Published on August 1st, 2017 | by Adrien Begrand0
Looking Back at Osheaga 2016
Now in its 12th year, Osheaga is a national rite of passage. As we prepare for 2017, Adrien Begrand looks back at last year’s festival.
Reminiscing about the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal, Quebec, the most indelible impression the event leaves on this writer, time and again, is all the smiles. You have upwards of 45,000 people gathered in one place, the lines can be long, and the heat can be oppressive, but the smiling faces are all around you: the pre-schoolers with protective headphones dancing up a storm as their young hipster parents look on, the young teens enjoying their first unsupervised music festival, gaggles of excited young women in rompers (the festival season fashion choice du jour), handful of young bros in the requisite get-up (backwards caps, neon tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops) and smatterings of people over 40 – yours truly included – enjoying a weekend of sunshine and great live music.
That culture of positivity is what sets Osheaga apart from all other large-scale music festivals in North America. Organizers were well aware that they had something special on their hands early on, in the festival’s infancy – they now stage the metal-oriented Heavy Montreal and the electronic-focused Île-Soniq festivals in summer as well – and every year the experience is always enhanced, and every small improvement that is made goes a long way towards maintaining that feeling of safety and friendliness. As busy as the festival is, as tiring as it can be, the knowledge that you are being taken care of is always there. Coming from a part of Canada where the annual mainstream country music festival has to deal with assaults with weapons, liquor charges, and even animal abuse [http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/animal-cruelty-being-investigated-at-craven-country-jamboree-after-kitten-set-on-fire], the peaceful and respectful environment of Osheaga feels alien.
Then again, Montreal has always known how to throw a shindig. Osheaga 2017 is set for the weekend of August 4 – 6, featuring headliners Lorde, Muse, and the Weeknd, and if it goes as beautifully as last year’s festival, it’ll be a testament to how wonderful a city Montreal is.
The weekend of Osheaga 2016 – July 29, 30, and 31 – coincided with so many other major citywide events that city officials were bracing for a perfect storm of tourism, if you will. The massive Just For Laughs comedy festival was reaching its conclusion, the Rogers Cup women’s tennis tournament – an important annual warm-up for the US Open – was in full swing, the Fantasia International Film Festival was reaching its climax, and if that wasn’t enough, the Montreal Fireworks Festival was happening every night. “There are more people in the city than for Formula One!” was the common refrain from residents I talked to, yet aside from traffic jams to and from the airport as the city desperately tries to fix its dilapidated freeways, Montreal was not only dealing with the influx with grace and bonhomie, but was in full bloom doing so.
Staging a festival with the breadth and scope as Osheaga so conveniently close to the city center comes with its perks, not the least of which is a chance to explore one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan, not to mention quirky cities in North America. With the fest starting a one in the afternoon daily – and lineups shockingly manageable – new visitors to Montreal are afforded the luxury of some glorious mornings in the city.
For those new to the city, there’s no better place to get acquainted with the cultural and geographical uniqueness of Montreal than the brand new Au Sommet, at the top of the Place Ville Marie skyscraper downtown. Just opened this past summer, the observation deck at the top of the 47-storey cruciform tower offers a stunning, 360-degree view of the city and surrounding areas. Better yet, though, is the interpretive center one floor below. Completely interactive, visitors are given an RFID bracelet and encouraged to investigate 50 stations that delve deeply into different facets of Montreal life, from food, to art, to sport, to language. If one particular theme is appealing, the bracelet saves each individual’s preferences, and at the end of the exhibit prints out four “missions” for each person to try out. For instance, one could “sip a drink and read a book by a Montreal writer in a bistro-bookstore”, “watch an obscure film at the Cinématheque”, or “eat a poutine after midnight” (international visitors, trust me when I say poutine always tastes better after midnight).
