In 2010, Montreal’s Osheaga Music Festival made a major statement with one of the best two-day line-ups of any festival in North America (QRO recap). In 2011, Osheaga upped their game by expanding to a shortened third day (QRO recap). And last year, the festival expanded again, making that Friday as big as Saturday & Sunday, not to mention expanding the actual festival grounds (QRO recap). For Osheaga ’13, the festival could only add a bit in size to the actual festival grounds, but managed to keep the top-tier line-up that its become known for by this point. And QRO was there, August 2nd-4th.
Just at the start of Osheaga ’13, the festival had it going with a number of buzzed-about bands, such as Guards, Oberhofer, K-OS (who stormed off his stage in a dispute with the soundman), and Capital Cities, but two of the nicest buzz-bands hailed from, where else?, Brooklyn, in DIIV and Wild Belle. They were both on the ‘side stages’, Green Stage & Trees Stage, respectively (or rather, ‘Scéne Verte’ & ‘Scéne de Arbres’), though the Green Stage really only felt ‘side’ when measured up against the twin main stages, River & Mountain (‘Scéne de la Riviére’ & ‘Scéne de la Montagne’), which were right next to each other in front of a massive audience space – and Green & Trees had the advantage to the crowd of standing on grass, not gravel. It might still have been a little early in the day & big a stage for DIIV, but Wild Belle were as sunny and relaxed as you’d expect from the act on such a nice day, playing off this year’s debut, Isles (QRO review), and ending, of course, with breakthrough single “Keep You”.
The buzz then moved to Britain on nearly all the stages, though it didn’t exactly overwhelm. Ben Howard was nice but hardly gripping, while Lianne La Havas was charming in a London girl sort of way (reminiscent of Kate Nash – QRO spotlight on – and not just because La Havas played a song about an ex-boyfriend, “Forget”). The success and acclaim of alt-J is still puzzling to many, but if you liked them, they were there. Two Door Cinema Club’s success isn’t such a shocker, but the newer material from last year’s Beacon (QRO review) struggled to excite in the daylight.
But both the best & worst of British buzz came up a bit later, in Jake Bugg and Ellie Goulding. Not since James Blake introduced ‘post-dubstep’ with his self-titled debut (QRO review) has an Englishman engendered such overnight interest as fellow ‘JB’ Jake Bugg has with his own self-titled debut (QRO review), with girls squealing his name – and Bugg managed to even more disappointing. At least Blake’s subdued synth tones sound good on record, even if seeing him live, just hunched over a keyboard, is nothing to write home about (QRO live review) – Bugg was annoying all over, from his ultra-affected vocals to simplistic country style. Think Conor Oberst’s ill-fated country outing with his Mystic Valley Band (QRO live review), but without either Oberst’s pedigree or voice (basically Mr. Bright Eyes’ two main strengths).
But on the positive side of the pound coin at Osheaga was Ellie Goulding. Returning to the festival after absolutely packing the then-smaller Green Stage in 2011 (QRO photos), Goulding had earned her promotion to the main stage before even setting foot in Canada. And she lived up to that hotter slot with a hot show – and not just because she performed in a sports bra and leather hot pants. Goulding herself started as overnight sensation, including playing William & Kate’s wedding, but has kept it up with last year’s follow-up Halcyon (QRO review), and looks to keep it up as long as the ever-growing royal family.
Special note must also be made of the more intimate Trees Stage, which kept up its own strong performance on Day One. After Wild Belle came The Head and the Heart, an actual Yankee act who came to Osheaga before the release of their new sophomore release Let’s Be Still in the fall. Their alt-folk collective ways worked well beneath the leaves. Up next under the Trees was Palma Violets, another Brit act, yes, but playing party-garage in a wild manner (especially bassist Chilli Jesson) making them like an Anglo Black Lips (who rocked that same stage last year – QRO photos). They’re another act with some hype behind them, but this time it just might be justified.
6:45 PM brought the ultimate white-collar vs. blue-collar divide of Osheaga: Vampire Weekend vs. The Gaslight Anthem. While the hipsters and kids watched “V-Dubs” do their Ivy League afro-pop thing on the main stage, the workingmen and punks saw New Jersey come to Quebec on the Green Stage. Similar to their recent shows on their tour (QRO live review the Saturday prior), there was no reason to add to their already-powerful and evocative “American Slang”.
As the sun set the main stage took over with two of the biggest & best acts at Osheaga ’13 (sorry DJs like A Tribe Called Red or Baauer on the ‘Piknic Electronik Stage’, or Beach House on Green Stage – but you’re all kind of boring live, anyway…). It was particularly special, Versailles’ Phoenix playing in Francophone Canada (even if Thomas Mars sings in English) – but the band will get a huge welcome anywhere, as they’re one of the rare acts that pretty much impossible not to like. Mars ran into the crowd early and often, including crowd surfing to close.
