The view from the hill. All photos by Cindy Lopez unless otherwise indicated.
The 10th anniversary edition of Montreal’s one and only mega summer music fest Osheaga lit up Parc Jean-Drapeau from July 29 to 31, drawing nearly 50,000 people to the sprawling site each day, with a solid line-up of rock bands, rappers and DJs getting loud enough for St-Lambert to hear — lucky them! Our team spread out across the fields to bring you comprehensive coverage — see our band photo gallery here and our style photo gallery here, and read on for our annual Osheaga Top 20.
We begin with a flashback…
Once upon a time in a world without mega-fests, a touring carnival of rag-tag alties, punks, funk freaks, goths and rappers descended on Parc Jean Drapeau — known as Ile Ste-Hélène back then — for one of my first big concert experiences, and certainly the first fest of its nature to hit town: Lollapalooza, then an annual tour.
It was 1994, I was 16, and that shit changed my life, period. The anticipation from the moment my friends and I picked up our tickets in May to showtime on July 27 of that year was the stuff of coming-of-age films. I remember the single main stage (never even looked for the smaller one) and its dusty, rocky standing area that would, later that day, serve as my mosh pit boot camp. I remember a couple of modest beer tents and being stoked that they weren’t carding. I remember getting sold Jamaican gum for some outlandish price by a guy who just went “take it or leave it,” and then my dozen or so friends being really glad I had taken it. I also remember not knowing what the fuck to even do with it, but fate sorted itself out.
Me and my friends chilled, discovering and/or taking in the likes of Nick Cave, George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars and A Tribe Called Quest, from a scenic if dusty vantage point. We waited on the steep, grassy hill, which today stands iconically emblazoned each summer with an image recognized by festival enthusiasts the world over, those seven letters music fans love to wrap our lips around: Osheaga.
I remember that Nirvana would have headlined if not for the tragic beginning of spring, 1994. I remember leaving shortly after the capacity crowd gathered for an out-of-tune, self-depreciating experience with the Smashing Pumpkins, show-closers who refused to play their first gaggle of radio hits with any emotion in exhibitionist “we don’t care to sell out our art” brat fashion. Some pretended to like it, others surely adored it. I peaced and beat the metro rush. Early pro points.
Flea and Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers
Day one of this year’s annual escape from reality was tailored to people like me. Lollapalooza tour vets Cypress Hill and the Red Hot Chili Peppers arc several generations at this point, and if you feel old when people mention festivals, you only had to look around and see the kids of all ages — from the fat and bald to the fresh and bold — singing along to every word of the monsoon of hits these two bands share between them.
The weird part was, for me, I’d never seen the band, both of whom I’ve been listening to since before my voice cracked. So for a fan from my time and place, Friday was extra-special, a full circle experience that made me remember 16-year-old Darcy and go, “You were on the right track, dude.”
Cypress Hill, around the supper hour, did what they do best: bust loud clacks, whomping basslines and thug raps. They’re pros, well past fudging the technical minutiae that can take the steam out of a rap show, and they barely stopped banging, other than to bring in some crowd participation, packing in 25 years worth of hits and anthems into a powerful stage show. Weird that it was my first Hill show, but it won’t be my last.
The Chilis, meanwhile, are like U2 with street cool, or Bon Jovi with an attitude.They have that body of music that you just can’t take away from them, no matter what you think of it. I love them but have to admit that as a long, longtime fan, their big shiny radio tunes, while good, will never be the same as the raw, jagged jams the band touched me with in my childhood. It’s not a case of “Oh, they were better when…” or some “the older stuff is cooler, maaaan” shit. It’s just, they might as well be two different bands. They’ve had nine lives and counting, and what stood out as the most remarkable, while they knocked out one classic radio song after another, is that there isn’t even room for all the big charting songs, let alone deep catalogue stuff. Doesn’t matter. These guys are pros and this was far and away the biggest and best rock ’n’ roll show Osheaga has ever seen. (Darcy MacDonald)
Old-school indie rock
Indie rock is in a strange place these days. As a musical style, it’s always been a big-umbrella category, attributed broadly to any act with guitars and counter-mainstream aesthetics. But lately, with the downturn of heavy guitar sounds (outside of punk and metal) and the ascent of synthey fluff, there’s a lot of sub-standard ’80s-style pop that’s passing for indie rock — it’s more Phil Collins and Hall and Oates than the Smiths or Husker Dü, and they’re not doing it ironically.