Not only is Au Sommet a fabulous photo op, but it’s a perfect way for new tourists to orient themselves and find things to do that they might not have thought of. For instance, yours truly spent a morning exploring Griffintown on the city island’s southwest, in the shadow of downtown and alongside the Lachine Canal. First settled in the early-1800s by mostly Irish laborers, it has been revitalized today to the point now where the contrast between sterile, gleaming condo high-rises and beautiful old brick tenements and former factories is surreal. In contrast to the Mile-Ex and Plateau neighborhoods northwest of downtown, which are attracting creative minds, young wealthy professionals are eyeing Griffintown for its proximity to central Montreal. Although the transformation of the district from slum to nouveau-riche hotspot is only at its halfway point, you can see just how revitalized the area has become, especially on its beautiful, tree-lined boundary street Rue Notre-Dame, which boasts several of the city’s hottest restaurants, including Joe Beef, Foxy, Le Fantôme, and Le Richmond.
Seen from Au Sommet around noon on Friday, July 29, Parc Jean-Drapeau looks quaint, the 200-foot high Biopshere about the size of a superball, the gigantic twin main Osheaga stages appearing microscopic. What seemed calm from a couple miles’ distance was, of course, the busiest place in the city as more than 40,000 people converged on the man-made island to settle in for day one of the festival.
Although the lineups to enter appeared oppressively long, attendees were moved through the gates at a surprisingly brisk pace, and once through, the park was abuzz with activity: merch being slung, pink custom cans of Molson Canadian selling quickly, countless groups of kids trying to figure out what they were going to do first.
Upon first visit Osheaga does look daunting as you try to orient yourself while thousands of people are walking in every direction around you, but a leisurely end-to-end stroll can get the neophyte settled in nicely. Cut across the main stage grounds, climb the big wooden staircase up the hill, take in the view of the downtown skyline in front of Mount Royal, walk along the hillcrest past the big Osheaga sign, back down the hill through the trees – try not to step on the skeevy young women staring at the guys using the outdoor urinals – take the big main path past the main stages to the food trucks, stroll by the electronic stage, cut into the shady path toward the other side of the grounds, climb up and down the big steel stairs that cross the road, head past the corporate sponsor tents looking to rope in all those millennials with money, walk up the slight hill towards the next three stages: the bigger Green Stage, the smaller Valley Stage, and off to the side in the trees, the cozy Forest stage. End to end it’s about a 15 to 20-minute walk, but if you’re in a hurry to see your favorite band, it could be done in ten. But at a festival as fun and easygoing as Osheaga, hurrying defeats the purpose of the experience.
On a day like Friday, July 29, which offered a rather mixed bag of performers, it was best to wander and discover. Sure the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the big draw and indeed pleased a massive crowd with their headlining performance that focused almost exclusively on their post-Californication output, but this day was more about the little revelations. Elle King’s sassy rockabilly was the perfect soundtrack to a sunny afternoon, while Silversun Pickups and local legends Wolf Parade reminded some of us just how good indie rock could be a decade ago. The Lumineers’ saccharine indie folk was upstaged by a raucous set by Cypress Hill. UK veterans Bloc Party had a big crowd of Anglophiles at the Green Stage, rapper Vince Staples sounded tepid over at the Valley Stage, and at the Forest Stage British singer Låpsley looked static, perhaps a little nervous, but her smooth electro-R&B sounded sultry as the sun set.
The clear winner on day one was Vancouver band White Lung, whose music has been gradually transcended its hardcore roots to the point now where their album Paradise was one of the year’s finest rock albums. Backed up by guitar riffs that shred with the tautness of Propagandhi yet possess the abstract texture of My Bloody Valentine, singer Mish Way-Barber commanded the small Forest Stage in front of a small crowd that only grew as the 45-minute set motored along at a blistering pace. Confrontational, stylish, and charismatic, she tore through newer songs like “Kiss Me When I Bleed”, “Narcoleptic”, “Dead Weight”, and “Below” with great passion, making sure all eyes were on her.
