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Sounds of the prairies

As September began saying its goodbyes, Montreal indie-rock sensation Arcade Fire took the city for a free ride that is still the subject of many a Facebook status. The downtown streets swelled with a larger crowd than usual that Thursday, and so I paused in my weekly grocery run to watch the masses all stream in the same direction. I stared at the spectacle of a city strutting down its streets to welcome their world famous sons n‘ daughters home, and—unlike most of those in the crowd—I wasn’t fazed. As news of the evening’s unique vibe and enthralling atmosphere ignited discussions throughout the next week, I just smiled and nodded politely.  

Montreal natives were proud that the multi-award-winning crew was performing where they refined their craft, and Torontonians in the crowd were, for the most part, shocked to find out that stuff happens outside the GTA. But my response was off the beaten path because I hail from a prairie province that exists far off of it. My Manitoban perspective often transcends stereotypes in Montreal, not because its nature is invulnerable to them, but because to paint in broad strokes one has to know at least something about a place. And because Manitoba is just ‘out there somewhere’ to most, it rarely gets stroked by outsiders, broadly or otherwise.

I stood there that evening, surmising the controlled frenzy in a way that few else present were doing; like an age-old surfer watching a wave approach. It varied in shape and size, but—all in all—it was something familiar. My reaction bordered on the unimpressed, not because of some backwoods snobbery, but rather because I’d felt this sort of palpable music-infused excitement many a time before. It is not mundane to me, but it’s certainly commonplace. But what happens so often in ‘toba that sounds like the Arcade Fire escapade is something that truly happens ‘out there,’ in recreational centres and hockey rinks far away from the city.

The province’s small towns generate groups with all the flair, emotional fervour, and even stylized eccentricity of Montreal’s darlings. And like Arcade Fire, they prefer to play at home. An apt example is Manitoba’s Dust Poets. This group blends sixties soul, bluegrass, and gritty country with irreverent folk lyrics that has cultivated a charmed audience across the continent. Although they combine genres across the spectrum, the Poets create the same pre-show ambiance in their admittedly older crowd as Arcade Fire does in theirs. There is a difference in decibels, but their audiences both await shows with the same crackling sense of anticipation. So much so, that a homesick Manitoban can watch a Montreal crowd stream hustling and bustling to see a renowned rock band and think, “that’s bigger in scale, but very familiar.”

I can hear the cultural elites from jazz clubs in Montreal and coffee houses in Toronto screaming already, and thus I propose a hypothetical situation in which my Arcade Fire experience becomes theirs:

 Suppose an urban Easterner made the mistake of venturing into the prairies. Their confusion causes them to make a wrong turn (which is a catastrophe because, when driving on the flatlands, there is usually only one turn to make, no matter where you’re going), and they end up in a town of four hundred people where the hardware store doubles as the liquor vendor. If at this point they muster up the courage to follow the sweet sounds coming from a building that was once a barn, I guarantee that they will stop short at the door, sense the atmosphere, and think, “this is something very familiar.”

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