Bethany Cosentino (front) of Best Coast
So it’s nice to see acts like Best Coast and Kurt Vile staying true to what indie rock used to be in the ’90s, when guitars were loud and lyrics were dominated by quirky narratives and clever turns of phrase. Vile’s sound can be traced back further than the ’90s, but even when he’s rocking a banjo, he’s clearly part of the Pavement lineage — a less shit Mac DeMarco. Best Coast have a harder sound, especially live, that’s reminiscent of the time when shoegazing and riot grrrl co-existed, and bands like the Breeders and Elastica were presenting an alternative to grunge. (Lorraine Carpenter)
At your service
I’ve probably said this before and I hope I’ll always be able to say it again: Osheaga is a nice place. The staff are sweet, smiling and helpful, whether selling ice cream, scanning bracelets, surveying mosh pits or helping out the, uh, disoriented. There are people who literally stand on their feet in the same place for eight, 10 or 12 hours at a time and don’t lose their cool, ensuring crowd control without crowding us, either.
As a result, the atmosphere of respect and fun that permeates a crowd of 45,000, over the course of three 11-hour-plus days of festivities defines the Osheaga experience as one of general good will, the odd douche be damned.
My good friend from another media outlet happened to witness a fence-hop attempt wherein five shirtless bros climbed over, got spotted by Evenko staff, and got chased out by the tail of their pants, one of them apparently deciding security were “cowards” for doing their job, yelling back over his shoulder as he ran away like a brave person would, I suppose.
I saw a pic and the whole thing sounds cartoon-esque, but we thank the entire team for keeping Osheagans safe, healthy and happy all weekend long. (DM)
Yes! The dudes from B.C. who made Montreal their home and got signed to Sub Pop back in 2004 played their adopted-hometown comeback show at Osheaga on Friday, before their full-on midnight gig at Corona (which must have been sick). Co-band-leaders Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have done great things with new acts since Wolf Parade split up in 2011 (most recently Operators and Moonface, respectively), but this band is a sentimental favourite, especially for people who were deep into the Montreal scene a decade ago.
They kicked it off with “I Am a Runner,” the awesome lead track off their debut album Apologies to the Queen Mary, which they revisited several times during the set, but they also gave the audience a taste of their new material (EP 4, aka Wolf Parade), which is not only just as good as their old stuff, but shows impressive evolution and growth from their 2010 record Expo 86. The band played hard and had fun, and appeared pleased with the response from the green-stage crowd. Krug mentioned being hungover, but it didn’t show, and given that the set was at happy hour, there wasn’t any of the on-stage drunkenness and in-fighting you might remember from back in the day. They’re pros now! It’s a good look. (LC)
Saturday hip hop
Future was the big name in turn-up rap at Osheaga 2016. When DJ Esco stepped on the Green stage and asked if we were ready for Future, he wasn’t kidding. The “Low Life” singer, known for mumbling and rasping cool-sounding nothings over hot club beats, took the stage about 25 minutes later and by my watch cut things a few minutes short. The kids loved it, but as far as spectacle went, this was just a good place to go roll and dance with shiny lights and heavy hits. The LaRonde fireworks added a touch of magic, but all in all this was more memorable as a party than a concert.
