Published Feb 03, 2020Montreal's Taverne Tour festival takes chances that work. The first is the timing of the event itself, now in its fifth year. No one would expect the last weekend of January to be a prime time for hopping between venues (or going out at all), but by becoming the only game in town, they have figured out how to fill bars with audiences hungry for something to do. Locals are seemingly unfazed by snow, as nearly every show over Taverne Tour's three nights was sold out or close to it.
With 52 artists spread across 17 stages, the festival's programming is unique as well. Though they have begun to book more acts appealing to English-speaking crowds, the majority of its line-up was made up of Francophone artists or regionally popular returning guests. This year featured names that are familiar to festivals across Canada (Deerhoof, the Sadies, Daniel Romano, Ice Cream, Petra Glynt). However, they also pre-sold enough tickets at the bar Quai Des Brumes that I wasn't able to attend a performance from Taverne Tour's most buzzed about Quebecois band, Bon Enfant.
Fortunately, I was able to catch 10 other standout acts at this smartly curated and well-organized festival. From its excellent artists to the dance contest after-parties hosted by soul and funk DJ Jonathan Toubin, I would recommend Taverne Tour to any music fan looking to experience something a bit different in the dead of winter.
Before night one's headlining show at La Sala Rossa, event producer Philippe Larocque explained to me, "We knew Deerhoof would sell out, so we decided to have the weirdest band open for them." Tamayugé both lived up to that description and proved to be a successful gamble, as the packed audience ate up every second of their set.
The duo of Japanese singer/guitarist Maya Kuroki and Ukrainian electronic artist Tamara Filyavich, both based in Montreal, charmed the crowd with their playfully experimental performance. Filyavich unleashed a flurry of ominous drones and sputtering bleeps, while Kuroki's squealing, babbling vocals were reminiscent of OOIOO. As the first act I saw, they set an exciting, unpredictable tone for the weekend ahead.
Nearly 30 years into their career, Deerhoof have become an avant-rock institution. Combining instrumental virtuosity with over-the-top stage moves and hooks that stick in your head like oddball nursery rhymes, they're a sure bet to entertain festival crowds. As always, the quartet set up in a straight line at the front of La Sala Rossa's stage to showcase drummer Greg Saunier's frenzied playing. He did more on a minimal kit consisting of a snare, hi-hat, crash cymbal, and bass drum than most could with a Neil Peart-sized monstrosity.
Saunier's mugging facial expressions and pauses to banter with the crowd in broken French were a highlight, matched only in intensity by the squealing Van Halen-esque tones of guitarist Ed Rodriguez. Satomi Matsuzaki's cooing vocals cut through the haze of her bandmates in this engaging set spanning mid-to-late highlights of Deerhoof's 14-album discography.
Zambian transgender rapper Backxwash delivered the most thrilling performance I caught at Taverne Tour, cranking up a small but captivated crowd at the Diving Bell Social Club. Their songs exploded with the punk energy of Rico Nasty, fearless politics of Mykki Blanco, and dark, pummelling beats of early Death Grips. Songs like "Black Sailor Moon" and "Devil in the Moshpit" are tailor-made for gang chant crowd interaction, with choruses repeated until they're drilled into your head. Backxwash also showed off their sensitive side on the intimately romantic slow jam "You Like My Body the Way It Is," dedicated to their partner. If there's any justice in the world, they'll be rocking venues 10 times this size in the near future.
Toronto's Nyssa has the ability to stop an audience dead in their tracks. Stalking the foot-tall stage at Diving Bell with her feral movements and mesmerizing vocals, she dramatically altered the evening's vibe. Against a backdrop of sleek electronic beats, Nyssa's lovelorn delivery conjured a gender-flipped version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." with Johnny Jewel sitting in the production seat. Look for her as a guest at the Roadhouse on the next season of Twin Peaks.
Tracing the evolution of Victoria's Kristian North over the past decade has been a trip. Since his years fronting scuzzy freak-rockers Babysitter, he has shifted gears with his solo output exploring Dire Straits dad-rock and Robert Palmer slickness. Following the release of his sardonically titled 2018 LP, The Last Rock n Roll Record, North has completed his transformation into the offspring of early '80s Lou Reed.
He dressed for this part at Taverne Tour with a silver suit, gold chain, and no shortage of swagger. Yet despite his changes in sound, North hasn't shed his gruff vocals or the clear guitar from his Babysitter days. You can take a musician out of punk, but you can't take the punk out of a musician.
Legendary country-rock quartet the Sadies, led by brothers Travis and Dallas Good, played to the largest crowd of the festival with La Sala Rossa packed to the rafters. Fans hooted and hollered as these hound dog cowboys ripped through song after song in a marathon set that never felt tiresome. From raging guitar solos to feverish fiddle playing, the brothers' mastery of stringed instruments remains unmatched. Dallas Good brings a fiery energy as a member of fellow Toronto titans Career Suicide and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, but the Sadies is where he blazes brightest.
Saxophonist Yannick Rieu led a seasoned Montreal jazz quartet over two lengthy sets, providing a welcome respite from the festival's onslaught of guitar rock. While the premise was a live performance of John Coltrane's recently unearthed 1963 LP, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, they also tore into his song "Naima" from the Quebec-related Blue World collection, and closed out with a powerful version of "Resolution" from A Love Supreme.
Hamilton's Zoon is the latest project of Ojibwe musician Daniel Monkman. The singer-guitarist is joined by a crew of cosmonauts including Dan Winterman, formerly of Simply Saucer and cult prog-psych band the Battleship, Ethel. The quartet's livewire set at L'escogriffe pulled from influences including shoegaze, dream-pop, and melancholy post-rock, but truly blasted into overdrive when their drummer kicked into a frenetic breakbeat. Keep an ear out for Zoon's upcoming album from Paper Bag Records.
Francophone trio Population II revealed the Venn diagram crossover between Taverne Tour and its organizers' springtime event, Distorsion Psych Fest. With a supercharged space rock sound falling somewhere between Boris, Pink Floyd and Tonstartssbandht, they seamlessly transitioned from passages of dreamy ambience into blistering riffs. Singing drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton conducted their impressively orchestrated performance, culminating in a headbanging jam joined by an electrified violinist.
Sacred Bones boasts one of the most musically diverse yet aesthetically consistent rosters of any record label. Despite their genre, a pervasive strain of gothic horror connects artists including Amen Dunes, Jenny Hval, Pharmakon, or the musical releases from directors John Carpenter and David Lynch. Santiago, Chile's Föllakzoid fit right in with this motley crew, as they proved with their transfixing set to close out the festival.
Propelled by relentless strobe lights and the pounding rhythms of a vampire rave, the black-clad trio summoned evil spirits with their industrial death-rock. Without uttering a word, bassist Juan Pablo Rodrigues held the crowd in the palm of their hands. It's hard to tell how the venue staff felt when they lit up a cigarette and smashed a glass on the ground, but for the duration of Föllakzoid's set, everyone remained under their spell.