46 Years in the Making: A Festival d'été de Québec 2013 Review

posted by Laura Baker-Finch on July 12, 2013

Photo: Weezer at Festival d'été de Québec 2013 by Laura Baker-Finch

Québec City, Canada -- After leaving the bright lights of New York City to descend upon the mountain-enclosed airstrip of the Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport, I got that specific, all-to-familiar lightness that lifts me every time I’m somewhere new. Québec City, the French-speaking Capital of the eponymous province, may only be an hour and a half ExpressJet flight away from Newark Airport, but the city’s culture and history evoke a more European atmosphere, one that you’d assume would take at least six hours to reach.

So as I drove the twenty minutes from customs to the Hilton, I made use of my friendly escort to have a few of my questions answered and fears quelled – most notably, the language. How will an English, semi-Spanish speaker be received in a city that has a mere 1.5% who count English as their mother tongue and enforced laws requiring all immigrants to send their children to French-speaking schools? I was assured to “be comfortable” and to use ‘bonjour,’ ‘merci,’ and ‘s’il vous plait’ as much as possible, “they’ll appreciate it.” After my three-night stay, I can confirm she wasn’t just being polite. The official language may be French and I may have butchered even the basic of phrases, but the people of Québec City were never condescending, never rude – I can’t say for sure they weren’t annoyed, but they didn’t show it. Rather than being scoffed, I was treated as a novelty, used for the Quebecois to practice their English.

In it’s 46th year, Festival D’été de Québec has made many strides from an event to show the artistic, economic, and touristic potential of the province with Francophone musicians to a festival with international headliners and diversified genres. Last year drew 345,300 people with a total of 1,360,660 entries over the 11-day span. This year boasts 300 shows, 10 stages – including the new Bell stage, the largest self-standing stage in Canada – and 11 days of music.

Yet despite these numbers and such a well-rounded (genre-wise) and well-represented (country-wise) lineup – this year’s headliners include Stevie Wonder, Tiësto, Weezer, and Def Leppard - the festival hadn’t hit my radar until this year. My airport escort shed some light on the situation.

While Québec City brings in many international tourists in the summer months that occasionally “stumble” upon the festival, the majority of attendees come from the city itself or from one to two hours away, 18% of which scheduled their vacations to be able to attend the event. But with its $76 pass and convenient timing around the 4th of July holiday, there’s no reason the festival can’t become a more international affair – if only for North Americans. This is exactly what the festival has started to both strive and achieve since headliners, in the US-sense of the word, began to be booked in 2007.

After you read the review below, check out our Full FEQ Facebook Photo Gallery.

Night One: Sunday, July 7

I decided to begin my first night with an artist popular in French-Canadian and trying to branch out into English – the opposite of what I was attempting. Yet despite his recent English release, Xavier Caféine proved the ideal intro into popular Quebecois music. In 1997, Caféine not only referred to Xavier, but to his band as a whole with which he released three albums. In 2006, Xavier left the group for a solo career, though one that still uses his surname, with Gisèle. Unwilling to stay stagnant, Caféine moved from group artist, to solo star, to English-language sensation with New Love released earlier this year.

While the 100,000-capacity lawn of the humungous Bell Stage had not quite filled before his set, Caféine performed as though the crowd was trifold, addressing his fans in French and then diving right into a song from his aforementioned English release. Obviously comfortable on stage, Caféine didn’t hit his stride until the language of his crowd banter and that of his songs met. The front row sang along once songs off Bushido were sung, and the energy on stage followed suit.

To continue my night of Quebecois contemporary music, I made my way down the cliff of Québec, passed Metal band Voivod’s fans, fists in the air, and into Lower Town for Modern Primitive at Impérial de Quebec.

The gold ornamentation and two floors of this 1900s-movie-theater-turned-music-venue was a grand affair for Québec’s own guitar-driven quintet. Modern Primitive have self-released three EPs since forming in late 2011 and that drive translates on stage as the group manages to be tight while allowing for the looseness and playfulness that continues to make Alternative Rock so appealing.

After a whiskey ginger, set change, and a push to the front of the stage with my fellow photographers, Young Galaxy eased the audience in with a dream-like, jam-pop beginning to what was to be a festival favorite set. As lyrics came into the equation, the time for easing in ended as Catherine McCandless’ strong voice and quirky-yet-graceful dance moves built the crowd into a joint movement. The momentum continued throughout the hour despite a mic chord malfunction during “Pretty Boy,” a song Stephen Ramsay dedicated to “all the transvestites in the audience.” While McCandless was the only member sans instrument – at least one that requires more than one hand – she was far from the only one dancing, both on stage and off.

Young Galaxy was definitely a great new discovery to add to my playlist and the band members themselves seemed just as excited to discover so many fans at the Impérial, both seeming surprised on stage and greeting the crowd in the lobby before and during The Raveonettes.

As the only non-Canadians on my to-see list Sunday night, I felt like a cheat seeing The Raveonettes. But I wasn’t going to let the circumstance deter me from the Denmark-based band’s set.

The duo (touring trio) kept speaking to a minimum but shredding to an all time high to make up for the dynamism Young Galaxy took with them from the stage. Their punk-influenced, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and choruses juxtapose the overlaid, danceable beats, which then together contrast the subdued vocals of both Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo.

All three remained fairly stationary during their set, but no movement was needed as the audience let their music waft over them accompanied by a subtly synched light show that infused every beat and tone.

I head out of the venue during The Raveonettes’ last song to wind my way back to Upper Town in search of Poutine, a classic Canadian dish of French fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy – the Canadian cheese fries – that was recommended to me by everyone I met. Traditionally a non-vegetarian meal, I was assured there’d me a meatless version somewhere. Yet after multiple rejections and stares of confusion, I put my hopes of a local meal aside and settled for a local beer instead.

Night Two: Monday, July 8

Monday’s edition of FEQ followed a more pop-centric theme, compared to the French-Canadian one of the previous evening, with sets from Diamond Rings, Ellie Goulding, and Bruno Mars on the main Bell Stage and the ElectroFEQ-curated night down in the Impérial.

By the time I entered the park for Diamond Rings, the crowd had far surpassed that of the previous evening at the same time, with a high concentration of teenage girls and middle-aged women, not surprising considering the lineup (Moms Love Bruno Mars). Yet as John O’Regan, aka Diamond Rings, lankily skipped on stage, it became clear the audience wasn’t just there to get a prime BM position.

With his mauve lipstick, bleach blonde pouf, studded leather vest, and red-templed sunglasses, Diamond Rings made use of the stage, pacing to-and-fro and gesturing his lyrics – until he picked up his guitar, that is. As he had done for Robyn on her last tour, Diamond Rings had the crowd warmed up for UK darling Ellie Goulding to take to the stage – which she did 15 minutes late and in a cut-up 86 jersey.

Sexy blonde singer in short shorts, playing a floor tom while a talented, all-male backing band (plus a backing vocal track) play behind her – I didn’t paint a new picture, did I? But Ellie Goulding brings something else to the stage – her signature breathy, near-raspy voice and her songs that can only be described as catchy. Ellie’s whole persona leaves fans hopeful and inspired, two feelings so in demand the crowd was chanting “Ellie!” (French: el-i) and letting out bloodcurdling screams for her to approach the mic stand.

When she did, expectations were surpassed. Lyrics were belted, beats were jumped, pelvises were thrusted, and hair was tossed all before opening tracks “Don’t Say a Word” and “Animal” were completed. During the third song, “Starry Eyed,” Ellie, who claimed to be “a bit shy,” proceeded to slowly slide her microphone down the front of her tiny black shorts, in true Karen O fashion. The audience was hooked, although parents a bit worried (what have I brought my daughter to?), and Ellie jumped through hit after hit.

The language barrier inhibited responses to Ellie’s attempted crowd interaction, “who wants to get moving, get their blood pumping?”, yet no vocal response was needed as the audience complied as soon as the first “e-e-e Ee-e e-e-e Ee-e” (c’mon, you know what I’m talking about) of “Anything Can Happen” echoed from the drum pad through the speakers.