I haven’t been the biggest supporter of Jazz Cartier and I didn’t actually watch his set, but I could hear him on the Valley stage for about 15 minutes before Future. He had a very healthy crowd out and it sounded great — the energy I’ve heard about but hadn’t seen with my own eyes was palpable across the field. I’m giving the TO upcomer another shot.
Local beat giant and XL artist Kaytranada — while not hip hop by definition — tore up the Piknic Electronik stage for a Saturday evening set that started a little too claustrophobically for me, but after the sun set, some and the crowd found its space to dance and let go, and I returned for the last half hour and enjoyed one of my weekend’s better dance workouts.
Further intel has it that mid-tier indie-ish hip hoppers Logic and Post Malone gave pleasing sets to their devoted fan bases, but I was busy interviewing Australian crew Hiatus Kaiyote about their fractured math-jazz. More on that in a moment. (DM)
I told you the Tree stage was gonna be the place to be at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, and it really was. The Aussie four-piece, fronted by the angelically psychedelic Nai Palm and her stunning vocal range, turned Osheaga into a kinda flower-child jazz joint, where fans had enough space to move our limbs in time to their signature off-times, which, yes, does make for some pretty funny white-people dancing. Their grooves set the pace for my day, and I got to hang out and talk to them about beats, time and Aussie life. See my interview here. (DM)
Coeur de Pirate
Alternating between Coeur de Pirate 1.0 — Beatrice sat at her piano singing smart, sincere ballads — and CDP 2.0 — Beatrice dancing and striking dramatic poses as she sings (sometimes in the language of Shakespeare, by which I mean English) — this festival showcased a talented singer-songwriter who’s become an effective performer, with pop aspirations that feel more natural than forced. The crowd at the valley stage was a gathering of fans and curious newbs, some of the latter perhaps drawn in by recent revelations that have made the news. If being queer propels CDP to a new audience and generates enough buzz to foist her to cult-level fame internationally (where, say, Lykke Li was at for a while), then so be it. We can share her. (LC)
Lana Del Rey
It took me awhile to appreciate Lana Del Rey. Her history of career false starts, physical and sonic remodelling and a heavily funded rise to fame, not to mention her weak early live performances and spotty first album, don’t amount to a very rock ‘n’ roll story — it’s not genuine, calling into question whether her uniformly gloomy lyrics have any basis in reality. But you don’t need to be working-class to be depressed, and furthermore you don’t need to be real enough for rock ‘n’ roll (or hip hop) to fill the weird pop niche that she’s working with.
If Nancy Sinatra had Marilyn Monroe’s life — not so much Marilyn the movie star, but Marilyn the rich bitch on pills, with a family history of mental illness — that would make for some pretty classic pop music, and that’s what Lana Del Rey (or the character she’s playing) is about. Not to make light of a drug crisis, but her languid torch songs might be the soundtrack for the heroin epidemic in the States, the way that late ’90s Southern hip hop reflected the cough-syrup high that was (and maybe still is) the popular “drank” of the day. “Summertime Sadness” indeed.
But despite her music’s depressive core, there’s beauty and glamour in it — that’s how she gets you, and that’s how it actually works in a festival setting. Accompanied by a rock band and back-up singers who doubled as actors (you couldn’t really call what they were doing “dancing” — they were more like human props), Del Rey sounded as good as she looks. Of course, corners of the Internet claim her voice is as fake as various parts of her body, but if that’s the case, it’s impossible to tell, and really, so be it — it’s working. (LC)
Beats by day
Born in small-town Pennsylvania, schooled in Providence, RI and now a resident of NYC, James Hinton is a DJ/producer who’s notable as a recording artist — the latest of his three LPs, The Potential, is made up of samples culled from 200 hours of YouTube videos. Live, he doesn’t fall back on EDM clichés — his sound is more influenced by Baltimore club music, punctuated by perfectly integrated vocal samples — but he knows how to elicit the same kind of response from a crowd that you might see at a Skrillex show: cheering, jumping, hooting and dancing, in this case under the sun at the Piknic stage.
