Montreal‚ Quebec is a city that holds lots memories for me just like many other kids from the Northeast. Weekend benders with friends as a teenager‚ rugby matches against surly French-Canadian teams‚ run-ins with local thugs‚ and impromptu one-night road trips to see favorite bands are just a few of the experiences I've had in this city of the Great White North. So‚ when I read the hipster's wet dream of a lineup for the first annual Osheaga Festival several months back I quickly concluded that I'd have to make another trip north of the border. Big names like Sonic Youth‚ The Flaming Lips‚ Dinosaur Jr.‚ and Wolf Parade originally drew me in‚ but word-of-mouth buzz and online hype soon got me excited to see emerging Canadian acts like Tokyo Police Club‚ Metric‚ and The Hidden Cameras that are relatively unknown stateside.
The festival site consisted of four stages and a visual arts tent spread out across Parc Jean Drapeau. The park was built on an island just one Metro stop away from downtown in the St. Lawrence Seaway for the 1967 Montreal Expo and offered plenty of open space for frisbee tossing‚ tent pitching‚ and drum circling-but it wasn't that kind of festival. Instead‚ indie kids emerged from the subway station in droves clutching their messenger bags ready for a weekend of standing with their arms crossed and not dancing.
On Saturday afternoon I made it into the festival grounds in time to see Bush Tetras' set in its entirety over at the MEG Stage. As legends of the early eighties New York underground scene‚ the female-dominated Bush Tetras helped pour the foundation upon which the Riot Grrrl movement would later be built. Though they now look like they could be friends with my Mom‚ they performed an energetic and raucous set that got the crowd moving and garnered praise from Thurston Moore later on during the Sonic Youth show. With funky‚ slapped bass lines‚ growling rhythm guitar‚ and lots of cowbell these aging rockers at least sounded sexy.
After Bush Tetras I hustled over to the two main stages to catch Dinosaur Jr. starting off their set with "The Wagon" from Green Mind. I'm a recently converted Dino Jr. fan and this was my first time seeing them live. I tend to be somewhat skeptical of old bands' reunions‚ but there's nothing I like more to see a legendary band able to come back and still kick ass like they did. With whammy bar guitar solos galore‚ outrageously long gray hair‚ and the groan/shout dynamic of J. Mascis and Lou Barlow‚ the band absolutely killed it. The highlight of the set for me was their cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven."
Many of the bands at Osheaga were Montreal natives but few choose to write and sing in French like indie-rockers Malajube do. French is an official language in Quebec along with English but the majority of bands choose English in order to reach a larger fan base outside of their sparsely populated francophone province. This decision to stick with French strikes me as a pretty big statement about the band's identity in a time when bands from all over the world-Jens Lekman‚ Cansei de Ser Sexy‚ Bjork-turn to English to reach a larger audience. The thing about Malajube's performance was that it didn't matter whatsoever whether you understood what they were saying. They have the ability to move people just through sheer emotion in much the same way that Icelandic psychedelic art-rockers Sigur Rós can. Come to think of it‚ does it ever really matter what the artist is saying in a live performance? I certainly couldn't understand what the hell Damian Marley was saying later on during his show and he was speaking English.
Have you ever wondered what might happen if Debbie Harry of Blondie got together with Peaches and recorded an album full of songs that sound just like "Atomic" and all the other disco-tinged Blondie tracks? Well‚ the Emily Haines side project‚ Metric‚ is about as close as it gets. Miss Haines splits her time as the front woman of this Toronto disco-punk outfit and her duties in the "supergroup" Broken Social Scene. Metric are a lot like other bands in their genre except they've subtracted all the irony‚ hand claps‚ and cowbell‚ and replaced them with a cute singer and lots of angst. They also had the best Labor Day-themed song of the festival hands down in "Handshakes‚" in which Haines chants: "Buy this car to drive to work/drive to work to pay for this car." It was a delight to dance along with the masses to this band and jostle around in the photography pit for close up shots of the lovely Emily Haines.
At about 8:50 PM on Saturday I clapped my hands and said "what the fuck took so long?" as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah took the stage nearly forty minutes late. Alec Ounsworth and co. did not seem to care much about keeping thousands of their fans waiting as they finally shuffled onto the stage sipping on beers and stamping out cigarettes. The band have also apparently outgrown setting up their own gear because a half dozen roadies tuned instruments and set out full beers in the moments leading up to the show. So‚ I was already angry at one of my favorite bands before they started playing their same mediocre set that they took on the road last spring. The set consisted of virtually every song off their eponymous debut with all the best‚ most dance-worthy tracks ("Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away‚" "Skin of my Yellow Country Teeth") crammed into the beginning followed by a tapering off of energy towards the middle and end. The signature synth sounds were there‚ Ounsworth's bleating/moaning voice was there‚ and the I-can't-believe-it's-not-a-drum-machine beats from Sean Greenhalgh were there‚ but there was something missing which I couldn't quite figure out. I suppose that CYHSY are still just a young band and that they have yet to really polish their live show. Maybe they need more material to pull from‚ or they need to come down off their high horse‚ or maybe they don't need to do anything. I don't know. It may be after all that the imperfections‚ messed up guitar licks‚ and aloof stage presence are all things that make them who they are.