Of course, at a summer outdoor festival perfect weather is hoped for but often doesn’t happen. The more Osheaga 2016 wore on, the more apparent it became that this would be a glorious weekend. Saturday afternoon felt welcoming and warm as UK band Daughter played a subtly powerful set on the main stage, their music focusing more on shoegaze-inspired volume than their actual albums. Consequently, the improved dynamics felt like a revelation. Another very pleasant surprise were the Arcs, as Dan Auerbach’s garage rock side project felt a lot more rewarding than the Black Keys’ by-the-numbers headlining set at Osheaga the previous year.
On the disappointing side of the scale, Best Coast was a considerable letdown. Backed by a tight, professional band, Bethany Cosentino did a good job performing her endearing, hook-laden pop rock compositions, but when your set is so quiet that the only way to feel any visceral impact of the live music is to stand right up against the PA tower, you have a problem. Best Coast’s dissonant power pop would benefit from turning the damned volume up.
Headliner Lana Del Rey proved to be a surprisingly spellbinding headliner on this night, not only displaying enough charisma to engage a large festival crowd, but featuring a punchy backing band that did a wonderful job providing her contemporary torch songs with the kind of dynamic range a festival this large demands. Meanwhile at the other end of the grounds the Last Shadow Puppets played a spellbinding set with Alex Turner in full Scott Walker mode, capped off with strings-enhanced stunners “Miracle Aligner”, “In My Room”, and a jaw-dropping cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Wanted?” Best of Saturday, however, were Haim, whose performance two years after their festival-stealing Osheaga debut felt like a champion’s return, the three sisters tearing their way through a taut, efficient set dominated by their own hits but highlighted by a shimmering cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U”.
In contrast to Saturday’s delightful warmth, Sunday brought blazing heat to Osheaga’s final day. With nary a cloud in the sky, the sun beat down on the thousands in attendance, but the mood throughout was always so upbeat, it seemed to only enhance the celebratory feeling all day long. Danish singer MØ played a fiery early afternoon set featuring “Final Song”, one of the year’s best pop singles, showing why she’s a talent to watch in the coming year.
Aside from a wonderful, ebullient performance by Brooklyn dance-pop band St. Lucia at the Green Stage, this day was dominated by must-see performances at the main stage. Leon Bridges got people moving with a rousing set of gospel and soul, followed immediately by a gutsy performance by hometown favorite Grimes, who battled through clearly nasty stomach flu to deliver a high-energy 45 minutes of experimental electropop. Meanwhile French band M83 adapted well to the bigger headlining stage thanks to a performance highlighted by a performance of “Midnight City” that had the crowd bouncing.
Of course, this day belonged to Radiohead, who played their only Canadian date of 2016 and wowed the more than 40,000 in attendance. The set leaned heavily on selections from the excellent A Moon Shaped Pool album, and those new tunes held up exceptionally well, especially the seething “Burn the Witch”, the sullen “Daydreaming”, and “Ful Stop”. The more the two hour set went on, the more locked into an unstoppable groove the band became, tearing out a barrage of crowd-pleasers, ranging from the understated (“Nude”, “Pyramid Song”) to cathartic (“Idiotheque”, “Karma Police”). While it was a treat seeing 40,000 people sing about sucking a lemon (a testament to the lasting influence of Kid A) the most rewarding moments were when the band returned to their progressive rock roots. The OK Computer epic “Paranoid Android” sounded downright metallic when it reached its louder moments, while the closing rendition of “Creep” sent people home happy.
After that, it was one final subway ride under the river and into downtown Montreal, surrounded by happy, dusty kids, many of whom were eager to keep the fun going as late into the night as they could. There’s nothing quite like the sound of happy young people buzzing and chattering through the tunnels and walkways of the subway stations at the end of Osheaga, and it’s enough to put a smile on the most curmudgeonly 40-something music writer, time and again.
Photo credits: Tim Snow