I wouldn’t call myself a Bruno Mars ‘hater,’ but wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’ either. That being said, I was curious to see the artist constantly hailed as “a born performer” who would be closing out the Bell Stage after Ellie Goulding Monday night. However, my desire to see Austra perform, plus the chance of rain, made the indoor Impérial venue more appealing.

Austra began their set the same way they did their June 18 release, Olympia, with “What We Done?” – an ideal track that introduces the group’s playful combination of Katie Stelmanis’ operatic vocal range, drummer Maya Postepski’s harmonies, and their electronic, pop beats. I’ve often drawn parallels between Stelmanis’ sound and that of fellow classically trained vocalist, Florence Welch (of + The Machine), occasionally questioning which band I am listening to when in a daze. This connection was only furthered Monday night as Stelmanis gracefully struck every note, particularly during March’s single “Home” and Olympia’s “Reconcile,” in which the similarities are strikingly clear.

Where the two differ is in stage presence and dancing style. While Florence sticks to the mic and grasps upwards, Stelmanis’ moves oscillated between the tootsie roll (when at her keyboard) and step 2 of the knock-knees dance move characteristic of The Charleston (When moving about stage).

Night Three: Tuesday, July 9

My final night at Festival d’été de Québec snuck up on me before I had fully experienced all that the historic city had to offer. The festival’s program took place each evening, with the occasional artist sprinkled in during the afternoon, making FEQ ideal for music discovery as well as city exploration. Yet even after spending three days walking around the old quarter of the city, attending exhibits, fumbling to speak to shopkeepers, and having my full of local eateries, I had pages left on my to-do list – enough to last the entire 11-day festival.

That being said, I can’t say I was sad the final night had come, not because it meant I was leaving the next day, but because of the night’s Bell Stage headliner, Weezer. But before I was giddy in a photo pit as Rivers Cuomo sound checked his own guitar, I spent my evening at the Loto-Québec Stage in Francophonie Park for Bears of Legend and Justin Townes Earle.

The smaller outdoor venue proved ideal for the folk tunes of both bands as a decent-sized crowd perched themselves on the slight slope overlooking the stage or huddled close to the barrier. Bears of Legend graced the stage first, and treated the audience to dreamy tunes that utilize all seven members’ unique talents and instruments – in addition to guitars, bass, and drums, a xylophone, accordion, keyboard, cello, and wooden flute were also present. These instruments paired with David Lavergne’s soft lyrics and the occasional a capella choruses of the group took the country twang out of the genre in favor of a more atmospheric element.

Between BoL and the next act, Justin Townes Earle, I made a pit stop at the free Hydro-Québec stage to hear the ElectroFEQ-curated lineup of electronic-meets-world-music acts while interacting with the festival’s street performers wondering the old city. With Mexico’s 3Ball MTY as my soundtrack, I got up close and personal with the larger than life, deer-like Poupées (K)rinkées and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee modeled Les sCHNOUTEs.

Justin Townes Earle turned both the country and charm dials up as he took to the stage, though the latter was unfortunately lost on the francophone crowd. Son of celebrated singer-songwriter Steve Earle, Justin has had quite the shadow to step out from underneath, a feat he has managed to do so in the four albums since his 2007 EP Yuma.

Earle infuses his country folk with a blues element, something he celebrated on stage Tuesday, cheering to the audience, “here’s to getting blues and country back together” and instilling a brief history lesson on the pair’s relationship. Normally not a huge country fan, I found the set to hit the perfect balance and avoid garishness. Perhaps it was the blues-country combo, or maybe it was simply Earle’s talent both as a musician and songwriter. As he described a song’s ability to be about nothing before testing out a new song on the crowd, Earle stated “You have to give credit to the artist.” All credit goes to you.

