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M for Montreal 2019 day 1: Hubert Lenoir, Partner, Nuria Graham, more (review)

At an industry-heavy festival/conference like M for Montreal, you don’t normally see a show, or a crowd reaction, like the one we got Wednesday with Hubert Lenoir. The whole crowd at La Sala Rossa was bouncing up and down, screaming, and singing along so loudly at points they drowned out Hubert himself. Singing in French, I should say, as Hubert didn’t utter a word of English during his set — not even a “thank you” — apart from “motherfucker,” which he interjected often. He was a dynamo dressed as a late-’90s skate-rat, coming off like a glammed-up gene-spliced Bowie/Prince/Adam Ant hybrid. A bit of a controversial figure in Canada, he broke through to the (French Canadian) mainstream when he was asked to appear on La Voix (French-speaking Canada’s version of The Voice) and sing his very catchy single “Fille de personne II,” and when he performed that at the Polaris Prize gala this year — his concept LP Darlene was shortlisted — he danced on tables, smashed glasses and yelled “Fuck genders, fuck the rules, fuck everything, fuck the American dream. I am the French-Canadian nightmare!” Despite the language barrier, Hubert’s charisma and energy know no boundaries, his music is hooky — think “Young Americans” Bowie, “Miss You” Stones, and the Scissor Sisters’ first LP — and his band is great. One of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been to M.

There were a lot of actual ticket-buying attendees at La Sala Rossa on Wednesday night (and not just international “delegates,” like myself, here for M for Montreal), between Hubert and another Polaris nominee, Partner. I’d seen Partner last year, and they’ve come along quite a bit since then, with new members of the band, but still embodying the same goofy riff-rock spirit, with as many songs about weed as queer topics. Both sides seemed to be embodied in their opener, “Lesbian Green Day,” and they also jammed out an impromptu cover of Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O Mine.”  And if it was a little sloppy, Josée Caron and Lucy Niles undoubtedly have a way with those riffs, and big hooks, and the rough edges are part of the charm.

The night was opened by Saskatoon’s The Garrys, who I’d seen at M in 2016, and who are still making an appealing, pop-tinged take on surf rock, with three-part harmonies that put them in the same ballpark as La Luz. They’re good.

As usual, the first night of M has badge-wearing delegates ping-pong-ing between La Sala Rossa and the smaller Casa Del Popolo, where there was more of an international flavor. I really liked Núria Graham, who is from the Catalan region of Spain and is signed to Primavera Sound’s in-house label. She told the crowd normally she performs with a band, but had no trouble keeping our attention with just her voice and a borrowed electric guitar. Her songs (which are in English) are jazzy and folky, and her voice is sweet and smoky. (Vocally, she reminded me, at times, of Sheryl Crow, but not in actual music.) Look for a new album in 2019. Also at Casa: Latvia’s Carnival Youth who came armed with songs I could imagine going over well with festival crowds as well as a pretty cool light show. Toronto’s Lost Cousins opened the night with well-played proggy pop that didn’t do a lot for me.

There’s more Polaris in store today at M, as I’ll be seeing Jeremy Dutcher — whose album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won this year’s prize this afternoon. Stay tuned for more updates but you can check out music and videos from all the artists I saw Wednesday night below.

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