That was on Saturday, but on Sunday the space was taken over by locals le Matos, playing later than scheduled due to an unfortunate no-show by Synapson. The crowd, many of whom may not have known about the schedule change, were won over by a style of synth music that’s far from your average club fare: They’re heavily inspired by ’80s movie soundtracks by composers like Vangelis and John Carpenter, and while this can make for a bit of a slow burn by club standards, in the mid-afternoon it was a winner with a crowd that seemed to appreciate alternative beats. (LC)
Osheaga has often showed off its spiritual side with Sunday afternoon soul/gospel-type acts. Charles Bradley and Aloe Blacc come to mind as recent-ish examples, but this year one of the biggest breakout artists of the past year came to cleanse our souls. Sporting a “Texas Gentleman” T-shirt and backed by a seven-piece review-style band, the butter-voiced “Better Man” crooner shook, rattled and rolled his way through a set that included pieces from last year’s Coming Home, some older numbers, but sadly no “Take Me to the River,” which one would have thought might be the logical closer, especially on the River stage. Ah well, no complaints. Bridges’ blues under any arrangement are relatably our own, and huge mainstage crowd shook the devil off under the beautiful Sunday sky, all smiles. (DM)
A much-needed new fountain by the Green stage. Photo by Lorraine Carpenter
There’s a lot of different terrain on Ile Ste-Hélène (yes, that’s what it’s called, I don’t care what anyone says), some of it rocky, some of it rubbery, some of it grassy, most of it grimey. Experienced Osheaga attendees know that your choice of footwear is pretty key to having a good time at the festival. As much as girls in cowboy boots make me shudder (so ROC), I’ve got to appreciate their practicality.If you’re sporting softer shoes, like ever-popular Keds or (God forbid) sandals or flip-flops, they should be expendable — even when it doesn’t rain at Osheaga (and it didn’t this time, but it usually does, at least for a few minutes), your shoes are on the front line of island grime.
At certain points during the weekend, so much dirt was kicked up that large groups of people appeared to be walking through a cloud of the stuff, and by the middle of each day, your eyes are dry, your exposed skin is coated with a fine layer of dust and you can taste it. We’ve all blown darkness out of our noses, or woken up with (as Darcy puts it) spider boogers, and no free H&M bandana is going to protect you adequately. Hopefully the island isn’t made of something poisonous left over from Expo 67, cause that would not be a pretty class-action situation. (LC)
You may know her as the voice of Major Lazer’s “Lean On” — the most streamed single in single streaming history, as it were — or you might already recognize her more recent solo single, “Final Song,” but before long you’re going to know the 27-year-old Dane as one of pop’s more credible rising powers. Her blend of punk heaviosity and pop sensibility created the most visceral experience I for one have ever witnessed at the fest on a Sunday before 2 p.m. The main stage area was packed to the brim, and fans already deeply into her vibe were singing along to every song. MØ gives the impression of being very much here to stay, and we oughtta welcome her. No one is telling this young lady how to strut, and for my money this time next year she is a super star. She returns to Montreal at Club Soda in November, at which point you can read what she had to tell me and my 10-year-old daughter Melodie in a short interview after the set. (DM)
David Bowie fandom was on display at Osheaga, most notably with the frankly creepy statue in the art area near the stairway to green-land — Bowie hair and make-up on a skull is maybe a little too soon, and with the big-shouldered, studded leather jacket, it looked more like that bit character from Beetlejuice (you know the one) than the music legend we knew. Regardless, it’s cool that the festival and the artist chose to pay tribute this year.
