To the letter, photos by Sébastien Kauffmann
When it comes to music festivals, the prevailing notion is that bigger is always better. After all, Osheaga made the switch from two to three days, while Coachella is now over two weekends, and both seem to be better for it in the court of public opinion.
Thankfully, the Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (better known as FMEAT or FME) is a different beast altogether. The annual fest, which this year celebrated its 10th birthday from Aug. 30–Sept. 2, is a de-facto retreat into cottage country for summer festival-fatigued Quebec music industry-types and artists, so instead of feeling like yet another pit stop on the estival festival itinerary, FME is an invigorating deep exhale in the crisp, dewey woods after three months of holding in particulate urban smog.
FME is an eight-hour drive or one-and-a-half hour flight away from Montreal, in the northwestern Quebec town of Rouyn-Noranda. Canada’s copper capital isn’t exactly scenic, as the copper refinery and its smokestacks are omnipresent and the adjoining lake, Osisko, is permanently polluted. But like the festival’s many Montreal-based attendees, the town itself feels as though it’s been dropped in the middle of the desolate Canadian shield to fend for itself. As such, there’s little else to do but get along and enjoy the music.
You may have never heard of the festival before, but you’ll undoubtedly recognize their two biggest anglo headliners: Feist and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The latter performed a late-night set in a dimly lit church that holds about 500 people—naturally the ideal place to witness the dystopic Montreal troupe at their loudest. The former held an outdoor set on the city’s main street in front of a modest crowd, and admittedly she didn’t quite have the drawing power of hotly tipped franco acts like Radio Radio and Lisa Leblanc.
As with any good festival though, FME’s line-up was diverse and peppered over various bars and clubs in the downtown’s handful of busy blocks. There were a few oddball acts from France present, including electropop Kitsune-signees Juveniles, and a healthy contingent of rappers (separatist stoner-schlubs Loco Locass retired their surprisingly not-so-dated hit “Liberez-nous des Liberaux”).
A trio of personal highlights: catching ebullient and effortless harmonizing sister duo les Soeurs Boulay whip patrons at a sweaty bar into a frenzy with an Avec pas d’casque cover, and watching Karkwa member Julien Sagot do something very un-Karkwalike: create an interesting, brooding, Quebec-noir ambience. Locals Organ Mood also transformed a back alley into an audiovisual dance party with colourful acetate projections.
The FME provided a wealth of acts to see at any given time without ever being overwhelming. For those interested in pulling all-nighters, the grimy, soon-to-be-eliminated artists camp a mile or two north was an alleged good time, and the downtown’s one pre-eminent 24-hour greasy spoon, Morasse, served up a decent no-frills poutine. There’s also something of a local music scene, which mostly involves middle-aged husband and wife duos mixing quétaine Quebec folk with the worst of the pre-copyright standards. There was an off-FME festival too, run out of a jilted punk rock group’s van.
At one point during the fest, I and a couple of others were trying to cut through a back alley, only to find it closed off by temporary fencing and a security guard. We hardly even needed to explain ourselves before the guard moved the fence aside, allowing us through. “Jamais de stress,” he said, which about summed up the festival in general. Hell, I only arrived at the airport for my return flight to Montreal 10 minutes before lift-off, and security found my panicked state most amusing.
Montreal has its giant omni-fests with every band under the sun, but Rouyn-Noranda’s big fest will always best us city slickers when it comes to providing a relaxed environment. It’s really the ideal way to end the summer. ■
See images from the festival below: