When I first reviewed Pop Montréal in 2012 I asked whether the Québec city rivalled Brooklyn as an indie music superpower. Local acts such as Mac DeMarco and Grimes were breaking through while Arcade Fire could do no wrong. But with some possible exceptions - Ought come to mind - there hasn't been a breakout Montreal band since, and although the woman I saw sporting an 'Everything Now' tattoo on her arm may disagree (has she not heard 'Chemistry'?). It's perhaps telling that the local bands near the top of this year's Pop line-up are either reuniting (Think About Life) or playing in full records from the Noughties (The Dears, The Besnard Lakes).
There's an upside to not being Brooklyn. While some Montrealers complain that parts of the city have gone the way of Williamsburg, overexposed to that ubiquitous industrial-chic hipster aesthetic, Montreal is still a place where most musicians can afford to pay the rent, which can't be said of many places. And perhaps because the city isn’t crawling with A&R people looking for the next hype band, Pop remains a festival that feels more about music than industry; affordable and accessible to locals, and full of opportunities for Montreal musicians to do their thing. There are hundreds of local acts further down the line-up. After all, this festival is vast, spread out over five days and more than 40 venues, although not all are venues in the traditional sense. There are gigs in churches, shops, food markets and even a yoga studio. What could be more rock 'n' roll than sitting cross-legged and sipping herbal tea?
If only Common Holly's show had taken place in a yoga studio. Brigitte Naggar's compositions can barely be heard over the talkers at noisy neighbourhood drinking hole Quai des Brumes. Straining my ears, I can detect that her dark, fragile folk songs are lovely, and the local songwriter deserves a bigger - and better behaved - crowd. My other top tip for a future Montreal star is Pierre Kwenders, whose new album Makanda, made with Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces, weaves influences such as Congolese rumba, Afrofuturism, Quebecois hip-hop and his old Catholic children's choir into a bold, compelling package - and his energetic live show, featuring a roster of guest singers and musicians, gets everybody dancing. The new artist I get most excited about in Montreal is from Toronto. While Mappe Of sound an awful lot like Volcano Choir and Fleet Foxes at times, with intricate guitar, vocoder vocals and plenty of reverb, they create dense, imaginative music, and are incredibly good live considering they played their first ever show only five weeks earlier. Their debut record, A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone, shows huge potential. I see two other fine shows by Ontarians: Basia Bulat showcasing her effortlessly catchy folk-pop gems and The Acorn reminding me of the talent behind their brilliant and overlooked 2008 album, Hope Glory Mountain.
I spend much of this year's Pop at a single venue, the sweltering sauna known as the Ukrainian Federation, where four unmissable shows take place on consecutive nights. On record Juana Molina's off-kilter, experimental folk-ish songs are dense, abstract and intricate, but live they become looser and more dynamic. When Juana unexpectedly pulls out her dance moves, the audience follows her lead. The turnout to see The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse played in its entirety is disappointing, especially since it's the tenth anniversary of one of the greatest rock albums ever to come out of Montreal. It's an epic, huge record, full of soaring falsetto vocals, anthemic choruses and sweeping string arrangements. The band get everything right but the venue, better suited to acoustic shows, isn't equipped to handle the expansive sound produced by the 11 musicians onstage - and I'm not equipped to handle the heat. Damn, it's hot in here.
The Ukrainian Federation is at least the perfect venue for William Basinski, who plays A Shadow in Time, his meditative eulogy to David Bowie, in full. The first of the two lengthy compositions is particularly hypnotic; there's a muffled, distorted sax solo loop buried in the drone, and it’s hard to explain why this sounds so poignant and sad. There's a possible clue in this Pitchfork interview, which reveals that Basinski played saxophone for a band that opened for Bowie in 1983 and briefly got to meet his idol. The final night’s concert at the venue is poignant and sad in a very different way. Phil Elverum has been performing the songs from his latest Mount Eerie album for a few months now, but as he acknowledges at the start of his set, this show is different. His late wife, Geneviève Castrée, was from Montreal and some of her friends are here. He performs songs from A Crow Looked at Me, written in the weeks following Geneviève’s death, as well as newer songs about raising his daughter as a single father and how strange it is to take these deeply personal lyrics on tour (there's an awkwardly funny moment when he sings about the weirdness of being at the same festival as Skrillex). It’s a privilege to hear Elverum perform such direct and uncompromising songs, and when he returns to the merch table after the show, many of us take the opportunity to thank him for sharing them.
The last time I saw Royal Trux was on the Melody Maker stage at the 1998 Reading Festival. I've changed a lot since then, as has the Reading Festival, which used to be good (seriously, check out that year's line-up) - but Royal Trux appear to be exactly the same. It's an illusion, of course; Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty broke up the band when their marriage ended in 2001 and their reunion came out of the blue, but they're still the most scuzzy, dirty, avant-garde rock band around. Their set is occasionally exhilarating, often frustrating; while they always seem on the verge of falling apart, veering dangerously close to a caricature of don't-give-a-fuckness, it's gratifying to see kindred musical souls sharing a stage again.
Best of all was a show I'd been waiting five years for. Avec pas d'casque ('With No Helmet') were due to play on the rooftop of local software company Ubisoft at Pop in 2012 but it was cancelled at the last minute due to rain. Tonight the weather isn't merely beautiful, it's got everybody on their phone cameras snapping the sweeping sunset. Stéphane Lafleur, who also makes films every bit as poetic and dreamy as his lackadaisical vocal delivery, sounds like Mutations-era Beck, albeit in French, and their set of mid-paced, mellow folk songs, with lap steel and the gentlest of drumming, kicks off with a cover of 'I'm Your Man' by Leonard Cohen, the greatest songwriter ever to come from this city - and arguably any other city. This edition of Pop may have been short on big names and breakout local bands, but this moment - this song, this rooftop, this view, this sunset - is close enough to perfect.