I also spotted at least a dozen Bowie shirts in the crowd, and just before Coeur de Pirate’s set, I came across a whole crew of people with the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt painted on their faces, wearing different outfits suggesting Ziggy Stardust, or at least approximating that spirit (see their photo in our style gallery). The next day, I was kind of disappointed to see the same crew donning Elvis outfits, which at this point is just dollar-store tacky. Not my King, haha. (LC)
Sunday hip hop
Rap may have seemed a little less present on the Lord’s day, but you could find it if you knew what to look for. I understand U.K. grime man-of-the-hour Skepta gave a fine performance — I could not miss Leon, so I’ll have to wait for next time — but a trusted source assures me that the Little Simz set later in the day, which I will get to in a moment, crushed him.
Word has it Quebec’s Koriass gave a solid show out on the Valley Stage, but I had to eat sometime and I elected to do it to the strains of Baauer on the Piknic stage, who, probably needless to say, fucked shit up all the way live with megatons of bass, bass, bass. Low-vely.
TO’s Tory Lanez and American rap star Mac Miller got the old switcheroo on their time slots, rightly making Miller the closer on the Green stage. I stuck around for a bit of his set after Dead Obies, and having seen him a little more intimately at last year’s MRCY fest, I can tell it was going to be as high-calibre and fun for the kids who love the Mac like mayo.
And I don’t know what I love more, watching the Dead Obies crush every fucking stage they take or watching their fans lose their shit and rap along to every single word of every single song, new, old or obscure. It’s no secret they are one of my favourite bands but watching your friends contribute to the cultural landscape, one bar at a time, is beyond anything you can pay to witness at a festival.
DO tour their new one, Gesamkunstwerk, across Quebec and France this fall, with a Dec. 2 Club Soda date where they will be backed by album collaborators Kalmunity. That’s gonna sell out by the way, so get on it even if you don’t want to think about Christmas trees just yet. (DM)
I like on-stage dancers as much as anyone, whether it’s a full-on Beyoncé crew busting choreographed moves with military precision (in the Jackson family mold) or the Happy Mondays approach, where their maracas player/dancer friend Bez was just a high guy they brought up to encourage the crowd to get loose. For some reason, Grimes’s dancers didn’t make a lot of sense — it felt like what they were doing was intended as some sort of enhancement, when Grimes herself is enough of a performer to carry the show. Sure the main stage might have felt a little empty without accompaniment, especially with Grimes running back and forth from her keyboard, but when you’ve got her and a back-up singer going freestyle and a pair of dancers doing some kind of half-assed high-energy choreography, it looked more like messy hipster aerobics than a show.
But she sounded good, and it was nice to hear some older material from her Montreal days. Sadly Grimes had to cut the set short due to illness — after looking a little distressed, she left the stage saying she going to go barf. Oh well. Wish I had gone to Little Simz instead. (LC)
“I’m a 22-year-old from North London, come to see you from the other side of the planet. I’m really enjoying myself,” this waif-like mic killer sweetly informed the Tree stage crowd gathered in respectable numbers to take in the gorgeous, thick grime style of the “Bars Simzson” MC. Simz played MTL once before with Young Paris, but this was my first dance, and good goddamn did I dance my ass off. This kind of great music is why I’m still a hip hop journalist. Little Simz is my newest fave after one set, and that never happens. She is just that fucking good. Hope she crosses the pond again soon. Extra cool points: Hannibal Buress was out there loving it, too. (DM)
Hip hop DJs overtime
There is nothing fucking lazier than to stop rapping and making the DJ play House of Pain. It’s not a cool trick. It’s not a neat little angle you came up with. It’s a way to not have to do your job while ostensibly keeping the crowd happy. I promise you no one has ever bought a ticket to see their favorite rapper and thought, “Gee, I really hope they stop playing their own music and play ‘The Next Episode’ in its entirety. GoldLink shat the bed Friday when, with no real hit, he managed to get the crowd right in his pocket with four groovy jams before saying “Fuck it!” and playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
There is a way to show ‘em how it’s done though. Not three hours later, hip hop vets Cypress Hill did the standard rap show “this side vs. that side” competition with a crowd of many tens of thousands, using, at one point, “Jump Around” to hype the B-Real crowd and the aforementioned Nirvana song for the Sen Dog side. That’s how you use an old classic that ain’t yours as part of the show. If you aren’t Cypress Hill, you aren’t good at it. That is all. (DM)
If you are over 20, male and hung around Sunday’s Mountain stage, opener Melanie Martinez’s truly bizarre baby-doll, princess/wicked-step-mom schtick for either her or the young girls I suppose this shit appeals to, you’re a fucking creep, period.
