Finding gold in the underground

The Pop Montreal festival brings obscure acts revered by music geeks back to life again

Dressed in a gleaming sequined blouse, a smiling Irma Thomas strolls onstage just as her backing band, the Professionals, is wrapping up its rendition of the Stevie Wonder classic, Superstitious. A massive binder, some six inches thick, is set up to her left. Inside are the lyrics to the songs Thomas has been performing for nearly 50 years. (She admits she has trouble remembering them all.) “Most of these songs I’m singing are older than you,” Thomas tells the crowd of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings. “Your parents brainwashed you well,” she adds, then breaks into (You Can Have My Husband, But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man, her now 48-year-old first single.

Thomas’s intimate show was part of the increasingly eclectic Pop Montreal music festival. To fans of soul and R & B, the 67-year-old is a living legend, in the same league as her more famous contemporaries—Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Tina Turner—perhaps even better. She won a Grammy in 2007 for her album After the Rain, and has been nominated for two others; her music has appeared in films like Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law; and her recording of Time Is On My Side was aped by the Rolling Stones, who turned it into a classic. But the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” has always performed in a parallel, almost separate universe from the superstars. To this day, she shares their talent and their elegance, but unlike Franklin, James or Turner, Thomas never reached diva status. All of which makes her something of a prototype for Pop Montreal.

Seven years into its existence, Pop Montreal, like its older siblings South by Southwest and the CMJ Music Marathon, works partly as a launching pad for artists—bands like Interpol and the Walkmen have played cramped, sweaty shows there back when they were on the cusp of indie-rock stardom. But where Pop Montreal distinguishes itself is as a revival project wherein obscure acts revered by music geeks come to life again.

Two years ago, Pop Montreal’s creative director, Dan Seligman, brought in Roky Erickson, the troubled former leader of psych-rock pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators. Despite (or perhaps because of) Erickson’s notoriously reclusive existence, his show was one of the hottest tickets in town. Since then, Pop has hosted artists as disparate as Cody ChestnuTT, Patti Smith, and Eric’s Trip. What unites them is the relative rarity of their live appearances, coupled with their impeccable credibility in the underground music scene.

This year’s edition kept the emerging tradition alive. The festival’s second night, for example, included a rare show by the Silver Apples, an obscure electronic act from the late ’60s featuring the now-70-year-old Simeon Cox manning a primitive self-built synthesizer. “I just love to play these older songs,” Cox said in between works from the band’s eponymous 1968 debut album. “I just never have the time.” Across the street, Elyse Weinberg, whose contemporaries in the ’60s Canadian folk scene included Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, was playing a quiet show to a sparse but appreciative audience. And across town, a 51-year-old Nick Cave was serenading a sold-out crowd at the 2,300-person capacity Metropolis. Other nights featured shows by France’s soixante-huitard songstress Dominique Grange, England’s post-punk godfathers Wire, and Cleveland’s legendary self-described “child of light, circus freak and happy whore,” Baby Dee.

Seligman admits that booking acts that have drifted from the public eye is in part a necessity: “It’s not like we have a [boatload] of money and can book whomever.” But celebrating pioneering artists from the underground has become as dominant a part of Pop Montreal’s aesthetic as breaking the new and exciting band du jour, just as it has for similar events like California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the roving All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival. “If you only have artists that play regularly and aren’t somewhat mythical, there’s nothing special about it,” he says.

As a rule, the underground music scene tends to look back as much as it looks forward. Its vernacular consistently describes forgotten artists as “seminal” and “proto”-something-or-other. And yet, for years, it resisted some of the nostalgic temptations that have become staples of mainstream rock (see: Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd). Now that both its fans and its artists have started giving in, what’s most surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner.

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