Story by Adrian Brijbassi (first published February 11, 2010)
MONTREAL–It’s minus-35C with the wind chill and Nicolas Cournoyer sweats.
He’s not alone. Around him more than 5,000 mostly young people kick and dance and hug and howl beneath a full moon that has looked down on the St. Lawrence River forever and not seen a scene like this on its banks.
The coldest rave on the planet is called IglooFest and it’s the brainchild of Cournoyer, who’s managed a seemingly Olympian feat by enticing his fellow Montrealers, as well as many house music fans from around the world, to come outside in this weather.
They’ve done so even on the most frigid day of winter when everyone from the authorities to their parents are telling them it’s too damn cold.
“As long as you dress properly, you’ll enjoy it. If you dance and you’re together, you stay warm,” says Cournoyer, who wears a full-body snowsuit as he moves to the beat of DJ King Cannibal, a headliner from the U.K. spinning at Quai Jacques Cartier in the Old Port.
IglooFest, which completed its fourth year on Jan. 30, 2010, is both an assault on winter and another affirming statement about Montreal’s importance on the global music scene.
Visitors, of course, flock in the summer to the Jazz Festival, with more than 200,000 in attendance for last year’s free show by Stevie Wonder.
But dance and house music continue to gain a following, as Piknic Electronik, the concert series Cournoyer’s team runs on Sundays from May to September, attests, while the popular indie music scene keeps on introducing fresh talent to locals and tourists.
Music joins food and art as key components to the upcoming Montreal High Lights Festival (Feb. 18 to 28), which includes a Nuit Blanche all-night crawl like ours in Toronto.
As the popularity of local bands grows, more and more visitors are keen to stroll the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods, about three to five kilometres north of the Old City.
The areas are regarded as the epicentre of Montreal’s indie music scene that blew up in the last decade when the Arcade Fire turned into one of the most acclaimed acts in the world, and Wolf Parade, Stars and the Dears were among other bands that gained followers.
Once the gritty working-class area that Duddy Kravitz called home, these adjoining neighbourhoods are changing fast as trendy cafes, boutiques and galleries move in alongside staples like Schwartz’s deli, famed for its smoked meat and packed house. Casa del Popolo and its sister location, La Sala Rossa, are among the small venues that attract indie music fans year-round.
“They’re landmarks to play,” says Jason Kent, the singer/songwriter for Sunfields, a recently formed band that was on stage at cozy Casa del Popolo on a -20C Saturday night.
“Montreal is a great place musically; always has been, but now people from everywhere are starting to know it.”
Former Torontonian Dan Seligman, founder of the annual Pop Montreal music festival, has witnessed firsthand the rise of the independent music scene (his brother, Chris, is the keyboardist for Stars) and thinks people visit the clubs as often as they do in part because it’s therapeutic.
“You figure it’s -30, why the hell would you go out?” Seligman says while shivering on a sidewalk, waiting to escape into a club. “But there’s something magical about freezing your tits off and walking into some non-descript location and opening the door and seeing 300 kids moshing or crowd surfing. It gives you that energy you need during the winter when it’s so cold and depressing.”
Montreal’s music vibe extends outside of the clubs and festivals. At Le Petit Hotel in the Old City, the manager is also a DJ and one of its attentive staff members is happy to talk until 4 a.m. about the city and its music.
Le Petit Hotel is a four-storey, 24-room building that’s the top-rated of 161 Montreal hotels on TripAdvisor.com (based on 29 reviews as of Feb. 1). The boutique property is the latest hotel from the Antonopoulos Group, often credited for helping to reinvigorate the Old City.
The loft-style rooms at aptly named Le Petit Hotel are contemporary and affordable, starting around $140 per night.
A few blocks from the hotel is L’Orignal, a two-year-old restaurant whose atmosphere feels like a house party.
While his guests, including some Canadiens players, are treated to a Quebecois-focused menu, owner Travis Champion stands unassumingly near the bar, wearing plaid and a toque, listening to Modest Mouse.
The music at L’Orignal (French for “moose”) comes from Champion’s iPod and it’s a diverse, interesting mix that surprises you in a way packaged satellite radio can’t.
The drinks, including a red russian, are also unique and the restaurant serves food until 3 a.m., with choices limited to small portions of comfort food after 11 p.m.
When the High Lights Festival – Montreal’s answer to Quebec’s Carnival – kicks off its 11th year, an exhibition of Leonard Cohen sketches will be displayed, cuisine from New Orleans will be featured, and a Masquerade Ball is planned to coincide with Nuit Blanche on Feb. 27 with DJs spinning until 5 a.m.
“It’s cold,” Cournoyer says of his city, “but when you go out you’ll see, winter here, it can be cool as well.”
NOTE: This story won second place in the 2010 North American Travel Journalists Association Awards for Best Destination Article.