It was a little odd that Phoenix wasn’t the evening’s headliner, considering they’d been one at the even-bigger Coachella earlier this year, but how can you put anybody on a bill above The Cure? Yes, since the band’s eighties heyday Robert Smith has aged (and gained weight), but he still has his voice (and still really pale, still dressed in all black). And The Cure still have a lot of great songs – if also a lot of songs you might not remember unless you had also once been pale and dressed all in black. In a way, Smith almost reminds one of J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (QRO live review) in his ‘ultra-veteran’ status (and not just because Dinosaur Jr. have long done a great cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”…).
[note: It has to be mentioned that there was some problem with the new wristband system for media and VIPs, as each wristband this year came with a computer chip that was to be scanned by iPhones with a special app at each security checkpoint – only for it to not work. One of your correspondents literally went through four wristbands – and he wasn’t alone in this – before staff gave up and just told security to ignore the chips. The staff did try very hard, and everything worked fine the next two days, but QRO missed acts like Oberhofer and Guards because of it]
While Wild Nothing and Humans started off their stages relatively low-key (Green and Electronik, respectively), Los Angeles’ Grouplove were excited from the get-go on their main stage. Always bouncy is singer/keyboardist Hannah Hooper, who was wearing the skeleton onesie that she’s been sporting all year (QRO photos) – so bouncy that her baseball cap fell off more than once; eventually bassist Sean Gadd picked it up and put it on his head – over the cowboy hat that he always wears. They played mostly from their debut, Never Trust a Happy Song, including killer single “Itchin’ On a Photograph” to open and “Tongue Tied” and “Colours” (QRO review) to close, but also include a few pieces from this September’s sophomore full-length, Spreading Rumors – both new single “Ways To Go” as well as Rumors track “Borderlines and Aliens”.
The twin main stages kept up the high quality in the afternoon on Day Two. After Grouplove came The Heavy, sweaty and energetic like you expected, but also had their slower moments (and singer Kelvin Swaby still has his old-timey microphone). Some people came to Osheaga specifically for Jimmy Eat World, so great is the emo-rock band’s appeal – despite every record sounding like lesser versions of breakthrough Bleed American (QRO live review), including this year’s Damages (QRO review); and yes, they played “The Sweetness” and closed with “The Middle”.
It was an interesting transition on the main stages from Jimmy Eat World to Flogging Molly, but one that worked. Molly’s Celtic workingman’s punk went down surprisingly well in Francophone Montreal, with even an Irish flag or two flying (maybe those fans came up from Boston…), as the band definitely tilted towards the upbeat & rollickin’. Totally unsurprising in how well they went over at Osheaga was Montreal’s own Stars, where singer Torquil Campbell expressed his love not only for playing this hometown festival (which they had also played back in 2010 – QRO photos), but for being part of an event where people pay money to go see music with their friends. “Give it up for yourselves!”
But even more local, way over at the Trees Stage was Loud Lary Ajust. Recommended to QRO by a local music reporter from Cult Montreal, LLA threw down a sort of patois French hip-hop. Admittedly your correspondent couldn’t understand a single word, but the crowd was most definitely digging it. Following them over there was veteran punk Frank Turner, who drew his own healthy crowd on the small stage.
Back on the main stage was Calgary’s twin sister duo Tegan & Sara – it wasn’t surprising that they got a huge crowd on the eastern side of Canada; what was surprising was the healthy percentage of males in the audience, for a band whose core fan base has always seemed to be lesbian teenage girls (of course, the sisters Quin did just play the MLB Fan Cave days prior – QRO photos). The duo is really just a hot commodity – there was a major scrum around them when they did an interview in the media tent. Sara seemed a little superior to Tegan (QRO interview) on stage, as Tegan’s voice seemed a little extra-affected at times, and Sara might have worn black to Tegan’s white, but Sara never wore sunglasses (which might be necessary to put on when up there, but shades always put a little more distance between the artist and the crowd).
From the new to the old, it was 1993 all over again when another pair of twin sisters, Deal, brought Last Splash to Osheaga’s Green Stage. And this wasn’t just Kim & Kelley but the entire, original Breeders – including multi-instrumentalist Carrie Bradley, who seemed to be the happiest of all to be playing. The band even had drummer Jim Macpherson and bassist Josephine Wiggs switch instruments on “Roi”, just like as was done on the recording of the seminal record. Playing at a festival also meant they had enough time to do Last Splash, but only to do Last Splash, and didn’t have to do an underwhelming b-sides encore like on their regular performances of the album (QRO live review). Seeing Last Splash live, one is able to not just appreciate killer singles like “Cannonball” and “Saints”, but also the number of great instrumentals, “Roi”, “Flipside”, and “S.O.S”, which were full-on tracks, not just filler like so many of today’s (usually synth-based) album instrumentals.
