More than most North American cities, Montreal gets it right when it comes to hosting music festivals. Fortunate enough to have a setting like Parc Jean-Drapeau, located in the heart of the city, a five-minute subway ride from downtown, the Canadian city is able to pull off a music-and-arts festival like Osheaga with relative ease. An event on a similar level to Lollapalooza in Chicago but kept down to a manageable 40,000 capacity rather than Lolla’s exceedingly huge 100,000, nearly 120 acts performed over the course of three days this past weekend with nary a glitch. Lines moved remarkably smoothly, free water was easily accessible, people were kept safe, the media was accommodated exceptionally well. It’s become an event wholly unique to this continent, and its wide array of artists this year made for a rich experience.
Featuring six stages spread out across the park, hosting crowds that ranged from tens of thousands to a few dozen, connected by shaded, tree-lined paths that offered welcome respites from the heat, which blazed all weekend, it was remarkably easy for attendees to move from venue to venue, with only minimal sound bleeding from stage to stage as Friday’s festivities got off to a quick start.
New York indie poppers Bleachers got a big reception when they capped off their early afternoon set with hit single “I Wanna get Better,” while Manchester orchestra immediately followed with a much more forceful and heavy performance than on record, giving the early day a welcome jolt. Canadians July Talk drew a capacity crowd to their cozy park setting, their new wave-derived tunes performed with great energy and highlighted by the chemistry between singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay. The Mowgli’s Lumineers-derived tunes fell flat, failing to generate much enthusiasm, but back over at the headlining stage, Old Crow Medicine Show turned in the day’s first great performance, a rousing set of energetic and appealing bluegrass, made richer by their impeccable vocal harmonies. Red Bull-sponsored arena rockers AWOLNATION immediately followed, drawing a very large crowd of kids inexplicably drawn to the band’s tepid, watered-down music.
A large portion of concertgoers were anxious for some hip-hop — sadly Chance The Rapper had to cancel his appearance on this day — and several thousand gathered to see Pusha T, who sadly didn’t do much to engage the crowd, darting off after 40 minutes for a choreographed “encore,” which in turn set off a mass exodus from the venue. Such a stunt is a festival no-no. Childish Gambino, on the other hand, absolutely delivered. With a full backing band Donald Glover was all braggadocio and charisma, and whether it not the actor’s persona is a put-on, the man is made for a huge festival crowd.
Parisian singer Mahaut Mondino was the day’s most pleasant discovery, an R&B crooner similar to Jessie Ware in the way she combines soul with subtle electronic touches. Similar to CHVRCHES but a hell of a lot less dynamic, London Grammar played a set lacking in charisma and energy, their brooding music best suited for a dark venue, not blazing sunlight. Despite attracting a large, enthusiastic crowd, Foster The People seemed in over their heads, far too bland to be playing the headlining stage at a festival of this magnitude.
Skrillex is the musical avatar of the millennial generation, his music galvanizing youth culture like no other, and say what you will about his lack of subtlety, pandering 4chan images, and long parade of predictable bass drops, but it suits the ADHD mindset perfectly, a relentless, unbelievably loud 90 minutes of clever EDM and dubstep mixes, improvised on the fly. Sonny Moore’s background in metalcore works to his great advantage; he knows how to manipulate a crowd, and the way he got this crowd of tens of thousands constantly bouncing was extraordinary to witness firsthand.
The best was truly saved for last on this day, as OutKast played an exuberant 20th anniversary set that mined the duo’s rich, genre-redefining hip-hop backed up by a full band, horn section, and back-up singers. The chemistry between the flamboyant Andre 3000 and the authoritative Big Boi was undeniable as they tore through classics from such seminal albums as Aquemini and Stankonia, “Bombs Over Baghdad,” “Gasoline,” and “Rosa Parks” uniting the massive crowd that had gathered, performed with grit and sharpness. Both members had their own moment in the spotlight, but as strong as Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx set piece was, Andre’s “Hey Ya!” brought the house down, an explosion of pure, unfettered, contagious joy that could be seen on the tired yet elated faces on the crowded subway ride home.
Saturday served up interesting contrasts between some of indie and alternative rock’s more influential figures and the acolytes they spawned, and at times the difference in sheer quality was staggering. Underneath the sweltering afternoon sun it was one of those cases where you think to yourself, what hath Broken Social Scene wrought, and fittingly Kevin Drew, primary voice of the beloved Toronto band, kicked off the day with a spirited solo set that focused primarily on his latest solo album, but made the early arrivers happy with a concluding acoustic performance of “Superconnected.” Immediately after, however, came a series of bands that try to follow in the footsteps of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, but minus the passion and creativity.
South African brothers Kongos showed great creativity on their lone hit “Come With Me Now,” but the rest of their set failed to live up to that promise, awash in lightweight reggae. Local Natives derive themselves primarily from the pop-oriented side of Broken Social Scene, but came across as drowsy and milquetoast, while Volcano Choir came close to replicating the roaring, droning, psychedelic side of BSS, but, again, suffered from a severe lack of dynamics. Meanwhile, across the grounds, Ingrid Michaelson’s highly anticipated set was a last-minute cancellation, casting a pall over the intensely humid afternoon, concertgoers scurrying into the shade for a respite from the heat.
The day urgently needed a dose of actual rock ‘n’ roll, and thankfully a handful of artists delivered in a huge, huge way. Led by the heroic Laura Jane Grace, Against Me! proved yet again why they’re a supreme live act with a raucous 45 minutes of raw, melodic punk rock highlighted by selections from this year’s triumphant Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Singer-songwriter Serena Ryder, hugely popular among mainstream Canadian audiences, was her charismatic, ebullient self, not to mention versatile, unleashing the odd power chord from her Gibson Flying V. Meanwhile, the inimitable Modest Mouse, in the midst of a victory lap summer tour, sounded as taut, not to mention rich, as ever.
