L'Heure d'été: Osheaga 2015

Photos by Pat Beaudry and Tim Snow

Montreal's Osheaga Festival has quickly become the best destination festival in North America, during which the city pops with music, art, and culture.

Winding through the tunnels at Berri-UQAM metro station, the echoing voices get louder and louder as you approach the Yellow Line platform. Distinct, happy, feminine voices, a squeaky buzz of excitement. Round a corner, I’m feeling a little out of place, standing among dozens upon dozens of young millennial-aged women who can’t contain their excitement for the day ahead, English in one ear, Québécois in the other ear. There are plenty of young men present, the requisite cargo-shorts-and-flip-flop dudes responsible for the dryly derogatory local term “Brosheaga”, and the odd middle-aged music fan like yours truly, but any mature or masculine voice is drowned out by the gleeful din of the women, 90 percent of whom are sporting the de rigueur summer ensemble of 2015: big floppy felt hat, flower headband, huge sunglasses, halter top, high-wasted Levi’s cutoffs, Chucks. Everywhere you look.

Welcome to Osheaga weekend.

Ever since its inception Osheaga, or Festival de la musique et des arts Osheaga as it’s officially called, has always been a large-scale event, but only in recent years has it truly taken off. Coming off a monstrous 2014 festival that welcomed such talent as Outkast, Jack White, Lorde, Nick Cave, Arctic Monkeys, J. Cole, Skrillex, and Haim, Osheaga has firmly established itself as Canada’s biggest summer music festival. Much like Coachella, it doubles as both a wide-ranging music and arts showcase and a fashionable event where plenty go to be seen, but unlike the über-hip California fest, or Lollapalooza in Chicago, or Squamish and Sasquatch fests in the Pacific Northwest, the environment is much, much different.

Without knowing the finer details, the idea of putting 40,000 people on an island for ten hours per day, with only minimal ways in and out, seems logistically absurd. However, at the island Parc Jean-Drapeau, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in the heart of Montreal, there’s an undeniable buzz of positivity everywhere you go, and it all stems from the innate feeling that each and every person attending is well taken care of. Nobody is fretting about trudging back to a muddy festival campsite for a rotten night’s sleep, or spending hours exiting a huge parking lot. Visitors are either in hotels, urban campgrounds, or Airbnb flats, and are connected to the city center by an efficient subway system.

In addition, although the temperature at its peak will surpass 90 degrees with very high humidity, the festival site is as comfortable as it can get. Water is free, with clean refill stations set up all over. There’s plenty of shade for people to duck under and cool off. A big grassy hill overlooks the two main stages, where many, including young families, set up a picnic-style base camp for the day. The grounds are huge, and it’s a ten to 15-minute walk from one end of the site to the other, but if you know where to go, you can nab a free Coke or iced tea from the corporate sponsor tents, which seem to have a never-ending supply. Food options are plentiful, from the usual festival fare to gourmet food trucks. And if you want beer – you’re in Canada, why would you not want beer? – a purchased reusable cup will get you a two-dollar discount on beer the rest of the weekend. Sure, the lineups for the porta-potties are long – you can never have enough – but it’s far worse at any other fest. From a male’s perspective – apologies, ladies, it’s so not fair, I understand – the trés Européen outdoor urinals in the trees are a godsend.

With that knowledge in the back of everyone’s minds that things are as comfortable as they possibly can be, there’s not a shred of negativity. Even selfie sticks, the badge of the obnoxious tourist, are banned. People are in a good mood, there’s mutual respect, and while there’s a definite police presence I don’t witness a single display of belligerence the entire weekend. The police, who aren’t wearing fatigues like they do in the city, are less aggressively dressed; they protect rather than enforce. Coming from a part of the country where 63 arrests over the course of a weekend music festival is considered "well behaved", the genial nature of Osheaga is mind-boggling. Zero arrests would be made over the course of the festival, which will welcome approximately 135,000 people over the course of its three days.

When it comes to music at Osheaga, it’s part catching your go-to artists, part discovery. Just go for a walk and you’ll feel that buzz, with stimulating music and art around every corner. On the sweltering Friday afternoon, the sun beating down on the main grounds where the two main stages are situated, some 20,000 people are already settled in for the day as Iron and Wine woos the crowd with his melancholy indie folk. With a cold water in the backpack (always have a full bottle on your person) I head toward the park’s forested area, past the weed smokers in the trees and the napping sunbathers on complimentary Muskoka chairs set out by a brewery, head around a corner, and am greeted by the sumptuous sounds of Sango’s Soul/Bass wizardry on the electronic stage.

