries and cheese curds, said it would make “une maudite poutine” — an unholy mess. (And this was pre-gravy. Another restaurateur, Jean-Paul Roy of Le Roy Jucep, claims to have first served fries with gravy and curds in 1964.)
Since Mr. Lachance’s death three years ago, poutine’s de facto spokesman has been Bob Rutledge, creator of the Web site MontrealPoutine.com. Mr. Rutledge, a professor of astrophysics at McGill University specializing in neutron stars, black holes and gamma ray bursts, first heard of poutine on moving to Montreal in 2004. He was instantly smitten.
“When I started asking about it, I got one of two responses,” he said. “It was either: ‘Oh here’s my favorite poutine place; you must go...’, or else it was: ‘Oh my God, why do you want to eat that stuff?’ It’s a veritable food phenomenon; half the people are embarrassed it exists.”
Siobhan O’Connor, a journalist who moved to New York from Montreal five years ago, has a different view. “The only people who don’t like poutine are people on a diet,” she said. “It’s the first thing you want when you go back, a real late-night post-drinking thing.”
Ms. O’Connor recently sampled the new batch of New York poutines. The classic version at Sheep Station, an Australian gastropub on the western edge of Park Slope, initially struck her as too dry. But, on discovering that the Quebequois chef, Martine Lafond, had secreted further curds and gravy under crisp, hot fries, she warmed to it, declaring the gravy authentically peppery, salty and meaty, and the curds as fresh as could be expected so far from home.
At Pommes Frites, an East Village storefront that traffics in Belgian fries but now has a sideline in their Canadian cousins, neither the rubbery, yellowish curds nor the lukewarm, flavorless sauce met with Ms. O’Connor’s approval. But Mr. Bennett’s four varieties at the Inn LW12 did, despite distinctly unorthodox stylings.
“I’d come back here just for this,” she declared of the plate with five-spice gravy and chewy strips of pork belly, though she found the Stilton cheese in the rich, toothsome braised beef with red wine version to be overload and the herby marinara sauce on the tomato version — called Italienne back home — disappointing. Though somewhat overshadowed by its glitzy sisters, the classic, too, more than passed muster.
Ms. O’Connor explained that poutine really belonged to the French speakers — her Irish-Montrealer mother, for instance, had never tried it — until “around 2000, when people started messing with it: green peppercorns, Gruyère, truffle oil...”
According to Professor Rutledge, variations on the theme are fine. “They strike me as creative and interesting so I give bonus points,” he said. He is, however, from Southern California. The average Montrealer seems to be more of a purist.
The chef Martin Picard, one of Montreal’s most high-profile culinary figures, embraces poutine at his restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. “That dish becomes an international passport,” he declared. “It’s not haute gastronomie, but it permits Quebec to get more interest from the rest of the world.”
Mr. Picard said he occasionally offers classic poutine as a “clin d’oeil” — a wink — to Quebequois cuisine, but his version with foie gras is what everyone remembers. For this, the regular poutine sauce — a thick, highly seasoned chicken velouté, which Mr. Picard enhances with pork stock — is enriched by foie gras and egg yolks. The dish is crowned with a four-ounce slab of seared goose liver.
Whether Montreal’s embarrassing but adored junk food does take root in New York, it may never attain the status it achieved earlier this year when the CBC revealed the results of a viewer poll on the greatest Canadian inventions of all time. Granted, poutine came in only at No. 10. But it beat, among other things, the electron microscope, the BlackBerry, the paint roller and the caulking gun, lacrosse, plexiglass, radio voice transmission and basketball.
Halifax could learn a lot from Montreal
The Daily News
You know, as you travel through this wonderful country, you realize just how lucky we are to be Canadians. From the majestic Rocky Mountains to the restless Atlantic Ocean. And what diverse populations. Bringing the best from all of our homelands.
Leaving Toronto and heading East quickened my heart, as heading home always does. This is probably what is so compelling about travel. All we see and eat and do can be brought home to add a little diversity to our verdant region.
I stopped in Kingston, Ont., which was celebrating the last day of its Busker Festival. It's hard to say how big theirs is, as on the last day, everyone joins together in the main area to watch the best of the week. They had closed a large portion of the downtown and besides the theatrical antics, parking lots were 1/2lled with 3/4ea markets, antique sales, baking and general city groups adding to the fun.
After a Guinness, a bite and a leisurely chat with some locals, on I pushed to Montreal.
I used to live there about 30 years ago. After the referendum, big business left in droves. Many Anglos followed. Toronto surpassed Montreal as Canada's No. 1 city. I think they went a little over board on their French-only bent, isolating them even further. But a funny thing happened. Rents stayed low. Houses remained affordable. It was the perfect environment for artists and artist expression. Montreal became an incubator and gave birth to the largest comedy festival and one of the largest jazz festivals and, of course, the world's most famous circus troupe, Cirque du Soleil.
To some degree, this is all serendipity, the right place and the right time. But that isn't enough. You still need the people with the control and the money to pave the way or, at least, remove the road- blocks. And I chose this word for it's meaning. Obviously a city must function at many levels. Business must function, deliveries must be made, people must get to work and home again. But these days tourism is big business and as well talented people must be attracted to our fair cities. Besides just jobs, we have to address quality of life. Now this means many things. Besides a comfortable and safe place to live, we have to do things. We need theatre, 1/2lm, good food and entertainment. And entertainment can be so many things - from buskers to book fairs, car shows, huge 3/4ea markets, a literal day at the beach and sailing. If we have a happy population, it shows. The tourists 1/2nd out and they come to see why. And at the bottom of it all, you will 1/2nd a progressive administration.
As in Montreal, where the arts had the perfect place to be. Flowers won't grow without the proper conditions, they must be encouraged. Montreal gets it.
