Montréal is a live music town through and through. It’s also a hockey town. And sometimes, it’s both at once!
People are likely to know this city by its music due to break-out indie rock sensations like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Mac DeMarco, and the Barr Brothers; major electronic acts such as A-Trak, Grimes, and Kaytranada; and historical mega stars like Céline Dion, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and the recently departed bard Leonard Cohen.
Montréal continues to produce innovative, virtuosic, and fascinating musicians of French and English origin, in part due to its harmonious balance of both linguistic cultures. It also celebrates the musical influence from high populations of Haitian, West African, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, French, Chinese, and Indian immigrants, among others.
I originally moved to Montréal as a student interested in the city’s iconic, always-blossoming-from-within experimental music scene made known to the world via the musician collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor and artists such as Malcolm Goldstein, Sam Shalabi, Christof Migone, and Tim Hecker.
Upon moving here, however, I realized it’s much more than simply a scene. DIY and fringe live music and art are supported by an entire network of labels like Constellation, Dare to Care, and Alien8; community-supported radio; collectively run and managed venues and rehearsal spaces; screen printing and letterpress ateliers; promoters and festivals like MUTEK, Osheaga, and Pop Montréal that prioritize local acts; and a fluctuating, yet dependable, stream of income from Arts Council grants.
So, let’s dive into this edition of the COMPASS and explore my personal favorite musical and sonic spots around this wonderful Canadian town.
La Sala Rossa (pictured above) and Casa Del Popolo are two venues under the same ownership located across the street from one another. They have long been staples of the live music scene in a culturally rich area of the Montréal known as the Plateau where everything seems to be changing all the time.
Both venues are home to spectacular kitchens featuring Spanish tapas, traditional dishes like paella, and vegan-friendly bistro food. The sound is great, and the crowds are open to anything. Plus, most promoters in this city organize shows in these spaces regularly, so in essence, these should really be your first choices when booking gigs in Montréal.
Bar Le Ritz is another venue that many promoters use for events. It’s primarily managed by the largest indie rock organizer in the city, Blue Skies Turn Black. They program bills focused on inclusivity and diversity, and prioritize local independent artists and bands as much as they do touring acts.
Turbo Haüs is a collectively owned and run hardcore rock and punk venue in the St. Henri district. If you’re thinking, “But that’s so pretty! Where’s all the grime and bloodstains?” Well, these guys are just that classy.
How classy? They also co-run one of Montréal’s hottest wine bars, Loïc (yeah, they also love a diacritic), downstairs. But don’t let that sway you if you love hardcore music; the shows here get rowdy and loud.
For a slightly more chill vibe, try La Plante in the Mile End district. Since I’ve lived in Montréal, I think this place has changed names and owners three or four times, but it always retains that same DIY aesthetic, stemming from the fact that it’s an apartment show space. And yes, there are tons of plants.
The audiences here are attentive and respectful, which make it a great place to try out new songs and sounds.
A newcomer to the Montréal electronic landscape is the Phi Centre. This is a multi-arts space in the Old Port with several rooms housing visual and video arts, a design and clothing boutique, office space, a virtual reality salon (where they’ve invested money and resources towards expanding art and technology collaboration), and of course, a space equipped to the nines for live electronic music and DJs.
As a bonus, this building is 45% more energy efficient than the required standard due to water, heat, and air filtration systems; a green and white roof; and sustainable building materials.
Théâtre Fairmount is an interesting venue. It’s a huge space — probably too large to book if you’re an independent artist — but because of the layout and interior design, it feels incredibly intimate.
Bands play on a low platform stage in the center of the room. Wherever you are in the space, you feel close to the performers — particularly exciting given some of the bigger touring acts that often play here.
Fairmount is one of my favorite places to see live music because afterward, if you feel like a bite, you can head around the corner to Fairmount Bagel to the 24-hour bagel shop for some iconic Montréal-style bagels — hot and fresh, no matter the hour.