Continuing on a lovely shaded path through the trees, past merch tents and a gigantic green air-conditioned structure advertising a certain French mineral water – corporate branding is everywhere – where people can go cool off to hip electronic music, you’re guided by friendly volunteer traffic cops up the right side of a gigantic metal staircase as you safely cross the motorway that circumnavigates the island. On the other side I’m greeted by more glorious shade under the big trees as I stride toward the little valley whose three stages will play host to some of the festival’s best performances.

On the Green Stage, the biggest stage on the far side of the grounds, hip hop geniuses Run the Jewels are laying down a ferocious, highly entertaining set, peppered with sharp social commentary and humble humor, the chemistry between El-P and Killer Mike palpable and contagious. As soon as their set ends, Canadian indie darlings Bahamas kick into gear in front of a big crowd around the cozy Valley Stage, while alt-rock veterans Guster are at the far opposite end on the Forest Stage, nestled in the trees. If you look around you with a little more mindful presence as opposed to thinking, I have to get over there! (a perpetual festival problem for yours truly) quirky discoveries await, like Anne Lalancette’s wondrous, gigantic puppets, or little art exhibits tucked away. You’re never more than a stone’s throw from a food truck, a beer vendor, a water station, a place to relax, but once Osheaga kicks into gear late in the afternoon, the urge to wander and discover, to people-watch, to drink in the sheer variety of music around you, or just simply drink with friends, is irresistible.

* * *

Because the huge majority of Osheaga attendees are from outside Montreal, the question arises, what to do with the rest of your time? For many, it’s to party, and the 19 year-old kids in my hotel are lugging back “two-four”s of Coors Light and PBR from the nearby depanneur (Québécois slang for convenience store). However, if you’re not too sun-baked and exhausted, the weekend leaves you plenty of time to discover one of the continent’s finest, not to mention quirkiest cities.

Many will, rightfully, choose to do some of the more obvious things within the downtown core, such as explore beautiful Old Montreal, Chinatown, and the stately Mount Royal that looms over the city center. The art scene in the city is phenomenal, and when it comes to contemporary art the city has three of Canada’s best: the Musée d'Art Contemporain downtown, DHC/ART in Old Montreal, and the absolutely brilliant Station 16 Gallery on St. Laurent, which helps organize the eye-popping annual Mural Festival every summer.

By heading just a little further outside downtown, though, a quick bus/foot/metro journey will take you to three of the city’s most appealing and bustling neighborhoods. Situated west of Rue Saint-Denis and north of Mont-Royal Ave. is Mile End, hipster central, home and great inspiration for the late Mordecai Richler, and now known as ground zero for the local indie music scene, namely Arcade Fire, whose classic album Funeral was recorded in a nearby space. With its quaint row houses and accompanying outdoor staircases (a way for home owners to conserve indoor space at the turn of the 20th century) it’s a vibrant mishmash of cultures, where Polish, Irish, Italian, French-Canadian, and Hasidic Jewish roots run deep. Now, though, its dominated by Ubisoft headquarters, the French videogame company injecting the old neighborhood with much-needed youth.

The food in this city is to die for, and whether traditional or adventurous the options are limitless. The classic egg cream and fried baloney at Wilensky’s is a personal favorite, but in the morning it doesn’t get much better than going to St. Viateur Bagel for a bag of soft, warm, honey-kissed and wood oven baked poppyseed bagels, followed by a coffee at nearby Café Olimpico (in quintessentially Montreal fashion, Italian coffee ordered in English off a French menu). In late morning the hipster crowd is still sleeping in, and there are plenty of quiet spots to sit and enjoy a little rip-and-dip of bagel and cream cheese. Take a quick peek at a neighborhood “gift box”, a streetside cabinet where anyone can leave any unwanted item for a passerby to discover, stroll down one of the many beautiful back alley green spaces, where a lush overgrowth of plants, shrubs, and flowers turn what would be a grubby, sketchy alleyway into a welcoming, cool, and quiet place to walk.

Another quick bus ride – or 15 minute walk – northwest takes you through Little Italy towards the heart of the city’s food scene. After marveling at the sheer absurdity of Quincaillerie Dante, which is half cutting-edge kitchen supply store, half gun shop (and indeed, women are ooh-ing and ahh-ing at kitchenware while men are huddled on the other side doing the same at hunting rifles) head to Jean-Talon Market, which offers a glorious array of locally sourced food, from astoundingly fresh produce, and locally made saucisses, cheese, and patisserie.