During the jazz festival, most of Montreal's streets are closed around the arts centre. During the Grand Prix the Main St. Laurent is closed and turned into a giant terrace; bars and restaurants spill out onto the street.
The comedy fest, for two weeks, shuts down the blocks from St. Laurent past St. Dennis, south of Sherbrooke. The area is the size of downtown Halifax. There were hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. Roaming troupes of stilt walkers, parade 3/4oats, lights everywhere, sound and long lineups at all of the venues. It was a festival 20 years in the making.
About 20 years ago, in Halifax, Dale Thompson started the Buskers' Festival and Mardi Gras, a Halloween night to remember.
Buskers were a downtown-wide street show. They were everywhere. What could have grown into something approaching Montreal's festival was safely place in a sterile (read boring) package on the crowded waterfront.
Same with Mardi Gras. It got out of control. Instead of managing it, it was cancelled, or at least the cost of police and 1/2re control became prohibitive. There is something wrong with our attitude.
Mayor Peter Kelly and a few councillors should go on a paid junket to Montreal to 1/2nd out how it's done. There is no need to recreate the wheel. It's been done in Rio, New Orleans and in Montreal.
I saw very few police, just on the gates to the streets. A couple of 1/2remen leaning on their 1/2re truck were there just in case. And there were hundreds of thousands of people of all ages with smiles on their faces.
Heck, I'll even offer to go with them as translator, to translate into common sense.
The film festival in Halifax is in its 21st year and yet the city is still dithering over permits to use Parade Square and surrounding streets.
This festival has the potential to put us on the international 1/2lm map, but we need the nurturing and help of our city fathers.
And speaking of 1/2lms, I wish our 1/2lm development board would get off their chairs and try to stem the 3/4ow of production from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and the rest of the country.
This was a $200- million-a-year business. Now I know there are circumstances, but let's start with local production.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I hadn't seen many cops walking the beat late at night. Well just to prove me wrong, there they were Wednesday night, handing out parking tickets.
C'mon. What gives? We have a world hockey tournament or curling or the Greek Festival or whatever - and the parking commission has a 1/2eld day.
You know, if they are not blocking a hydrant or some emergency exit or driveway, do we have to be so fanatical? If it weren't about the revenue, you know you will be towed, if necessary. Let's give our visitors a break. But I guess we have to pay for the parking at Dartmouth Crossing somehow.
Well, I'm off to enjoy our jazz festival. It's good here, but it could be better. Have a good one.
Montreal hotels offer escape from tourists
Graeme Hamilton, National Post
MONTREAL - At street level, there is an old-world charm to parts of this city, where horse-drawn caleches roll over cobblestone streets, passing buildings dating from the French regime.
But then again, the smell of horse urine can get a little pungent on a steaming-hot day, the cobblestones can do a number on your ankle if you're not careful, and for every building of historic interest there's another housing a tacky souvenir shop.
Montreal's year-round inhabitants have discovered a new escape route from the tourist-clogged streets, which oddly enough begins in a hotel lobby.
A number of city hotels have sprouted rooftop terrasses where the (admittedly steep) price of a beer is also said to buy you a smashing view, a chance to mix with the in crowd and in one case, a dip in the pool if the spirit moves you.
The trend has been fuelled by a proliferation of boutique hotels in Old Montreal, which have helped revive a neighbourhood that had been sliding.
The best of a bunch sampled recently was atop the Hotel Nelligan, just up from the waterfront on St. Paul Street West.
In one direction, the view was of the St. Lawrence River, Ile Notre-Dame and Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 apartment complex, gleaming as it caught the early-evening sun; in the other, Notre-Dame basilica loomed.
Dormer windows on adjacent buildings looked very Parisian, although the music -- an eclectic mix of oldies ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Smokey Robinson -- screamed 1970s rec room.
The terrasse, called Sky, does not exactly qualify as a best-kept secret. The rooftop was packed, and the area reserved for dining had an hour-long wait for a table.
An even larger crowd awaited atop the Hotel Place d'Armes on the Aix terrasse.
After wandering past hotel rooms to find the door leading to the roof, we were greeted by a bouncer recording each arrival and departure with a handheld counter.
Asked how many people there were, he replied that the information was "confidential."
A waiter said we had arrived on the patio's busiest night of the week, a Thursday.
It was largely an after-work crowd looking to start the weekend early; a hotel guest looking for a relaxing cocktail in the sun would have been surprised to find a scene fit for Crescent Street, the city's famous nightclub strip.
"It's happy hour," the waiter advised us, which seemed hard to believe after having just paid $7.50 for a bottle of beer.
He clarified that the prices are unchanged during this particular bar's happy hour. It's just that people are happy.
The view was not the best, hurt by the fact Montreal planners over the years have allowed an architectural jewel such as the basilica to be dwarfed by modern monstrosities such as the National Bank tower on Place d'Armes and the courthouse a block to the east.
For a view, the hands-down winner was Hotel de la Montagne, in the city's downtown -- and not just because its rooftop pool is surrounded by bikini-clad sunbathers.
On a recent evening, looking southeast we could see clear to the Eastern Townships.
In the foreground was Montreal's skyline and behind us Mount Royal. The hotel has no pretense of "boutique" trendiness, from the ebony elephants and crocodile statues in the lobby to the party atmosphere on the rooftop.
"People say that it is dated, so what, so is your girlfriend," a young Ohio man who recently stayed at the hotel wrote on tripadvisor.com last month.
"The pool on the roof is as cool as it gets. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and the roof looked like a scene from spring break in Cancun."
Our waitress advised us that the small pool is open to all customers whether they are staying at the hotel or not, "as long as you have alcohol."
Not too much, she hastened to add, relating the story of a drunken man who had a contest with friends to see who could stay underwater the longest. He never came up, she said.