Conversely, if you are, like me, pretty “whatev” on the whole Radiohead phenomenon, you found other stuff to do during their closing set. If you contented yourself by sitting down somewhere calm and just listening, it was a tranquil way to close things out. I was at a picnic table eating a giant corn dog when the opening strains of a childhood fave, “Creep,” filled the air. And though I kinda couldn’t care less, I cared a little more than I’d have expected, bookending my Friday ’90s bender with a final nod to times that have come and gone, and the parts that keep us together.
It sounded great and it felt awesome to sing “I’m a creep” out loud. With a wiener hanging out of my mouth. (DM)
Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood
There was a time when Radiohead was the band I had seen live more than any other band. Between 1995 and 2000, they played Montreal five times — they were by far the hardest-touring British act at the time, so the fact that they became one of the biggest bands in the world did not surprise me. Now they’re on another level, like a Pink Floyd for the 21st century, a rare rock band (with electronic leanings, yes) that has enduring popularity, critical acclaim and widespread respect.
The last time I saw Radiohead was in 2000 at Parc Jean-Drapeau, a space they revisited in 2008, missing out on being part of that year’s Osheaga line-up by just a few days. On Sunday night they returned to the sprawling space to play for a massive festival crowd that wasn’t entirely theirs. Judging by the amount of boisterous chatter and the occasional bored comment overheard, there were quite a few people who just stuck around to see what the fuss was about, but the band satisfied the real fans and retained most of the audience throughout their epic set, which isn’t a given with festival headliners, especially on closing night.
Before the multiple greatest-hits encores, Radiohead tested the patience of the less committed people in the crowd with a set consisting primarily of relatively lesser known material from the past decade. Some of the latter-day singles got big reactions, like the shining melancholy gem “Reckoner” off In Rainbows and “Lotus Flower” off King of Limbs — to which Thom Yorke did not do his famous dance from the video, though he did get surprisingly loose throughout the set, when he shed his guitar and picked up maracas.
His showmanship has evolved over the years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the reach and versatility of his voice, which alongside Jonny Greenwood’s guitar fireworks form the core of the band’s sound. Yorke’s imitators just can’t match the snarling force, ethereal falsetto and vibrato battle cry that he emits, all showcased in quick succession in the three-part “Paranoid Android.”
With split-screen video showing close-ups of each band member in red and the killer light-show you’d expect (the Kid A IDM workout “Idiothèque” was almost seizure-inducing), there was plenty of style coming off the stage but it was the big songs and the little moments that really made the show a winner. Yorke’s acoustic reprise of the end refrain from “Karma Police,” so the crowd could continue to sing “For a minute, I lost myself,” definitely got the goosebumps up, and the choice of set-closer, “Creep” (which they don’t play at every show), was sing-along gold. The fact that the show began with a new song (“Burn the Witch,” from their latest record A Moon-Shaped Pool) and ended with their first ever single from 1993 drove home the feeling that this was comprehensive set. Sure, there was no “No Surprises,” “National Anthem,” “Knives Out” or “Street Spirit,” but at nearly two hours and 10 minutes, you couldn’t accuse the band of not being generous.
With that, Osheaga 2016 ended on a high note.
I saw a guy named Alexis Lacroix skate the Vans halfpipe, well, while playing harmonica — really well — into a wireless mic. Really. Where else do you see that? Love you, Osheaga. (DM)