Going back a year further over at the nearby Trees Stage (which inexplicably ran house music over listening to The Breeders from afar) was Bob Mould, who started off his set with the first half/side of 1992’s own seminal Copper Blue (QRO deluxe edition review) from his then-band Sugar. Like Last Splash, the album has aged incredibly well, including live (QRO live review of Copper Blue) – but unlike The Breeders, Mould has released a ton of great material since Blue (not to mention before), and he followed Copper up with songs from Silver Age (QRO review), his latest release. Ably backed by bassist Jason Narducy, and drummer Jon Wurster of Superchunk (QRO live review)/maybe the funniest musician twitter feed out there – Wurster joining Mould might be the best indie-rock addition since Mark Ibold of Pavement (QRO live review) joined Sonic Youth (QRO live review) – there was even a good-natured slam-dance by a few older guys near the end of the set to Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on) songs “I Apologize” and “Chartered Trips”. The set could have used a better turn out, but it was limited by a bit of rain at its start – and likely Mould’s fans are the older types who don’t go to all-day festivals because they’ve got to find a babysitter…
After oldies like those two, as well as post-rock icons Explosions In the Sky and the surprisingly veteran DJ Bonobo on the smaller stages, there were some newer acts on the main platforms – or at least ones with newer attention. Imagine Dragons suffered somewhat without their stage lighting magic, but Macklemore & Ryan Lewis came in full force for their first-ever visit to Montreal, not just for first time performing in the city, but first coming to Montreal at all. They didn’t just do songs like “Thrift Shop”, “Wing$”, and “Same Love” (where Tegan & Sara – see above – joined to make the pro-gay marriage hip-hop song even more powerful) – Macklemore left the stage at one point, only come back on wearing a mullet wig as ‘Sir Raven Bowie’, stating, “Thank you for letting me come here and dry hump your women.” Regular Macklemore came back for one more song, “Irish Celebration” (the Irish flag from Flogging Molly – see above – made another appearance in the audience), and thanked the crowd again & again – he seemed particularly blown away by the response gotten in Montreal (who knows what Ryan Lewis was thinking – he’s the Rage Cage to Macklemore’s Hollywood Jack…), one of many artists to experience that at Osheaga.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis playing “Same Love” with Tegan & Sara at Osheaga 2013:
While locals We Are Wolves played the Trees Stage, the one-and-only Beck closed out the second night of Osheaga in style. Before Mr. Hansen came on, the Jumbotron screens showed grainy footage of someone writing “REFLEKTOR” – reportedly the name & cover art for the new Arcade Fire record coming this fall (a little random before a Beck performance, but admittedly at least somewhat appropriate as it’s in the band’s hometown, on the same stage they headlined three years ago – QRO photos). Beck mixed old classics and not-as-old songs – there was him doing “One Foot In the Grave” solo with just a harmonica, commenting that only Montreal danced during his 1999 Midnight Vultures tour, mentioned a 1987 guitar solo (and, after technical problems, stated that he’d had his gear since 1987…), and more (including fireworks, which sounded like thunder that night). He’s got an extensive songography, but honestly hasn’t been doing much new stuff lately, too busy producing other people’s stuff (like Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ Mirror Traffic – QRO review) – here’s hoping his recent touring will lead to a new album. Beck did do cover moments of “Billie Jean” and “Tainted Love” (remember when people thought he’d be just a one-hit “Loser” like Soft Cell? – the band behind “Tainted Love”… and nothing else), and closed with an extended “Two Turntables and a Microphone” – Montreal just clapped their hands, just clapped their hands…
The main stages at Osheaga opened up the final day with a pair of newer acts, Twin Forks and Atlas Genius. Admittedly, Twin Forks is the new band from Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba – and they were only playing that early in the day because they had to fly out to Iowa, of all places. Meanwhile, Atlas Genius was more rockin’ than on record (QRO review) – though still not that rockin’.
