About part-way through his set, Thursday night, Graham Van Pelt (frequently known as the steward of Montreal’s Miracle Fortress) put the party on pause to praise Blue Skies Turn Black. “You guys have been around how long now, thirty years?” Van Pelt teased. Though he was off by a decade and change, he was right to celebrate the promotion, who have – among other things – worked tirelessly to put together excellent showcases of homegrown talent. Thursday night at La Sala Rossa was no exception, where three acts who call Montreal their home played low-stakes and high-emotion sets to a roomful of friendly faces and a whole lotta love.
Common Holly was up first, opting for an intimate solo guitar performance over the equally-effective full-band configuration. The project of Brigitte Naggar, Common Holly is just about to set off on a substantial tour of Europe, hopping across the UK before heading to Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. But Thursday night, wearing a very appropriate t-shirt shout-out to Phoebe Bridgers, Naggar brought the scale down to play an emotionally-satisfying set of tunes that float freely between inviting and intense – often within the same song.
The songs play very well with dynamic, making it very clear how these tunes could work with a full rock combo. But, opening with numbers like “The Rose” and “ If After All”, Common Holly also brings a bit of a breezy jazz feel to the DIY sounds associated with acts like Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, and Waxahatchee. While no less emotionally-direct than those singer-songwriters, Holly’s warm guitar and searching lyrics also have leave room for swing and humour, with Naggar assuring a respectful audience that it’s fine to laugh at a new song’s spritely refrain of “Don’t leave me, I’m crazy, OK”. But even with wry smiles and goofy banter (“How many bananas did you guys eat today? Who had the most? … It was me: 4.”), Common Holly creates real feelings and unforgettable moments, leading the hometown crowd in a closing singalong with the dreamy repetition of “it’s not real if I forget it”. I don’t think anyone will.
The set switched several gears with Graham Van Pelt, who brought with him an angelic voice and a smorgasbord of lively bleeps and bloops. As the crowd tightened up on the dancefloor, Van Pelt provided an otherworldly soundtrack to showgoers’ gyrations and conversations. With sci-fi chillout sounds that evoke the sensation of tuning into a 2:30 AM club radio station from another planet, Van Pelt’s tunes may not be as emotionally-accessible as the other acts on the bill – but he successfully raised the crowd BPM and kept it going. Van Pelt took the opportunity to share some new tracks from his upcoming album with the Montreal crowd – and if this was any indication, then fans of Van Pelt and Miracle Fortress can look forward to a collection of tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in a fight scene from Tron.
BRAIDS have been a band for over ten years, but they currently live in Montreal – and have very clearly adopted this city as home base and familiar territory. Among friends and absolutely at ease with the crowd, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston established the tone early on by excitedly announcing a set full of new songs that have never been played for people, before adding “I’ve had to pee all day”.
This straight-up quality is very much in sync with BRAIDS’ current oeuvre, which brings a beating heart and relatable storytelling to explorations of electronic sounds and song structures. 2016’s Deep into the Iris was well-received for bringing accessibility and experimentation together, and BRAIDS’ Thursday set felt like a victory lap before going once more into the breach, testing new material, and doubling down on this philosophy.
Where earlier studio recordings sometimes integrated vocals into the soundscapes created by drummer Austin Tufts and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith, Standelle-Preston is front-and-centre in this material and in this performance. This does not take away from the rest of the band, who bring sweat and soul into sounds that could probably sound icy and distant in less talented hands – and prove that there are some things you just can’t synthesize. However, it’s Standelle-Preston’s crystal-clear vocals, to-the-bone lyrics, and overall stage performance that push BRAIDS into the territory of what almost feels like electronic musical theatre.
In a way, combined with structures that carry momentum as they explore the boundaries of what pop can be, some of the songs in the set wouldn’t feel that out of place in a particularly forward-thinking Disney movie – that is, if the characters in this hypothetical movie sang soliloquies about alienation in modern relationships (“Collarbones”), systemic misogyny (“Miniskirt”), and self-esteem (“Burdock and Dandelion”).
But even with these musical ruminations on the messiness of life today, BRAIDS do not dwell on doom and gloom. Maybe it was the relaxing vibe of playing to friends and family – but the band appears to have an excellent time doing what they do best, and they paid that feeling back to the crowd in full. They dance, they smile, and they joke – and nowhere was this warmth more concentrated than in a song dedicated to Standelle-Preston’s best friend, Ashley, who was pointed out as being in the crowd. Standelle-Preston explained that she’d been excited to sing this song all day, and the whole room sure felt it. This introduction was followed by a positively radiant declaration of appreciation from one friend to another, and it felt truly special to be a part of this collateral love.
The packed house responded in kind, summoning the band back for a rare encore of “Blondie”, which builds Tufts and Smith’s hypnotic rhythms into a fever pitch before exploding into guitar shredding and then cutting to black. Like the other bands on the bill, BRAIDS had little to prove with the home-ice advantage. But that didn’t stop any of these acts from giving their all and melting our hearts and/or faces off.
Burdock & Dandelion
Just Let Me
Fear of Men
Who Am I
Review – Dan Corber
Photos – Thomas Bock