To close out the night, and my first FEQ experience, I made may way over to the Plains of Abraham, delved into the photo pit, and peered up at the immense Bell stage to find my ideal angle one more time. Yet it managed to feel different, I wasn’t at this stage to shoot a band I was just introduced to (Caféine, Diamond Rings) or a relatively new artist (Ellie Goulding). I was there to shoot Weezer, Weezer!. A band that has not only established themselves over a two decade career, not only sold over 10 million albums (at least 8 of those courtesy of yours truly), but a band that I’ve loved for years (who doesn’t?) yet never managed to see. It’s not like they live under a rock either, Weezer constantly tour, host their own cruise festival, and have one of the most dedicated fan bases out there.

So where did I go wrong? How have I not see them live? Am I the one who lives under the rock? I may not have any answers to these questions, expect the last one, but I do know that all these elements together made for one very giddy photographer – yet I knew I wasn’t alone. Weezer drew the most crowded pit I had seen at FEQ, and the most excited as well. Photographers discussed favorite Weezer moments, shooting techniques to account for the giant Weezer W on the monitor, and preemptive Weezer sing-a-longs.

I staked out my starting position in between where Rivers Cuomo and Brian Bell would begin, and patiently awaited their arrival to the stage. Weezer adores their fans as much as they do them, and both parties showed it as soon as Rivers, Patrick Wilson, Brian, and Scott Shriner took to the stage. Fans crowd surfed and displayed their Weezer Hands high, the band responded with “My Name is Jonas,” the opening track of their self-titled debut album from 1994.

Hit after hit rolled by from there as Weezer exclaimed, “we’re off to a great start,” and promised, “I can guarantee your socks will be rocked off.” Spoiler alert, they were. Weezer made sure to play all the crowd favorites (“Buddy Holly,” “Say it Ain’t So,” “Hash Pipe”) while still throwing in a few newer tracks for good measure. While no song missed the mark, “Beverly Hills” sent all 70,000+ attendees into a frenzy. The crowd head banged in unison creating a sea of too perfect, choppy waves screaming the famed Hollywood destination on the top of their lungs.

“Any song with an American city or state name in it is bound to top the charts in Québec,” duly noted.

Throughout their set, Weezer kept the fans involved, asking “That metal kid right there” how to say “zoom in on the beard in French” and slowly singing a story to introduce “Island in the Sun” – “Remember where you come from, you know what I’m talking about? Good, because I don’t know what I’m talking about. It is just me, Weezer, and you people… on an island…”

Time hadn’t changed the band’s stage-crowd banter, which songs were loved, or the onstage antics of the four. What had changed was Brian Bell. Sure all members had noticeably aged a little, but Bell had taken on the persona that his sparkly, lightning bolt-shaped guitar evokes. With his longer-than-normal black locks and fitted, checkered suit, Bell was rocking a Snape-meets-Jack-White look in stark contrast to Cuomo’s standard, never-failing sweater, stickered teal stratocaster, and black-rimmed glasses combination.

After the last “I don’t care ‘bout that” was echoed to end “Buddy Holly,” Weezer left the stage to a crowd chanting both “Weezer” and the “Olé Olé Olé” chant usually reserved for the end of sporting events.

While the encore itself wasn’t a surprise – roadies were retuning guitars to their stands and checking cable connections – the chosen song, and surprise guests were.

Weezer took to the stage once again to the tune of MGMT’s “Kids,” a song they failed to play during their pre-Weezer set on the same stage. Well this is cool, Weezer will sing the song since MGMT didn’t, I thought. This was the case for the first quarter of what is arguably MGMT’s most popular single until Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden came out to join Cuomo in the chorus. Screams of approval, flashes of iPhone cameras, and hugs on stage ensued until the two waved goodbye and left Weezer to finish their encore with “Undone.”

The crowd joined in on one last above-ground mosh pit – I’m referencing an unusually high concentration of crowd surfers here – as Cuomo, Bell, and Shriner joined Wilson on the drums to bring the Sweater Song, and my FEQ experience, to a close.

I awoke the next morning with Weezer in my head, where they remained for the rest of my journey back to New York City.

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See Also:

Photo Gallery: Weezer, Justin Townes Earle, Bears of Legend at FEQ
Photo Gallery: Ellie Goulding, Diamond Rings, and Austra at FEQ
Photo Gallery: The Raveonettes, Young Galaxy, Modern Primitive, and Caféine at FEQ