At 9:45 Saturday night the sky was finally pitch black‚ there was a noticeable chill in the air‚ and the festival grounds were quiet except for the Brazilian Girls wrapping up a short set over on the small MEG stage. There couldn't have been many people watching them though because it seemed as though all of Montreal showed up to see Sonic Youth play the River Stage. Subdued stage lighting cast the band in eerie shadows as they came on stage‚ and in the spirit of their poppy new album Rather Ripped they launched into "Teenage Riot" from Daydream Nation. The end of the first song brought SY's usual two minute feedback jam/freak out in which Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo engaged in a light saber duel of sorts with their guitars. The rest of the set included some noisy classics like the Sister album's "Catholic Block‚" but it was mostly made up of accessible new material from Rather Ripped which in my opinion is just as good as anything they've ever done. It was only my second time ever seeing the venerable Sonic Youth‚ but I couldn't help but notice the effect their live show tends to have on people. They have this ability to almost transfix people to the point that everyone is just rocking out awash in noise and feedback with a grin and a glazed look in their eyes. It was a great feeling to take with us as day one of Osheaga came to a close.
Sunday's band schedule unfortunately forced me to make some tough decisions on which bands to see. Call Me Poupee‚ Meligrove Band‚ Lady Sovereign‚ and Holy Fuck were all passed up for other shows‚ alas. However‚ I was fortunate enough to take in several excellent performances starting off with Tokyo Police Club on the festival's smallest stage-Scene des arbres-at three o'clock. These kids are from Toronto's suburbia and with their acne and shaggy hair look no older than eighteen or nineteen. Regardless of looks or age‚ these Canadian music geeks were one of my most anticipated bands of the day since they were added to the Osheaga roster. The much blogged about and hard to find debut EP A Lesson in Crime was recently pressed on Toronto's Paperbag Records and is a precocious offering that fed my desire to see them live. With infectious bass lines‚ Dave Monks' cocksure croon‚ and a sonic wall coming out of Graham Wright's keys‚ Tokyo Police Club drew one of the largest crowds this tiny stage had seen all weekend.
Wolf Parade are another brilliant Montreal band with whom I fell in love with after last year's release of their first LP‚ Apologies to the Queen Mary. One of the things that impresses me most about Wolf Parade is their humility and passion for music‚ which was made apparent Sunday afternoon when Spencer Krug was having problems with his keyboards. The band was clearly upset and made repeated apologies before finally starting the set with their shoddy keyboards. In spite of the malfunctioning equipment‚ these guys played their hearts out for us to make up for it‚ so I was actually almost grateful their stuff broke. They played virtually every song off the album with several new ones thrown in and alternated between singers Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. The sheer difference between Krug's nervous yelp and Boeckner's Boss-like tone brings a dynamic to the band that is better than anything they can do with their instruments. Notable tracks from the set included "Modern World‚" "Shine a Light‚" and arguably the best set-closing song of the festival (or of all time) "I'll Believe in Anything." At one point during the show‚ a girl standing next to me in the photographers' pit pointed and said to me "I know him." "Who‚ Spencer?" I asked. "Yeah‚ I took a writing workshop with him. He mentioned something about a band but I didn't know it was anything like this. He's a pretty good writer too." I didn't really know how to respond to that other than just agree that yes he is a damn good writer‚ and a very modest one at that.
After some wandering around and scoring free food at the media tent I headed over to the MEG Stage to check out The Hidden Cameras‚ yet another Toronto band that filled the stage with about ten people and churned out some excellent indie-pop with guitars‚ horns‚ violins‚ synthesizers‚ and percussion all swirling together behind singer-songwriter Joel Gibb. The Hidden Cameras however are not just another indie-pop band from Toronto by any means. Gibb unabashedly sings tales of gay sex in most songs in front of musical accompaniment that your five year old brother‚ mother‚ or grandma would dig. "Ban Marriage" is a good example of the singer's sexuality rearing its head in his writing: "Then I repeated my own vows‚ they were perverted and they smelled of myself / 'That there is splendour in the harshness of bum that consummation makes a grumble and the sound that I have learned called: Ban marriage!'" Much like fellow Toronto-ites Broken Social Scene‚ The Hidden Cameras somehow craft irreverent anthems of homosexual love that can be universally accepted.
In about an hour and a half of wandering between stages I was brought from Jamaica (sort of) to Montreal and back to Jamaica again (for real this time) through the performances of Bedouin Soundclash‚ The Belle Orchestre‚ and Damian Marley respectively. Bedouin Soundclash are a "street-reggae-soul" group from the Kingston‚ Ontario area and sound like a lot of the music that you'd hear coming out of Burlington bars and house parties at night. I've never been much of a fan of this kind of reggae adapted by white guys in North America and hence Bedouin's stuff didn't do much for me. The Belle Orchestre are a Montreal-based side project of Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufield from The Arcade Fire. Their style is sort of a take on chamber music with contemporary elements like synthesizers‚ keyboards‚ and handclaps thrown in. Upon heading back to the main stage area I found Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley already whipping up the crowd part way through his set. Marley drew a sizeable crowd that responded best when he dipped into his dad's material. "Exodus" and "Could You Be Loved?" were the crowd favorites. I also give extra points to Damian Marley for having the longest dreads I've ever seen and the coolest on stage entourage complete with background singers/dancers and a guy that just waves a big flag around.