Quebec's Festival de Musique Émergente Showed Why It's Canada's Unicorn Festival

Quebec's Festival de Musique Émergente Showed Why It's Canada's Unicorn Festival
Photo: Dominic McGraw
Just like most people, most music festivals think they're special. But in the case of Festival de Musique Émergente (FME if you're in the know), it's such a solidified fact that the event's unicorn branding feels like the obvious choice. As a first time-attendee, the fest invited me into its magical realm — the lakeside mining city of Rouyn-Noranda, QC, population 43,000 — and displayed how it has more than earned that hard-won horn by its 20th year running.

There are many different ways to experience a festival, and I was reminded throughout that there are equally myriad ways to be a captivating performer, especially in a setting where you can't assume the audience is necessarily there for you. As a festivalgoer, there's no way to see everything, and there's no wrong way to show up here. The thing about live music is that it meets you where you're at; even if you have a gluten sensitivity and the FME Pro brunch is built on the bedrock of your two forbidden loves, waffles and bagels, you will find solace in oat milk for your coffee and warming yourself by dancing to the sweet nature-inspired bops of Beau Nectar and Ponteix's melancholic psych pop. It makes you feel what you're ready to feel and forget what you're ready to forget, even if only temporarily.

And expectations are definitely something you'll want to do away with, because FME is full of surprises, even when operating in reduced capacity for its 2021 edition. With more resources at its disposal in this slightly-less-frightening COVID-19 moment, FME 2022 (which ran September 1 to 4) was back in a big way. Still, it remained notorious for its secrets, letting me live my Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist fantasy by catching some of the many show cachés — including performances from Tamar Aphex inside a community organization's headquarters and Elizabete Balčus (and her merry cast of musical fruit) at the botanical garden.

So, yes, while I can beat myself up for calling it a night when I was too tired (and too cold) to keep going, or for feeling socially anxious about introducing myself to people I don't know on a good day (let alone when I'm not sure what language to do it in), c'est tout bon à FME. The festival is as special as people say it is because it embraces difference; it will always feel of-the-current-moment because it moves to its beck and call, welcoming you and every burden you carry to come as you are — and enjoy some of the best-kept sonic secrets from the nooks and crannies of Quebec, Canada, and the world at large.

Here are 11 of the four-day affair's most memorable sets.

September 1

Bibi Club

Bibi Club by Dominic McGraw

The first band to play the whole festival was recent Exclaim! New Faves alum Bibi Club, and they did a formidable job of inviting us in with their compelling brand of Nena-remniscient synthpop, which sounds nonsensical and elegant in equal measure. The living-room-party provocateurs made the Scène Vidéotron on Avenue Murdoch feel like an intimate setting and a block party all at once, their expert dynamics aided by the duo of Adèle Trottier-Rivard and Nicolas Basque each playing percussion in addition to their respective keyboard and guitar, the latter even getting in some sleigh ball action with a flung foot. The deeper into the set they got, the more experimental they became with sample and loop work, perhaps as a prelude for things to come.

Magi Merlin

Magi Merlin by William B. Daigle

Raise your hand if you were personally victimized by Magi Merlin's CMW backyard set being cut short because someone called the cops. Despite technical difficulties, as soon as she was able to launch into Gone Girl single "Pissed Black Girl" on the Guinguette chez Edmund lakeside site, people were unable to resist being on their feet. "Imagine I did a standup set?" Merlin said wryly, immediately laughing and saying she could never before explaining how her earlier soundcheck with trusty bassist/beatmaker Funkywhat and drummer Ronny D had gone off without a hitch: "That's the joke — we're in the joke right now." I, for one, would see a Magi Merlin standup set, especially after hearing her entirely non-condescending yet hilarious explanation of nepotism babies ahead of playing "Children of Fate" — but her musical star power shines too brightly to be eschewed by anything. Catch her on an arena tour real soon.

September 2

Tallies

Tallies by William B. Daigle

"Vous êtes ici pour le spectacle?" I was asked before being directed to go around to the back of the Cabaret de la dernière chanse, a bar full of character and a ribbon of jade-coloured paint around its walls. Toronto dream pop outfit Tallies embraced hairography as they played a seamless set of songs that felt like one tune put through a kaleidoscope, transmorphing before your eyes into something else while retaining a sense of familiarity. At one point, an audience member requested that Sarah Cogan's vocals be turned up louder, but she sings with characteristic gentle sweetness — even on a lone growlier number. "Didn't think we had it in us, did ya?" she teased. They come by their branding honestly: any member of this band looks like they could have sat next to you in your art history elective, which is a particularly comforting attribute when you went to the University of Guelph.

Gus Engelhorn

Gus Englehorn by Thomas Dufresne

If you weren't already endeared by Gus Engelhorn's bashful giggles of thanks after each song he played, those pointy-edged nursery rhymes ought to do it. Performing alongside his wife, Estee, on the drums, he plays sketches of made-up characters (often animals) and scenarios (often also involving animals) that feel distinctly as if they were composed in crayon. Very cool visuals and lights lent the wisdom of childlike innocence even more abstraction — although the kooky tales are maybe inspired by his real-life experience on occasion. "This next one's called 'The Flea,'" he noted simply, adding: "It's about myself."

Sheenah Ko

Sheenah Ko by Louis Jalbert

The core Besnard Lakes member takes her role as the party starter very seriously, and she even managed to convince the crowd form a dance circle at one point ("Vous-faitez partie du spectacle aussi"). Among the best-dressed of the fest, her satin kimono caught air from the wild wind off of Lac Osisko, adding an extra gust of theatricality to her expressive mode of performance. Having two percussionists onstage made for a rhythmic feast, while the artist used her voice — buoyed by cooing vocables and drawn-out final syllables — as a vehicle to serve the songs rather than their focal point.

