Many of the groups I saw are instantly accessible to English speakers, falling into recognizable genres: the schizoid punk/metal/jazz of Arseniq 33; the gentle bossa nova of Bía; the updated New Wave of Barsony. Le Rêve du Diable plays traditional Québécois acoustic music, a stew with some familiar elements — a little Celtic, a little Cajun — and charming novelties, like the fact that the singer provides his own rhythm section by pounding his tap-soled shoes on a wooden plank.
Speaking of novelties, French hip-hop may seem like one at first glance — but three of the festival's acts convinced listeners otherwise. Les Architekts are the most straightforward rap act, while the ganjamaniacal Le Peuple de L'Herbe were truly odd, consisting of two DJs, a drummer, and a trombone/trumpet player — their P.H. Test/Two is a great record, but this is one of those rare hip-hop acts that's even more intriguing when you can see how they make their music. The Saían Supa Crew probably won the most converts, with their handful of gifted MCs supported by eccentric and surprising musical arrangements that give the vocalists plenty of space to shine.
Then there were the big stars. Old-skool folk/rock troubadour Robert Charlebois, I'm told, is "an icon" in Québec; his Doux Sauvage disc contains a telling cover of "It Was A Very Good Year." He, like folkie Jim Corcoran, had audiences eating out of their hands with between-song stories and jokes. Serge Lama worked the crowd, too, in the largest concert hall the FrancoFolies used, but in a very different way. A master of the hyper-dramatic, romantic chanson style, Lama milked his lyrics with a rich, full baritone and a repertoire of physical gestures. Many hipsters at the festival felt his posturing was a bit much, but Lama played perfectly into my stereotypical notions of vintage French music.
Henri Salvador does, too, but in a way that is far more direct and organic than Lama's showy approach. Of all the artists at FrancoFolies, the octogenarian seems the most ripe for a Buena Vista Social Club-style discovery by American audiences hungry for beautiful, accessible-but-not-pandering "world music." On the cover of his new Chambre Avec Vue (recently released on Blue Note as Room With A View), in fact, he looks a lot like the BVSC's suave Compay Segundo. Salvador's laid-back, jazzy music, with its ornate but never oppressive string arrangements, is the lazy Sunday morning to Buena Vista's hot Saturday night, and it's hard to imagine the coffee-shop crowd not digging it.
Plenty of the young rockers at FrancoFolies fit into easy genres; one who is clearly on his own path is Dominique A., whose band played both indoor and outdoor shows during the festival. Moody and driving, his recent disc Auguri balances acoustic and electric textures to spotlight the songwriter's midtempo musings, but the fiery show he put on in Montréal showed the kind of range that keeps the best solo rock performers from falling into the "singer-songwriter" ghetto.
What I really hoped for in this mini-exile from my own culture was to find something fresh and new. Ironically, the most exciting music I found was something I'd already heard in another context. Yann Tiersen, who wrote the score to last year's arthouse hit film Amélie, was in town to give a live performance of that music. Without the film's dazzling images to distract you, the music takes on its own life. Tiersen's 2001 L'Absente shows him working outside film-score constraints: With his toy pianos, banjos and accordions, Tiersen's music is cute and cuddly at first glance; it certainly has a veneer of quaint French-ness. But the composer has cross-bred those friendly sounds with the more aloof, academic sensibilities of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman (both of whom have made their own marks on the soundtrack world). Throw in a dash of cabaret cynic Jacques Brel, and you have something truly distinctive and wonderful. I'm so intrigued by Tiersen that I'm considering buying up all his other records — lucky for me that the American dollar goes a long way in Canadian record stores right now.