Place des Arts is the city-wide hub for classical and orchestral repertoire. This theater and arts complex hosts opera, theater, symphonic music, and other large-scale concerts.
It’s anchored by two of the best rooms for live orchestral music in the world, the Maison symphonique (pictured above) and Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.
See that photo? You’re looking at the back of the stage, where you can also sit and watch, looking out onto the orchestra below and the entire audience as the music takes you somewhere else completely!
Cafés and Galleries
This is a coffee-addicted city. Cafés serve every coffee-drinking community known to man; from students studying long into the night and elder Italian espresso experts to fair-trade-focused hipsters and caffeinated code pushers working at start-ups.
One place in town where you can find all these people and more is Le Cagibi. Not only are the coffees and pastries plentiful, but the venue features live music almost every night, and anything goes!
Café Résonance! is the jazz hangout spot around town. Sure, there are upscale jazz bars downtown where the hotels are, but if you want to watch the best local Québécois and Canadian musicians jam with each other nightly in a tight basement space, this is the joint. (Sometimes I wonder how exactly they got a grand piano down there in the first place. It defies physics.)
Its food is primarily vegetarian and vegan, and if that grosses you out, go ahead and try their smoked tempeh BLT. It might change your life.
Tons of museums and galleries around town feature musical and sonic performances every now and then, but there are a few that specialize in them.
Some of my favorites go the extra mile and focus on sonic installations and audio-art projects. Eastern Bloc is an artist-run, concrete complex uptown in the Mile Extension district that loves to throw audio-visual parties. Oboro Gallery and Never Apart are also exciting spaces with diverse programming and tons of opportunities for artists.
Record shops keep this city spinning like vintage vinyl, and often with vintage vinyl! Some of my favorites are also some of the oldest stores in town, doing the good business of providing this city with an ever-changing soundtrack for years.
But don’t think for a second that some of the newer stores in town can’t hold their own! Record shopping in Montréal is somewhat religious, and two of my most important places of worship are Mile End’s Phonopolis and the Plateau’s Aux 33 Tours.
By far, the two biggest pop and rock festivals to hit this city and make names for themselves internationally are Osheaga (pictured above) and Pop Montréal, although their similarities basically stop there.
Osheaga is your typical giant, corporate, mega-summer festival held on an island park in the St. Laurence River. Pop Montréal, on the other hand, is locally founded and organized, occurs all over town for about two weeks in the fall and features SXSW-style conferences, pop-up exhibitions, boutiques, and artist workshops along with many, many concerts.
Of course, anyone who knows jazz knows that the Montréal International Jazz Festival (pictured above) has been a North American tradition for almost 40 years. It’s hard to compete with if jazz is your thing.
In recent years, the local community has been clamoring for something a bit more immersive and out there, more expressionistic and unique, and perhaps more locally-minded, too. Smaller jazz and improvised music festivals, including L’OFF Jazz (the anti-jazz fest, I guess), Suoni Per Il Popolo, and Howl! Arts Festival, are thriving and experimenting.
Les Nuits d’Afrique is a festival celebrating African music in all its many forms, and it usually positions itself shortly after Jazz Fest to keep you on your feet all summer.
If avant-garde electronic and electro-acoustic music is your thing, you can’t really miss MUTEK (pictured above). It’s the premier coming together of all the best digital and technological electronic artists and projects in electronic music each year, and it’s now expanded to Mexico City and Tokyo.
Then there’s Akousma, which focuses solely on acousmatic events, i.e. listening to multi-channel works often in complete darkness.
Two random festivals worth noting are the Montréal Contemporary Music Lab, a festival of contemporary ensemble music that takes submissions, and the YUL Eat Festival, a food festival celebrating Montréal’s incredible gastronomy culture. It throws parties every night right on the water featuring tons of musicians and DJs.
I hope this helps you plan your next trip to Montréal and beyond. If you do end up coming to my hometown, post your tour dates in the Touring on a Shoestring Facebook forum, and I’ll come check it out!
Interested in hearing more about the sounds of cities from the artists who love them? Catch up on the full COMPASS series here.