Choses Sauvages

Choses Sauvages by Louis Jalbert

As a good friend of mine once said, "Disco is an aphrodisiac." Even with a moderate comprehension of the language, there's a tendency with Francophone music — or listening to anything in a tongue other than your own — to hit on a more visceral level. Those undeniable forces conspired to make the environment of a Choses Sauvages set an appropriately feral dance party. The immaculately tight six-piece wasted no time showing their chops, toggling between extreme precision and improvisational looseness. Everyone was deep in the pocket, each musician seemingly in their own plane of groove yet moving cohesively together as a unit. Watching it felt like a mirror: here we were, a crowd unavoidably pulsed by repeating bass figures and unable to keep still, strangers dancing on our own but able to get out of our heads and into our bodies through this communal experience. It was spiritual; it was sexy. At one point, we broke the dance floor. ("The wood cracked or something and we kind of got in trouble," bandleader Félix Bélisle told Cult MTL afterward. "But I guess that's just rock 'n' roll.") See Choses Sauvages live at any and all costs.

September 3

Bria

Bria by William B. Daigle

More honours of the FME best-dressed list should be given to Bria for their set at the appropriately named Diable Rond — not in the least for the juxtaposition of the guitarist sporting a tank top and the bassist wearing a turtleneck (which happens to be a perfect representation of the spectrum of temperatures Rouyn-Noranda experienced while I was there). Through a cohesive collection of original tunes and Cuntry Covers of classics from artists like Karen Dalton and the Walker Brothers, Bria Salmena and co. sounded timeless through her smoky alto and full-band instrumentation, including a saxophone. The set ended on a high with a cover of Marianne Faithfull's "Why'd Ya Do It," with fun interplay between the vocalist and keyboardist Jaime McCuaig, both of whom wore very cute corsets.

Les Louanges

Les Louanges by Louis Jalbert

Even us newbies know that any festival comes with difficult decisions, and the predicaments FME placed me in had me within an inch of my indecisive life. Once you make the choice, it's made and there's no going back; you just have to hope for one glimmering moment that signals that you made the right choice, even when you're inevitably going to be told about an incredible set that happened at the same time. The only moment of real regret was a big one: I decided to forego seeing the sole big-ticket international headliner, Animal Collective, in favour of catching Les Louanges at le Petit Théâtre. Bold, sure, but I felt confident in it — a confidence that was quickly both affirmed by how great the project of Vincent Roberge sounded, and undermined by the unlikely culprit of strobes.

I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: we, as a society, have progressed beyond the need for strobe lights. I wish I was overstating when I say the excessive strobe usage making my wee-bit-light-sensitive self anxious was the most memorable thing about the performance. A few other people near me in the crowd seemed likewise put off by the flashing lights, complaining about their eyes, so I know I'm not alone in wondering what this form of lighting really adds to a show? Has this ever really elevated anyone's experience? Because it firmly did the opposite for me, and is also an accessibility nightmare.

September 4

Alicia Clara

Alicia Clara by Thomas Dufresne

Not to harp on fashion again, but Alicia Clara wore the oversized leather blazer of my dreams. And not to harp on temperature again (more like Festival de Météos Émergente, am I right?), but though things had cooled off dramatically by the weekend, a humid haze took over as the wind off of the lake ceased for the Montrealer's set. I had literally just purchased a down puffer from the sporting goods store, which I shed along with my trusty denim jacket while sitting in the sun and batting a wasp away from my gin fizz canned cocktail. It's fitting, too, because Clara's languid dream pop feels like you're lying in the grass with nowhere to be, tracing melty daydream shapes in the clouds.

Mitch Davis

L'Abstracto was very full when I got there for Mitch Davis's set. I was feeling very claustrophobic and in-the-way, but it was immediately clear why too many people had packed into this room to catch his performance. While Davis was a one-man band when recording recent LP The Haunt, he got some excellent support for his live lineup. Old habits die hard, though: "Sometimes I try to play too many things at once," he admitted, taking turns behind every instrument at his disposal except drums (but he'd sat behind the kit for Clara earlier that afternoon, so you know he could). The actual drummer was both a skilled sticksman and a good sport, gamely improvising "transitional beats" while Davis got set up with whatever he was playing next. Then, at the end, the bandleader cast the band away and started rapping. Yes, the spirit of former Edmonton MC Mitchmatic couldn't help but come out beneath the sumptuous mood lighting — and while it was a jarring change of pace, it was another feather in Davis's cap as a truly genre-defying musical tour de force.

Lou-Adriane Cassidy

Lou-Adriane Cassidy by Dominic McGraw

Despite some vague familiarity with the name as our resident The Eh! List (shameless plug, eh?) curator for the past year-plus, I didn't really know what to expect when the Quebec singer-songwriter took to the main stage, providing ample opportunity for her to blow me away, which she absolutely did. Cassidy's electrifying energy only wavered when she purposefully made a tender moment of ballad "La fin du monde à tous les jours." But, up until that point, it was all grit from the artist, who answered my mental reminder of "Tim McGraw"-era Taylor Swift's black dress and acoustic guitar with conviction and sing-along hooks — and an onstage costume change when she slipped out of the dress and sang some sultry blues in her skivvies at a point of further emboldenment. It was representative of how, as a fierce performer, Cassidy does not ask for your attention; she demands it, repeating growling "Écoute moi, écoute moi," on a biting track from her (again, aptly titled) latest album, 2021's Lou-Adriane Cassidy vous dit : Bonsoir.

And a bon FME to all.