Looking back at Osheaga's early years‚ its lineup and vibe have been shaped by three main factors -- its indie rock fetish‚ its Montreal locale‚ and‚ as a young festival‚ its necessity to snatch up any and every artist it can‚ in hopes of appealing to as broad of an audience as possible. In its fifth year‚ I can safely say that Osheaga pushed every one of these factors further‚ for (mostly) better and (occasionally) worse. Indie rock royalty abounded‚ local artists from all genres played continuously‚ and oh yeah‚ Snoop Dogg was there for some reason too. Adding X-factors to the indie base created bizarre lineups‚ such as Sonic Youth opening for Weezer‚ but in the end it was the wildcards that kept the weekend fresh and ultimately kept me going. After all‚ even the biggest hipsters can appreciate a good bump and grind to "Gin & Juice" to break the monotony of standing in place for 10 hours‚ watching bands from Portland‚ Oregon two years before they inevitably break up (or put out a second album that sucks).
Day 1 -- Saturday‚ July 31st
Both reacquainting myself and introducing my companions to Parc Jean Drapeau‚ the weekend's initial hours were less oriented around specific performances and more oriented around exploring the festival grounds and its four stages. Set in a park filled with grassy hills and shade lending trees‚ it pays to get to Osheaga early and take in the area's natural beauty before the crowds show up. In the early going‚ I caught some melodic Brooklyn rock from The Walkmen at a main stage‚ scored some girlfriend points by lounging in the wooded shade of the Scene Des Arbres (Tree Stage) during Ingrid Michaelson‚ and caught the end of Owen Pallet's experimental mish-mosh of classical strings and electronic loops.
But the only group that made a lasting impression early on was Skip The Use‚ a hard partying bilingual outfit that dabbled freely in punk‚ funk‚ electronic and whatever else they felt like at any given moment. Being a French Canadian festival‚ Osheaga hosts plenty of francophone artists‚ but Skip The Use upped the foreign factor‚ traveling from their home country of France proper to kick the festival off with their bizarre‚ comical and always entertaining take on American punk rock. While the two-tone dreaded bassist actually passed quite nicely for an authentic punk in his Suicidal Tendencies t-shirt‚ the flamboyant vocalist Mat Bastard blew his cover with high energy interpretive flailing that was seldom punk enough for an American pit. They may have applied the term "punk" a bit loosely for purists -- a specific incident comes to mind‚ when Bastard told the audience he loved punk‚ thrashed through a three-chord headbanger‚ and ended it by exclaiming "Super!" with a lisp -- but Bastard's presence onstage and crowd involvement was unparalleled by any artist that followed as the weekend continued. His constant body freak outs‚ liberal borrowing of fan's hats and shades‚ and willingness to jump into the crowd to personally thank as many fans as he could‚ are some of the many reasons why Skip The Use's audience grew larger after every song they played. Their dabbling with electronic‚ funk and pop might make old school punks cringe‚ but catching such an proudly genre aping group was a fun and unexpected start to a weekend rife with bands from a more pretentious scene.
Next I caught Montreal natives Final Flash on my way back to the main stages. Everything I'd read about Final Flash had described them as a psychedelic folk outfit‚ but to me they sounded more like garage rock with a healthy dose of group jamming. I could tell that their collection of double necked guitars and keyboards was capable of creating dense arrangements‚ but it was hard to pick out the subtleties during their brief set.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were finishing up at a main stage as I arrived to find Jimmy Cliff's orange shirted stage crew setting up an assortment of bongos‚ trumpets and guitars nearby. I knew little about the Zeros‚ having only heard one of their songs in a car commercial. Dressed like recently un-cryogenically frozen flower children and as numerous as a midsized death cult‚ the pop collective partied like it was deliverance night. Their hairy male vocalist donned a white suit coat unbuttoned and sans shirt‚ while their female vocalist seemed abnormally fascinated with the way her hand looked pressed up against her face while she played tambourine. The music itself was fun‚ uplifting‚ sing along stuff‚ but they never engaged me enough to drink the punch myself‚ or buy a Ford Fiesta.
Being 62 and all‚ I was expecting recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Cliff's performance to be of the subdued sit down nature. But when he stepped on stage‚ strutting bright gold kicks and equally flashy moves‚ it was easy to see Jimmy hadn't lost a step in his twilight years. Matching old favorites about peace and joy with new songs about Afghanistan‚ and throwing in a cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" for good measure‚ Jimmy impressively kept pace with his tight backing band of young-uns. Adding dance solos to every guitar solo and even teaching the crowd Jamaican dance moves‚ Jimmy kept his audience fired up long after their first roaches burned out.
My Rasta vibes got the bumbaclaat treatment soon after‚ when Japandroids replaced my peace and goodwill toward humanity with ruthless distortion‚ the crashing cymbals of David Prowse‚ and the frequent use of the F word as a noun‚ verb and adjective from guitarist Brian King. Though the duo were in top form‚ barreling through fan favorites like "The Boys Are Leaving Town" and "Heart Sweats" with passion fueled group vocals and reckless abandon‚ the afternoon festival audience didn't seem to know how to react. Perhaps it was the group's muddled vocals and lack of a bass line structure that made the audience look like it was perpetually stuck in a group pencil dive‚ but I was expecting a bigger reaction to the two men who were so clearly thrashing their guts out onstage. Fortunately the audience didn't stop Prowse and King from persevering‚ ultimately getting at least half the crowd to move around and even earning some crowd surfers by the time they closed with "Young Hearts Spark Fire."
