Osheaga 2016. Photo by Cindy Lopez

From Expo to Osheaga: A history of outdoor fests in Montreal

A look back at the predecessors and sideshows that made this city a destination for summer music festivals.

There’s no way to overstate Montreal’s global predominance as a festival city, especially when summer’s rays give us a well-earned reprieve from the long-lasting frost of winter. 

Here, we celebrate culture through art, cinema, food and comedy year-round, on- and off-island. And our reputation for being an outdoor playground of song makes the city a destination for music fans from around the world each year.

Jazz Fest is an obvious forebear to the growth of the city’s festival scene over the past four decades-plus, but there are plenty of other predecessors and sideshows that have come and gone, before and since.

Did you know the Grateful Dead played at Expo 67? Or that la Ronde once hosted the likes of Blondie and the Cars? Or that back in ’83, the Police, Peter Tosh, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Talking Heads took on Percival Molson Stadium for a summer day that your parents may just never have thought you were cool enough to tell you about?

“It wasn’t called the ‘Police Picnic’ in Montreal,” long-serving Montreal booker and promoter Rubin Fogel insists. “That was only Toronto.”

Fogel has booked more shows than any human could possibly attend, let alone remember. He credits Fête Nationale shows on Île Ste-Hélène and a one-off concert at the old Autodrome in the mid-’80s as the genesis of the outdoor, multi-band, single-day music fest in Montreal, long before he single-handedly brought the only installment of ’90s alt-rock circus Lollapalooza to Parc Jean-Drapeau’s Plaines des Jeux in 1994, where headliners Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins shared the main stage with George Clinton, A Tribe Called Quest, Nick Cave, L7 and others.

Photo courtesy of Warren Wilansky, warrenwilansky.com

Standing on the hill that day on what would more than a decade later become home to Osheaga (and later, Heavy Montreal, Île Soniq and 77 Montréal), it seemed like all you needed were some good bands, a few beer tents and the sunshine to throw a good party. 

The year prior, and again in ’95, with a similar MO, the Tragically Hip’s touring fair, Another Roadside Attraction, landed in the once-empty meadow beside Verdun Auditorium courtesy of DKD Productions. 

In subsequent summers, Lilith Fair and the Smokin’ Grooves Tour, each of them touring packages catering to more niche audiences in their respective genre representation, saw limited success and no second chance.

For a long time, in fact, the Greenland-produced Vans Warped Tours, from the later ’90s to earlier this decade, was the only annual sure shot, growing from its initial inception on the concrete of the Blue Bonnets parking lot to the muddy shores of its longtime home at PJD.

“I remember (for the first Warped Tours) we sold a lot of tickets in advance,” recalls Greenland Productions director and elder Montreal scenester Nancy Ross. “But we sold just as many walk-ups, which just doesn’t happen. We sold over 4,000 tickets at the door for the first (editions).

“It’s also so weather dependent,” she continues. “Back when there were less festivals, people were probably more like, ‘Screw it, we’ll decide when we see the forecast.’ Now they know it’s gonna happen, rain or shine, so if you wanna see these bands, you’re going.”

Evenko VP of concerts and events and Osheaga  founder Nick Farkas recalls several early misfires before perfecting the formula for a homegrown, multi-day festival booked by Montreal, for Montreal.

“We did one (in 1996 and ’97) called Sunnymead with DKD/Greenland, which was like a camping festival in the Eastern Townships,” Farkas recounts. “It all started with that one, that we ever tried in a self-produced way. At Greenland we’d done SnoJams and other punk-rock-related things. But the first big-ish attempt at programming our own was Sunnymead.”

Ross was the head bartender at Sunnymead, which grew from hosting Canadian headliners Grim Skunk and I Mother Earth in ’96 to Roger Hodgson and Blink 182 the following year.

“Dan Webster and Paget Williams (of Greenland) were sort of the ones spearheading it,” Ross says. “These guys in the Eastern Townships just let us take over their farm. We had camping and bands to appeal both to the punks and the old locals. I think it was a success? One year was bad weather and the other year was good.”

Farkas remembers things quite differently. “To me, (Sunnymead) was just a traumatic experience with rain and losing money. We can look back now on a lot of things and laugh,” he chuckles morbidly. “It took us a long time before we could look back on Sunnymead and laugh.”

The dedication that goes into making the mega-fests that define Montreal’s 21st century image as a mecca for live outdoor music deserves credit. 

If they’d only been in it for the money, Evenko would have dropped the concept before booking Eminem in 2011, giving Osheaga a grand scale facelift while operating in the red in the hopes of pleasing both the town it was born to serve and international audiences.

So why did Farkas and his considerable team (including Osheaga co-founder Webster) persevere?

“It was probably stupidity,” Farkas laughs. “The thing was, we knew, like — we were doing one of the Edgefests in Halifax and I think it was Foo Fighters and Our Lady Peace. We’d done the same thing in Montreal and it didn’t work in Montreal, but we sold 25,000 tickets there.”

Earlier one-off outdoor shows featuring the likes of the Offspring, No Doubt and Black Eyed Peas at Plaine des Jeux had also flopped. Re-evaluating the landscape and re-writing the playbook proved to be a winning manoeuvre. 

“We were like, ‘How is it possible that Montreal can’t be an outdoor show market?’ We were convinced that if we built it, people would come,” Farkas states with now-validated conviction.

Osheaga 2013. Photo by Cindy Lopez

“And still, Osheaga would not be Osheaga if we didn’t draw 65 per cent of our people from outside of the province. All of our festivals — Heavy, Île Soniq — draw a solid percentage of tourists. The idea for Osheaga from the beginning was it would become a destination, and that we’d build something that reflected what people wanted to see locally so that they would buy a ticket locally. We built it with Montreal-friendly programming, and by building a microcosm of Montreal that was cool — from art, to food, to music — we’d get people to come from out of the province. It never occurred to us in a million years that it would be as successful as it has been.”

As Osheaga returns to its original site this month, Montreal can be proud to host the festival it needed and deserves.

“It worked,” Farkas concludes. “And it took a lot of time, but it’s been working consistently for 10 years or so.”

“We’re thankful every day that we get another chance to do it. It’s that much fun.” ■