However, the afternoon belonged to HAIM, who schooled nearly every band that played before them, as sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana were positively transcendent, performing spot-on renditions of highlights from last year’s debut Days Are Gone, and showing astonishing versatility covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” and Beyonce’s “XO.” The thousands in attendance were starved for some sort of galvanizing music, and Haim nailed it after several hours of musical mediocrity.
The main stage was also in desperate need of diversity, and J Cole brought just that with a scorching, immensely likeable hour-long set that attracted a huge, fun-loving crowd, his thunderous beats accentuated marvelously by guitar, drums, and back-up singers, the entire venue singing along to his hit tune “Work Out.”
As soon as J Cole ended, the mighty Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds kicked straight into a stunning display of gothic blues. Restricted to only an hour, Cave and his mates stuck primarily to the classics, the tall, imposing singer confronting the crowd during “From Her to Eternity” and “Tupelo.” Complemented by the searing noise created by guitarist/violinist Warren Ellis, “The Mercy Seat” and “Stagger Lee” were master classes in the blues, chaotic, pontificating, apocalyptic.
In direct contrast, capping off a day of contrasts, was Jack White, whose headlining set drew the day’s biggest crowd, which erupted every time he and his crack backing band launched into a White Stripes classic. The problem was, however, is that despite having supremely talented musicians behind him, the magic of those beloved tunes has been stripped away, feeling like slick, sterile cover versions. Without that manic chemistry and telepathy he had with former partner in crime Meg White, Jack White has fully ventured into “dad rock” territory, making very competent, rustic blues rock, but in so doing has lost any edge his music had with his former band. Coming on the heels of Nick Cave’s titanic performance, White felt disappointingly safe.
Sunday, on the other hand, brimmed with positivity and excitement as Parc Jean-Drapeau quickly filled much earlier than the previous two days, the weather less punishing, the mood relaxed and upbeat. Canadian acts set the stage early on, Matt Mays and Hey Rosetta! Affably playing on the headlining stages, while across the way at the Green Stage Montreal artist Caila Thompson-Hannant, better known as Mozart’s Sister, had her dulcet electro-pop reverberating through the trees, her minimalist, Grimes-meets-Junior Boys compositions concise yet atmospheric.
For the most part, however, this day was all about foreign acts, more specifically the UK, as the bill was loaded with popular bands who’s made the long trip. Bombay Bicycle Club, whose album So Long, See You Tomorrow topped the UK chart earlier this year, won over the large gathering with a combination of African rhythms and Bollywood influences that felt open and friendly rather than trite and overbearing. The Kooks, one of those rare mid-2000s indie curiosities who somehow managed to show remarkable staying power, were perfectly suited for the 3 in the afternoon sunshine, imploring the crowd to have fun, which responded in kind.
While Royal Blood and Kate Nash played across the way, Scottish stars CHVRCHES attracted the biggest gathering of the afternoon, their dark, melancholy electro-pop a strong contrast to all the beach balls bouncing about and the fire hose dousing anyone within a 50-yard radius. Singer Lauren Mayberry was in very good humor, noting the irony of the situation, and nevertheless put in a vocal performance that shows how much she has improved as a frontwoman over the last couple years.
If there was ever a literal example of a generation gap at Osheaga, it was at around 7:30, when the headline stage area was divided between those seeing the Replacements and those much younger waiting to see Lorde, and neither were disappointed. Called self-deprecatingly by leader Paul Westerberg as, “The Cements, the world’s greatest Replacements cover band,” and featuring Billie Joe Armstrong quietly playing third guitar, the semi-reunited ‘Mats rampaged and stumbled their way through a set flown by the seat of their pants. Classic after classic was carted out: “I Will Dare,” “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial,” “Alex Chilton,” “Androgynous,” “Color Me Impressed,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the band keeping things loose yet sober and somewhat professional, the Parrothead-dressed Westerberg and his old mate Tommy Stinson clearly enjoying themselves, drily quipping between drags on a cigarette, “So who’s on after us? Is it any good?”
Everyone knew New Zealand sensation Lorde had the potential to totally upstage headliners Arctic Monkeys, and when she took the stage to the murky, brooding “Glory and Gore,” the screams from the girls that made up the huge majority of the monstrous crowd, were rapturous. And young Ms. Yelich-O’Connor turned in one hell of a powerhouse performance, selling her introspective art pop with total conviction, dancing, flailing, flopping her long mane of hair with intensity, belting out her lyrics with delightful pretension. Of course, “Tennis Court,” “Team,” and “Royals” went over huge, but the real jaw-dropping moment was when she not only expressed her admiration for the Replacements, but performed a somber rendition of “Swingin’ Party,” much to the adorable confusion of her audience. There were moments during the hour-long set that you could sense you were in the presence of budding greatness.
Meanwhile, as Arctic Monkeys slammed their way through a workmanlike set, way over on the Green Stage that venue was filled to capacity as several thousand sad sacks gathered in the forest to see Lykke Li. It was the perfect setting for the woman who’s now cornered the market on the confessional pop record, and she delivered a knockout performance. Not unlike Lorde she made a name for herself very young and precociously talented, and has managed to grow into a supreme talent, not to mention a much more confident performer than six years ago. It was gloriously morose, bleak, and beautiful as she led her band through such favorites as “Sadness is a Blessing,” “Gunshot,” and “Never Gonna Love Again,” the mood brightening when she charismatically, even joyously, performed early songs “Little Bit” and “Dance Dance Dance.” Climaxing with the gorgeous “I Follow Rivers,” that quirky little hook bouncing along with the thousands of little bugs in the air, it was a perfect conclusion to an eclectic, fun, and wonderfully exhausting weekend of music.