Heeding the Siren's Call at FME 2023

Main Image: Milk TV at Diable Rond for FME 2023. Credit: Clifton Hanger. 

Much like the Monarch butterfly, year after year fans of music have made their own long migration north. It might be instinctive, or maybe it’s the siren’s song known as FME, Festival de musique émergente that summons the Odysseus-like trek to Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, a town known for its minor league hockey team The Huskies and the Horne smelter. The world’s largest processor of electronic scrap (and unfortunately, lately in the news for the toxic fumes spewing from two huge Mordor-like smokestacks that tower over the city). For the four days, the long time mining town becomes the hub of all things hip in music, and this year's edition ran from August 31 to September 3.

Thursday was spent at the outdoor stages, as the main stage hosted an eclectic group of bands. First up was Amsterdam’s Mauskovic Dance Band, with the term dance band is somewhat of a misnomer. Their sound is quite danceable, but it's more electronic afrobeat with a touch of drum and bass on the side. When the band started, the audience was sparse, but that quickly changed with the crowd growing larger as the night progressed. 

By the time local favorites Bon Enfant arrived on stage the closed off main street was packed from near to far with excited festival goers. Consisting of members from other notable bands like guitarist Guillaume Chiasson from the band Punctuation, Mélissa Fortin and Daphne Brissette both from the Canilles and Étienne Côté on drums, who performed later at the fest under his Lumière persona, the eclectic group of players grooved thru their 70’s inspired set.

Mélissa Fortin of Bon Enfant. Photo Credit: Clifton Hanger. 

Closing out the main stage was The Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project. Although the band didn’t have a new album to showcase, they had no trouble spanning their back catalog for songs to play.  After a frantic show in Rouyn-Noranda, which included a three song encore, the crowd refused to let the band leave the stage.The true road warriors that they are, drove all night and I imagine into the early morning to be back in Montreal for their weekend set of shows with the Montreal band Bad Uncle. From what I heard the effort was not in vain for both Bad Uncle and the Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project did not disappoint.  

One of the standouts from Friday’s lineup was Montreal’s Nora Kelly Band. Part of a Mint Records showcase that included the art rock trio Heaven For Real, which was just finishing up as I arrived. But I can say from the smiles as people exited they must have put on a heck of a show. As for Kelly, she charmed the packed QG Salle De Spectacles with her innocent banter and calming blend of shoegaze and alt-country songs, of which she played much of her latest album, Rodeo Clown  and selections from her earlier EPs, Lay Down Girl and Perfect Pig. For all those interested, Nora Kelly Band will be playing Pop Montreal on September 28th.

Also making her mark on Friday was Innu singer-songwriter Kanen. Her concert was heartfelt with a thump as she played through her latest and first full length album, Mitshuap, after which she received a standing ovation from the audience at the newly renovated Agora Des Arts. The hardest worker of the evening award went to Montreal  hip hop artist Fouki. The words flowed along with his frantic pacing across the stage as the mixed tape took off after he was joined on stage by another hip hop artist who performed earlier at the main stage, Greg Beaudin. The two together brought so much positive energy to the stage the show just seemed to take off from that point on, much to the delight of the packed main outdoor stage. 

The festival reached the halfway point on Saturday and the beautiful late summer weather continued, which made for a fantastic afternoon of music on the smaller more picturesque outdoor stage situated on a waterfront. This venue turned out to be the perfect setting for Vanille and her 60’s era French chanson, singer-songwriter Rachel Leblanc transported the audience to the south of France for the afternoon. 

Crowd surfing during the Fouki show. Photo Credit: Clifton Hanger.

Saturday evening heralded two of the more talked about bands of the festival. First being the Brussels electronic/jazz ensemble Tukan who were due for their second of three concerts of the festival. They started their weekend Thursday afternoon with an unscheduled pop-up concert at the feet of the dreaded Horne Smelter. With each engagement, the quartet seemed to be getting more electronic and less jazzy. Leading to the Sunday outdoor show was without any signs of jazz, more of a full on rave. Saturday night saw them playing in a dank sweaty basement that inspired thoughts of New Order at the Hacienda. 

And then there was Truck Violence, 1 AM at Cabaret De La Dernière Chance. Like three semi-trucks speeding towards the abyss, the experimental rap trio from Western Canada left nothing behind but the scattered remains of the audience's ear drums on the barroom floor.

 Sunday’s are a little sad at FME with the knowledge that the trip to ‘Wonderland’ is nearing its end and the long bus ride back to reality is only a sunrise away. But before that there was still much to enjoy including the ‘Spectacle de Clôture’ group of shows at the lakeside stage. Of which the aforementioned, Étienne Côté was the stand out of the evening if not the festival. Côté left his mark on the first day of the festival when he joined his Bon Enfant bandmates on the main stage. This time he was performing as his glam rock alter ego, Lumière, channeling the music and vibes of the 70’s while singing and playing the piano like a modern day Jerry Lee Lewis. 

For the last few shows of the festival it was back to the small bars that host the late night fare. Montreal producer and songwriter Sam Woywitka's newest creation Samwoy was holding court at a very hot and steamy Cabaret de la Dernière Chance. Although the sound quality wasn’t the best for this show the band powered through most of their most recent album Awkward Party, including "Hate Me", "Cheer Up Buddy" and "GUTS". Like the Nora Kelly Band, Samwoy will be playing at Pop Montreal this year.

One of the most bizarre shows of the festival had to be the last one I saw, and that was Saints Martyrs. Held in the basement of the Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda, dark, bleak,  with only one stark red overhead light swinging like a pendulum to light the room. Imagine a man dressed in a monk’s attire moaning and groaning, spouting esoteric prophetic lyrics as the band of guitar and synth drone in the background of the most macabre post punk art slam dance.

“This is it, there is no more music, the fest is over, go home.” Quotes singer and frontman Frère Foutre, then carrying the bass drum like a crucifix he drops to the floor and slithers on his belly, snake-like across the basement floor to the exit. Cue the room lights and an end to FME 2023. 

Clifton Hanger hosts Brave New Jams, every Saturday 10-midnight on CJLO.