Seduced, Again, After Five Years, by Montreal

June 21, 2015


(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

What’s happened to Canada’s most amazing city?

A few years back, I did some publicity work in Toronto for Luc Plamondon, the famous Quebec songwriter and the creator of Starmania and other internationally famous musicals. As we drove from interview to interview, he mentioned that he had not been to Toronto for 25 years.

Appalled, I asked him what his opinion of me would be if I admitted that I had not visited Montreal in a quarter of a century. “Ah,” he replied, “perhaps you are, how do you say, a philistine?”

And so I find myself in Montreal for the first time in five years, and I’m feeling a little ashamed — how has the time passed so quickly?  I’m here to hear an artist who thinks she would like to work with me — and more about her in the coming weeks; she was quite remarkable.

Meanwhile, I find myself seduced once again by the most joyous city in Canada, and one that holds so many memories, going back to the mid-60s, when Canada and Quebec, on the surface, was so optimistic and proud, before the separatists screwed it all up. Now that that issue seems to be in abeyance, there is a new spirit in the air.

I’m met at the train station, driven to a tiny, sparse and spotless apartment where I’m to say for a couple of nights, and then taken to an Indian restaurant; these people know how to treat a visitor!

As I walk back to the apartment in east end Montreal I realize that St. Catherine’s is alive and bustling — all the boarded-up shops of five years ago seem to have found tenants. Mind you, they are STILL ripping up the area around Place des Arts (as they were five years ago), but you can see the outlines of what will be a grand area for the performing arts.  The club scene on St. Laurent is amazing — every other building has a club, burly bouncers, velvet ropes, lineups and stunningly stylish young (very young) women, but the vibe is easy, and there seems little pressure.

The show I’m to see is at Théatre Rialto, up on Avenue Parc (which is also being road-worked. The venue goes back to the early 1920s, and it’s been a cinema, a theatre, and now it’s a concert venue. First rate sound and lights, and stunning to look at.

With stained glass everywhere, a huge balcony (still being rebuilt), Italianate gold and red wall decorations, illuminated wall sconces, the place looks like a Spanish bordello decorated by Chinese artisans who’ve studied the Victorian pre-Raphaelites.

The venue’s remarkable, and so is the music

Arcade Fire has always set the bar high when it comes to adding extraneous surprise elements to its shows, but The Unsettlers — the Montreal band who are launching Oil & Blood, their new double CD — have surely topped them. As the first few audience members stumble in, a seven-piece brass band moves across the floor, playing old New Orleans marches, followed by two Victorian-costumed women on stilts and a man with a sign reading “I AM unsettled.” The group, still playing, marches out onto the street, returning with a parade of customers; eventually there are 700 people in the room, and a fish-netted cigarette girl wanders through the crowd peddling the new CD.

The opening artist — the woman I have come to see — is Amanda Mabro. She’s a powerful singer who knows how to use a big stage, and writes and sings unusual songs with flair in both the material and the delivery. She commands the stage, and it’s obvious that she has a strong contingent of fans in the audience.

The Unsettlers — who apparently still have to produce a decent video or build a competent website — calls itself “an eleven piece band of time traveling troubadours specializing in funeral dirges for the living, dark polkas, menacing waltzes and horse-drawn lullabies filtered through the creaking floorboards of a whiskey soaked saloon.”

Translated, that means a Tom Waits-ian rabble of horn players, guitarists, two lead singers and two back-up women, accordions, clarinets, a sousaphone, a clattering rhythm section and a contortionist — at one point (and I could have miscounted) there were at least 20 musicians on stage.

In a brief intermission, we got a sword swallower, a burlesque act where a woman lost parts of her clothing to a skeleton, and a large fat man who tore up phone books and finally had his assistant throw darts which stuck into his fleshy back.

When the second triumphant Unsettlers set was over, everyone went to Grumpy’s, a nearby bar to continue the celebration — exhausted, I went home.

But, in 40 years of doing this, I’ve never seen a Toronto band even begin to stage a show like this.


What people do when they listen to music

That was the question Holly Cole, on tour in Japan, once asked the members of her band: ”What do you think people are doing when they’re playing our record?”

“Maybe they’re having dinner,” one member ventured. “They could be playing it while they’re jogging,” suggested another.

“Well,” said the third member of the band, “I think we should put a free condom in with every CD.”

The story came to mind when I read a paper by Daniel Levitin, the author of the bookThis is Your Brain on Music — a volume lots of music people have started, but few finished. The report I have — and I wish I could tell you how I found it, but I can’t remember — was prepared three years ago “for the exclusive use of Philips Consumer Electronics B.V. Eindhoven, The Netherlands.” I don’t know how much they paid for it, but the six-page document is titled Life Soundtracks: The Uses of Music in Everyday Life, comes with two pages of cited references but hardly any spectacular findings.

“Musical preferences begin to form in the womb and are the product of a complex interaction between nature and nurture, that is, between each person’s personality and the environment in which they grew up,” writes the good doctor.

“Consequently, there is no single piece of music that everyone likes, nor a set of songs that everyone will find uplifting on the one hand, or depressing on the other.”

So far, so good. And so far, so obvious.

Obviously, we prefer to listen different music when we’re trying to go to sleep than we listen to when we’re exercising, or shopping, or when we’re making love. And come to think of it, different music would probably work for different kinds of sex.

Okay, people: Let me know what songs YOU use for

(a) going to sleep, (b) having dinner with the family, or (c) making out with that hot date you met at the club. A prize shall be given for the most imaginative response. (Hint, the writer really thinks Massive Attack works best in the latter circumstance).


Videos of the Week:

Well, it’s not the best YouTube entry you’ve ever seen, but this does give you some idea ofThe Unsettlers.

And this is the young woman I traveled to Montreal to see and hear, covering The Kinks’classic, “Demon Alocohol”; I thought she was well worth the trip: