Montreal’s Legendary Music Scene
Home to poets, artists, and dreamers, Montreal is as serious about its music as it is about great food, and that's saying something. Quebec’s stylish, French-speaking city of creatives has an eclectic, experimental, bold music scene dating back to the 1920s that you’ll want to dive into. It runs the gamut from indie, electronica, world beats, and heavy metal, to classical, hip hop, jazz, and blues. Here are the scenes and spots to check out.
It isn’t a venue per se, but Mount Royal is a treasured public green space spanning nearly 500 acres and perched atop the city’s highest point, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. It’s also a spontaneous experimentation lab of sorts. Every Sunday, if the weather is nice, a loose gathering of drummers and dancers convene for a jam session known as Tam-Tams. Watch and listen — or dance and join!
Live music in clubs, restaurants, and bars
Montreal is a hotbed for talent, meaning you might be witnessing the next Arcade Fire over cocktails. But whomever you’re watching, local audiences are appreciative, receptive, and uninhibited. This means live music hot spots around town are easy to come by.
First the blues, soul, and jazz institutions: Golden-age brick-and-stone social club Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, chandelier-lit, art nouveau House of Jazz, and cabaret-style Le Balcon, plus, blues and alternative at Quai des Brumes are all worth checking out.
Don’t miss the homegrown trio of famed Casa del Popolo, a concert hall-bar-bistro with an underground venue, La Sala Rossa, that's also known for Spanish tapas, and La Vitrola, home to indie bands on the second floor. These are all authentic places to see international touring bands and local faves.
There’s also bistro Jardin Nelson in Old Montreal that features live jazz nightly, a pretty outdoor garden patio, and inventive sangria. Old-school wine bar Modavie has jazz bands every night; ditto for basement jazz club Diese Onze. Bohemian Mile End indie joint Le Dépanneur Café’s mic and piano are open to all for a huge range of live music all day alongside great coffee. Eat perogies and sausage on church pews at cozy Café Stash in Old Montreal while listening to the piano. With live traditional music nightly, Hurley’s Irish Pub is best on Thursdays for pints and music on two floors beginning at 10 pm.
No matter the genre, Montreal's got something for you. Start at Bell Centre for headliner stadium concerts. Check out Place des Arts, the city’s largest performing arts location, for classical and summer concerts with symphony, opera, and musicals on the stage at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. For ethereal organ music, Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal is spectacular on Sundays. With a 235-jet fountain and cool accent lighting, Place des Festivals hosts massive outdoor plaza music events, always accompanied by a cadre of food trucks. Small and experimental? Pack into Divan Orange, a bar and small concert venue that hosts global acts of all genres, as well as DJs and late-night parties.
For indie rock in a glam former theatre ambiance, try ornate Corona Theatre, Cabaret La Tulipe with themed dance nights, or high-style Le National. You can get the closest, though, at Theatre Fairmount in the trendy Mile End neighborhood, host to well-known acts spanning world music, hip hop, electronic, and rock. See the latest “it” bands in metal, rock, pop, and hip hop, plus local up-and-comers, at performing arts hub M Telus, a stylish former theatre, popular mid-sized venue Metropolis, or concert hall Club Soda — all near the Quartier des Spectacles. For established alt-folk-country, dark-wave electro, or psych-rock, it’s Bar Le Ritz P.D.B. for concerts over cocktails and microbrews, plus dance parties and karaoke.
If you really just want to go dancing, scan the latest listings.
Festivals? Oui. This is a city of festivals, no matter the season. There are a ton of events packed into the warm weather months, including the world’s biggest jazz celebration. Thousands swarm to downtown’s Quartier des Spectacles for the annual Montreal International Jazz Festival.
If you’re interested in global French-language music, join free performances during the June-to-August Les FrancoFolies de Montreal. Every summer Sunday there’s the locals’ favourite Piknic Electronik with top DJs spinning outdoors at Parc Jean-Drapeau. July’s 13-day Festival International Nuits d’Afrique is a spotlight for African, Caribbean, and Latin American artists with many free events. Contemporary music is on at MEG Montreal in late July, and Aboriginal concerts are showcased during the July-August Montreal First Peoples Festival.
A three-night August showcase of big names in hip hop, electronic, indie pop, and rock, Osheaga Music and Arts Festival is the summer’s high-profile event . Metalheads will love late July’s Heavy Montreal, whereas mid-August’s IleSoniq caters to the electronic dance crowd. There’s multi-sensory tech and digital music shindig MUTEK in August, and in early fall POP Montreal celebrates local and touring hip hop and indie rock bands. For fans of classical, the mid-August Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Classical Spree is a must. In January and February, thousands dance under the stars to electronica at Igloofest in Old Port.
Music with art
Hugely popular, Nocturnes pairs music, art, and cocktails periodically on Fridays. DJs spin tunes while patrons browse contemporary art exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montreal. There’s also multi-use SAT that combines live performance with installations and an artisan market in an edgy, futuristic indoor-outdoor space.
Not surprisingly, Montreal has several outstanding record stores. Vinyl collectors like Mile End’s Phonopolis Record Store, home to rare finds, a varied selection, and great people watching. You can also pick up concert tickets here. For underground music, hit L’Oblique; for punk and metal, Soundcentral; and for a comprehensive selection, you’ll want Cheap Thrills, a tiny place with helpful staff that’s been top rated since 1971. Beatnik Records covers the whole gamut of genres, if you’re still on the hunt. Fans looking for memorabilia, decor, and posters will love vinyl store and gallery BBAM! Gallery.