Coming back to Osheaga’s main stage for a second year (QRO photos from Osheaga ’11) was Frightened Rabbit. Singer Scott Hutchison was in a good mood, at one point asking fans to dance, by picking someone they fancy and taking an arm, “Don’t grind; it’s early in the day – there’s plenty of time to grind when the sun sets, and I think there will be rappers on later who will tell you different.” This was to “Old, Old Fashioned”, after which he joked, “In nine months, will we have some Frightened Rabbit babies? Some miserable, miserable babies?…” The group actually sounded more upbeat, even asking the crowd to make a “giant, Osheaga-shaped accordion” to hold one note for “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” – noting that it shouldn’t be hard, because Toronto could do it (Hutchison admitted that was a cheap way to get them to do it), and told the crowd who at first seemed sheepish that he cared about volume, and, “I don’t give a shit about quality…” A bit of Scottish rain came on after the Scottish band ended, but cleared up early into Jessie Ware‘s set.
While Saturday saw the main stages superior to the side ones, it was the side stages where the action was at on Sunday. Little Green Cars were more orchestra-grand, choral vocals than you might have expected. They closed with their strong single “Jon Wayne”, a song that’s easy to fall in love with, even if it’s their best (think Animal Kingdom and their single, “It Only Comes In Waves” – QRO album review). Meanwhile man & woman on guitar & drums, switching instruments at time, were Shovels & Rope – very backwoods, but cheery (if a little ‘backwoods-lite for easy consumption’).
Every festival has one act on a side stage that draws a mammoth crowd, which makes you think that they should have been booked on a main stage. In 2011 it was Ellie Goulding (QRO photos), who was wisely put on a main stage this year. For 2013, it was Icona Pop, who had fans fill the entire Green Stage lawn (and that ‘side stage’ ain’t exactly small…), all the way to the hill in the back, despite the act’s last-minute time switch with the now-following Holy Ghost!. Of course, no one there was gonna leave before the last song of Icona Pop’s set, considering that you knew it was gonna be international hit “I Love It” – a song so popular it’s even been covered by Cookie Monster…
Back on the main stages, ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Charles Bradley busted it at Osheaga, from vocals to hip shaking. It seems like every big music festival these days has to have a throwback, soul and/or reggae, but Osheaga at least picked a good throwback in Bradley. Much more modern was Silversun Pickups, who had a strong crowd despite being up against Icona Pop. The Pickups’ fuzzier, upward-reaching indie-rock goes down well at a festival during the day. It was also one of the first shows back for bassist Nikki Monninger, who had been away for a year, giving birth to two baby girls (which got huge cheers when announced).
Rappers Big Boi and Kendrick Lamar played the main River Stage. Like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis the day before, Lamar was particularly impressed with the reception he got on his first-ever visit to Montreal – the city has a lily-white reputation, as it is in Canada, but has a history of being open culturally. Country-folk artists The Lumineers came on in between them on the main Mountain Stage. The Lumineers were coming off appearing on The Colbert Report (QRO Indie On Late Night TV), and even had a song where frontman Wesley Schultz played from inside the crowd, though they still sounded exactly like headliner Mumford & Sons (see below).
Meanwhile, the side stages had the likes of Hannah Georgas, Dusted, Father John Misty, Hollerado, Disclosure, The Neighbourhood, and Hot Chip (who can still rock like a monkey with a miniature cymbal) to close out the night – the best moment was when a fan convinced Hollerado to let him on stage to propose to his girlfriend (who accepted the ring).
Yes, it was older folks who were most into New Order – but all of their songs, even the ones you don’t know, are enjoyable. They’re kind of an ‘upbeat New Wave’, which would sound impossible, but New Order did emerge from the band that basically originated New Wave, Joy Division. They played classic singles “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith” back-to-back, surprisingly – and ended with Joy Division ultra-classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
There was a ginormous crowd for the return of Mumford & Sons, who are back on tour after bassist Ted Dwayne’s brain surgery forced them to halt their summer tour (QRO photos from right before that tour was halted). The immense mass of people was difficult to deal with for a fan, considering it was dark by then, and all of those corporate-sponsored pseudo-VIP-ish areas rimming the River Stage crowd area made it even harder to navigate within the audience, as none had barriers that were visible at night. The band did an ultra-quiet rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” second-to-last, and of course closed with “The Cave”, including confetti (though Arcade Fire did that better on the same stage in 2010 – QRO photos).
For its size, Osheaga gets relatively overlooked in the ‘festival scene’. It’s in Canada, French-speaking Canada at that, and is the same weekend as Lollapalooza. Its growth to the big-time is also relatively new, only in the past few years. But that actually is an advantage for the festival – it manages to have the size and pull of a big festival, without a lot of the downside. There’s no incessant celebrity-spotting like at Coachella. You don’t have to camp with hippies like at Bonnaroo or Sasquatch!. And it doesn’t have the mega-superstar headliner who sucks up all the attention and oxygen at the festival like Lollapalooza. Instead you’ve got a great festival with great acts, right near downtown of one of the prettiest cities in the world – and it isn’t a nightmare to handle. Ooh-la-la, Osheaga!