And although the on-site food options at Osheaga are good, why blow $13 on poutine when a) you’re better off getting poutine and steamies at the Pool Room for half the price at midnight and b) you could spend the same amount on an incredible charcuterie lunch to take to the fest with you? I get some glorious red wine-marinated strolghino at Les Cochons Tous Ronds, astonishingly smooth Quebec goat cheese, fresh olives, and some delightfully salty, locally foraged salicorne. A Canadian loonie spent on a couple small food containers at a dollar store later, and I’m set for a glorious little picnic on the sunny Osheaga hill at sunset.

A few blocks away, back on the west side of St. Laurent, is the Mile-Ex neighborhood, which as the latest area to experience an influx of young creative people, is starting to percolate. Much less orderly than Mile End and Little Italy, it’s a curious, appealing mishmash of row houses, lofts, bungalows, and garages, with a quirky array of streets that seem to begin, curve, and end arbitrarily. Artists and savvy entrepreneurs have already laid strong roots, like progressive coffee joint Dispatch, whose location in a converted warehouse is part café, part roaster, brewer, and bottler. It’s a unique and oddly welcoming combination of production and consumption, where you see the owner fuss over individual coffee beans as you’re served a sensational triple cold-brewed coffee, which they stock on tap.

If you’re looking to splurge on a meal – and in such a foodie-friendly city like Montreal, you’d be crazy not to once – you won’t do much better than Pastaga, situated back on St. Laurent across the street from Mile-Ex. Chef Martin Juneau’s locally sourced small-plate menu with natural wines and local microbrew beer. On my Friday lunch visit I’m treated to a fresh tomato salad with melon, mint, pistachio, and pomegranate dressing, followed by a jaw-dropping maple-glazed pork belly (which is sublimely crisp) with marinated carrots atop a parsnip pancake, accompanied by a Broken 7 Montreal Blonde Ale. Capped off with a chocolate mousse served in a mason jar and topped with sponge toffee and caramel foam that’ll leave you weak in the knees, it’s not an outlandishly priced meal (about $50 excluding gratuity) considering the spectacular quality, and worth every Canadian cent.

* * *

Back on Île St-Helene, Osheaga is a whirlwind all weekend, a blur of crowded subway platforms, food lineups, vendors, and music, both good and bad. But mostly good. FKA twigs turns in a stunning Friday show, Sonic Youth genius Thurston Moore hammers out krautrock jams with his new band in a persnickety performance, Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men pander to the crowd with their limp Arcade Fire rip-off (which should be criminal in this city) and Florence Welch steals the show with a commanding headlining set that draws the biggest crowd of the entire weekend.

Indie rock auteur St. Vincent, twee Canadian upstarts Alvvays, and hip-hop innovator Nas dominate a scorching Saturday afternoon, and then the skies finally open and drench the thousands as Interpol plays on the main stage. Canadian critical favorite Patrick Watson is out of his element on the main stage, his somnambulistic crooning killing the day’s momentum, but the mood quickly elevates thanks to a joyous set by Weezer. There were some doubts as to whether Kendrick Lamar would be able to prove his worth as a festival co-headliner, but his set transforms the entire grounds into one big party. During the three-song string of “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, “Fuckin' Problems”, and “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe” the place explodes, with dancing, weed smoke, jubilation, and best of all mutual respect between everybody.

Sunday’s lineup proves to be quirkier, and aside from a delightful set by Hot Chip and a show-stealing performance by Father John Misty -- the only male indie rocker worth giving a damn about the entire festival – the best performances are to be found away from the colossal main stages. With a water cannon and dozens of gigantic beach balls Charli XCX turns in one of the most joyous, raucous sets of the entire weekend, backed by a crack three-piece band of young women. First Aid Kit charm a throng of fans at the quaint Valley Stage with their tender folk music. Swedish singer/songwriter Tove Lo exudes all facets of sex – the elation, the misery, the power – in a sensational performance on the Green Stage, while back at the Valley California’s Banks is much more subdued, the singer moved to near-tears by the beautiful setting and the very warm reception.

At the end of Sunday, two of the most boring bands to come out in the last decade, Britain’s terminally precious alt-J and America’s ubiquitous classic rockers, are playing to tens of thousands. Meanwhile Tyler, the Creator is hollering nonsensically to a large throng of hip-hop fans at the other end of the grounds. After the sublime, low-key set by Banks, it feels like the perfect note to go out on.

Walking back towards the metro station at 10PM, past whatever generic din the Black Keys are playing, more and more people are deciding to do the same. After three days of music, partying, and who knows what else, the chatter is much more subdued than on Friday afternoon. Girls with dusty, flip-flopped feet slouch in seats, some dozing on their best friends’ shoulders. A group of boys banter around a handrail pole, clearly wishing the weekend, or their summers for that matter, won’t end. Subway doors open, kids shuffle out. Weary legs climb up the station steps, fueled only by the desire to return in 12 months to do it all over again.

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