On paper I'd had dreams of effortlessly bouncing from band to band to band all day‚ but as the evening crowd approached‚ cold‚ hard‚ festival realities set in. I wanted to catch Avi Buffalo at the other end of the festival grounds‚ but my stomach had other plans for me. In need of sustenance‚ I regretfully spent a solid 90 minutes waiting -- waiting in line for food‚ waiting in line for the bathroom‚ and waiting to meet my sister before Pavement. Stars and Keane could be heard from the main stages as I waited‚ but I had definitely lost all momentum‚ opting to ignore all of the great bands just waiting to be discovered to get a better spot for Pavement and Arcade Fire. In retrospect‚ I can't say I regret the move.
Over a year ago I bought Pavement reunion tickets for the group's first announced shows in New York -- shows that won't be happening until the end of September. And while I was ecstatic at the chance to finally see my beloved Box Elders a month and a half earlier‚ their non-headlining‚ hour long set felt like merely a preview‚ unable to fully satiate my appetite for a piece of my youth. I had dreamed of this moment for years‚ and it felt surreal to see Stephen Malkmus casually stroll on stage and say "We're Pavement‚ and it's 1996 all over again‚" before easing into "Gold Soundz." Though they proudly played the anthems of '96‚ the group's decade of growing musically outside of Pavement gave them a tighter‚ cleaner sound without completely childproofing the rough edges that made Pavement so loveable in the first place. From the get go‚ Pavement lived up to the hype‚ largely due to the antics of percussionist/screamer/wildcard Bob Nastanovich. Rambunctiously beating a second drum kit and offering less than harmonic backing vocals‚ Nastanovich injected the energy and messiness of a cafeteria food fight into otherwise studio loyal renditions from the group's back catalogue. Less of an instrumental game changer and more of a hype man‚ Nastanovich thrived playing Flava Flav to Malkmus' Chuck D. The reunion set lived up to my dreams for a full song and a half‚ until some punk dropped every jaw in the audience by clocking Malkmus in the head with a beer halfway through "Stereo." In shock at the tragedy I'd just witnessed‚ I was relieved to see Malkmus finish the song rather than storming off stage‚ though he was understandably quiet in between songs for the next 15 minutes or so. Recovering tactfully‚ Malkmus returned to later joke about being so excited for Arcade Fire that he thought he'd shit his pants‚ and made light of the beer incident after "Spit On A Stranger." The set's second half packed in hits like "Summer Babe" and "Cut Your Hair‚" and also gave Spiral Stairs a chance to take the reins on "Kennel District." And in spite of the aforementioned incident‚ Pavement actually played longer than their allotted set‚ treating the crowd to the manic‚ Nastanovich-heavy "Two States‚" and somber closer "Here" after their scheduled hour was up. When the group left the stage‚ I read bassist Mark Ibold's lips as he told Malkmus "that was bullshit." Though I'm bummed to think the group were probably having a crappy time‚ their resilience impressed‚ and I can't wait to catch them in their own element‚ when they're given the time to dig deeper into their songbook.
The National followed‚ performing on a stage directly to the right of Pavement‚ and I'm embarrassed to say that I remained so close to the Pavement stage (blocked in by Arcade Fire fans pushing for a spot) that I could scarcely hear The National at such a sharp angle. From what I did hear‚ the moody Brookylnites poured out sentimental live takes‚ drawing primarily from this year's High Violet and sprinkling in a few older songs for good measure. Though I sacrificed a quality vantage point for the spectacle to follow‚ The National still impressed‚ always finding a way to make the depressing sound beautiful. In perfect synchronicity on new standouts like "Terrible Love" and "Afraid of Everyone‚" the only thing more depressing than the band's songs was the fact that I couldn't fully appreciate them.
The night closed with hometown heroes Arcade Fire‚ and although I not so secretly resented them for winning the lengthy headlining set over Pavement‚ I must confess that they fully deserved it. Enhanced by a billboard-esque jumbo screen‚ a stunning light show‚ buckets of confetti and even a few fireworks‚ the true spectacle of the Arcade Fire experience was the multi-instrumentalist musicians themselves. At the time they hadn't yet released their new album The Suburbs‚ but that didn't stop fans from singing along to opener "Ready To Start" and the several other suburban songs that followed. Leading his miniature orchestra through inspired takes of "Laika‚" "No Cars Go‚" and "Rebellion (Lies)‚" it was impressive watching front man Win Butler and his cohorts swap keyboards‚ guitars‚ drums‚ violins and accordions regularly. A refreshing change of pace from the media tradition of focusing on one musician as a band's star‚ Butler frequently slipped to the back of the stage to offer keyboard support‚ allowing others in his band‚ like Arcade Fire's other lead vocalist Regine Chassagne‚ to showcase their skills. While the group's studio material is layered‚ it is visually and aurally mind blowing to witness every instrument and detail of every song performed in real time. And the several Suburbs songs the group debuted‚ many for the first time ever‚ spoke well to the bands' longevity and ability to escape the overwhelming shadow of their breakthrough second album Neon Bible. Closing the night with the young romance tale "Tunnels" and Chassignes' 80s drenched‚ electronic standout "The Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)‚" Arcade Fire left me with the glow of success and fulfillment at a time when the festival was only half over.
Day 2 -- Sunday‚ August 1st
It was probably only 5 or 6 degrees warmer on day two of Osheaga‚ but on the windless‚ dusty flatlands near the festival's main stages‚ those five degrees and yesterday's fatigue made a world of difference. I caught New Orleans Jazz-Funk outfit Galactic from the shade of the lightshow control structure before retreating to a cool spot beneath a tree on the main stage hill. Normally I would have felt bad about standing still during such an energetic performance (see Japandroids above)‚ but I was on the brink of dehydration as it was‚ so dancing wasn't a logical option. But after a long day of rock‚ it was nice to start Sunday off with saxophones‚ trombones‚ bongos‚ and a drummer that could play tambourine as he kept the beat.