FME 2021 Review: Backxwash, Cadence Weapon, the OBGMs & More Light Up Rural Quebec

Nine highlights from our return to festival life.

by Daniel McIntosh

Photos by Christian Leduc

Festival de Musique Émergent (FME) is an immersive music festival that takes place every year in Rouyn-Noranda, a small town located in northern Quebec. From September 3 to 5, the 19th edition was bursting at the seams with a wide range of emerging Canadian and Québecois artists. The lineup was impressive, genre-spanning, and mind-boggling with something for every taste, whether you’re rap-fuelled, rave-ready or anywhere in between. The local community are good sports about it as well. Storefronts throughout Rouyn-Noranda welcome artists and attendees with hand-written window displays and some residents even offer up their backyards for performances. 

According to the lifers, this iteration of the fest is a shadow of it’s glorious past, with distancing requirements and all, but I was still able to witness pop-up shows on the street or inside garages. That spontaneity is the mark of a good festival. And besides, it was honestly just nice to engage with live music for the first time in a long time. 

Here are nine highlights from our experience on the ground in Rouyn-Noranda:

PAUPIÈRE

The psych-rock duo were the first to catch my eyes and ears during the festival. After dropping my bags, I hit the street and followed the sound to the SiriusXM stage. The two members of Paupière could not have more disparate vibes. Julia Daigle appeared in a futuristic magenta satin jacket and matching pants, while Pierre-Luc Bégin was donning a surely Jagger-approved set of vest, scarf, and tight blue jeans. But their yin-yang effect revealed a strange cohesion, even in the music. The franglish act was new to me, but I was delighted by their synth-heavy ‘80s pop sound.

CADENCE WEAPON

This show felt like a victory lap for Cadence Weapon. The Toronto-based rapper emerged on an barren stage, laptop in tow, to play cuts off his Polaris-nominated Parallel World. He made time for banter with the crowd, listing out his favourite restaurants in Rouyn-Noranda (“all five of them!”), and airing out his grievances with Doug Ford. His dialogue made songs like “Skyline,” about Ontario’s gentrification, that much more cathartic. In all, Weapon’s show was a reminder of how an artist’s live presence can uplift the material.

The OBGMs

If I didn’t have faith in the Polaris chances of the OBGMs before, then their showcase certainly changed my mind. While thrashing through songs from their 2020 punk album “The Ends,” the entire band turned the stage into their own personal soapbox. Frontman Densil McFarlane repeatedly asked his audience to choose between Certified Lover Boy or Donda, while repeatedly staking his band’s claim to the Polaris Prize. At one point he recommended his audience leave fist emojis in the Polaris Prize’s instagram DM, a symbol of his anger. “Don’t do that, we want to win!” he says curtly afterward. Guitarist Simon Outhat deadpans, “we’re the only punk band who cares about accolades!” 

THE PAUL JACOBS BAND

The Paul Jacobs Band’s performance at FME’s annual Bonsound (the band’s label) pool party is one of the quintessential community-embedded events that define the festival. The band ran through cuts from their album Pink Dogs on the Green Grass while media members and other artists watched and indulged in hot dogs and bourbon-spiked lemonade. The house is right next to a school, so local children also clung to the fence and soaked up all that sweet, sweet garage rock. 

GAYANCE

Gayance brought her effervescent house magic to FME biggest outdoor stage, straight from shows in Amsterdam and Brussels. The slight rain didn’t stop attendees from grooving to her bon vivant blend of house music supported by samples from traditional Haitian songs. As the evening waned on, the sound even brought in some viewers in kayaks on the edge of the lake. I didn’t get to see her second set, a secret show on the street outside a poutinerie, later that evening. Can’t be too mad though, I haven’t had the privilege of feeling concert FOMO in a long time.

BACKXWASH

On Saturday, Backxwash treated fans to an unannounced show inside an auto repair shop. The secret showcases are a staple at FME, and you never know who might pop up. In this case, Backxwash ran through her horrorcore hits surrounded by suspended cars while the smell of diesel and grease was in the air. This was her second performance of the weekend, and seeing her on stage the first time was good, but the intimacy of being in the pit, a foot away from the artist, is an incomparable feeling. After she ripped through a final encore of “Devil in a Moshpit,” I turned to see the crowd—full of expressions of anguish and glee. This was a singularly cathartic moment.

JANETTE KING

Janette King took us to church, literally. Like I said, FME is embedded in the community like no other, and this performance in the basement of a church, with cracking tiles beneath our feet, was probably the most intimate venue of them all. One attendee commented that the space reminded them of an AA meeting. But I can’t think of a better space to listen to King’s soulful meditations on love and loss. The entire atmosphere provided a communal feeling that would be totally missing in a traditional concert venue. King shifted from straightforward RnB to electronic ballads, and even soaring covers of James Blake and Radiohead. On “Ooh Yeah,” a cut from her debut album What We Lost, producer GRAY stretches her voice into the fabric of the beat. If it’s self-serving, it also makes a bold case that her slick and sultry voice is malleable for any and every genre.

OURI

Ouri played the mystic compositions that made her a staple in the Montreal club scene. Frequent collaborator Mind Bath contributed vocals on top of the heavily textured trance music. Rain forced her show indoors so I couldn’t dance as I would have liked, but it was still an evening well spent on a day when the festival was winding down.

FHANG

FHANG is a Montreal-based collaboration between bassist Mishka Stein and engineer Sam Woywitka and one of my favourite new discoveries of the festival. It’s a genre mish-mash: there’s synth-rock, there’s some shoegazey vocals, and even a few deconstructed trap breaks. Their show definitely has a DIY feel, with both members switching between instruments and synths in a frenzy. When I see their show on Sunday night, Stein announces that it’s one of the first shows they’ve ever played live together. One could tell, but honestly, it added to their collaborative ambiance as Stein addresses the bar crowd in French, then relates it back to his anglophone partner in English.

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