Loud les Francos Montreal

Photo by Vincent Gravel

Les Francos de Montréal: A festive free-for-all with no language laws required

Concerts by Loud, Lisa Leblanc and Robert Charlesbois showcase how les Francos attracts truly accessible appreciation for the French language and Quebec culture.

Music is only as political as the listener makes it. 

Two fighters from opposing sides of a conflict might listen to a song like “Get Up, Stand Up.” They hear the same words of perseverance, empowerment and freedom. They then charge into battle against each other with the same determination to strike fear in each other’s hearts.

Meanwhile, a toddler is learning to walk, to fall and to get back up, encouraged by a family member singing the same Bob Marley anthem. Elsewhere, the song plays on a competitive athlete’s training playlist as they set off for an early morning jog.

And it’s highly possible that none of these people speaks the same language, let alone understands Marley and Tosh’s Jamaican-infused English.

The message, the messenger and the experiential application of music to the way each individual participates in the world are independent of each other. 

Music in and of itself doesn’t hold the power to unify, inspire or provide identification and self-awareness. The listener is the only one able to give music substantive meaning.

The same can be said of linguistic politics in Quebec. But this is a concert review, so let’s keep it really simple: just because someone tells you the same thing over and over and over doesn’t make it true. 

What is or is not “in peril” is not, despite popular or unpopular opinion, subject to preference. What defines a culture is not owned by the state, and that which creates resistance is not the mere opposite of a popular position. 

An evening at les Francos de Montréal may help the uninitiated experience the difference between an attraction towards a given organic culture and the slick, co-opted promotion of its “values” by hawk-like demagogues. 

At les Francos, dozens of free outdoor concerts and ticketed indoor events celebrate the diversity of the French language and the spirit of engaged francophonie through song and performance in a party atmosphere that Montreal’s festival scene is built on. 

Lisa Leblanc les Francos Montreal
Lisa Leblanc. Photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin for les Francos de Montréal

Take last Tuesday night’s outdoor headliner, Lisa Leblanc, for example. Leblanc is an Acadian from New Brunswick, popular in equal measure for her prodigious banjo skills, excellent electric guitar chops and acoustic six-string tear-jerkers. 

But hang on, because Leblanc is also a raunch metal fanatic whose own headbanging compositions stand easily alongside her outstanding cover of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” at every live performance. 

Yes, that’s the very same Lisa Leblanc who put out one of the best Canadian albums of 2022, Chiac Disco, an outstanding throwback to vintage 1970s roller skate-palace boogie. 

And as witnessed by tens of thousands of happy fest-goers, none of it is schtick — least of all the fact that Leblanc sings and speaks in her native chiac dialect. 

(Okay, the circus acrobats that joined the show midway through were schtick. A little extra showiness was in order at les Francos, Leblanc’s self-avowed favourite festival.)

Songs about break-ups, procrastination, small-town harlots, Kraft Dinner romances and gossip are as diverse in their content as they are in their delivery. 

Fun and energy have no official language, much less geographic borders. 

And Lisa Leblanc’s testament to individuality, as exhibited by her stage presence, lay in her humanity, and not on her provincial driver’s licence. 

Nope, she was just one of the gang having a good time on Tuesday, granted that she happened to be the one strutting on a catwalk in a sequined outfit. 

Loud les Francos Montreal
The crowd at Loud. Photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin for les Francos de Montréal

Wednesday night headliner Loud is a Montreal original and perhaps the most accessible Quebec pop star of all time. 

The rapper stays staunchly in his own lane as an authentic product of hip hop love. His lyrical talent and delivery are as honest and inventive as they are individually stylistic, with a signature underwritten through collaborative partnerships with beatmakers Ajust and Ruffsound. They are producers in the truest sense of the word in that they know how to get the very best from the MC and how to turn that into boutique ear candy.

What that translates to, and what makes Loud a bonafide, certified pop sensation, is credibility that resonates as much with adept genre fanatics as it does with young audiences hungry to find an identity in cool and then beyond, to casual listeners who are as likely to hum the latest from the Weeknd or Ed Sheeran as they are to sing along in the car to latest hit single from Loud. 

He has long since seized the crown as hip hop’s head of state in the province and opened the door, for better or worse, for the Quebec music industry to seize on the latter-day novelty of radio-friendly French-language rap music. 

And on Wednesday, Loud turned his massively attended headlining Francos to a master class on the history of rap music in the province. In so doing, he took advantage both of the rarity of such a vast venue and of the spirit of the Francos to showcase culture, diversity and talent that has the potential to attract people to the rich beauty of the French language.

It’s a safe bet that any time the rapper performs locally, a mini-reunion of Loud Lary Ajust will bring longtime co-conspirator Lary Kidd to join Loud on stage, to bring out the mischief as Ajust finds his way out from behind the DJ booth to centre stage to relive their LLA glory days.

So that was no surprise. But in as classy a move as I’ve ever witnessed by a headlining artist, Loud repeatedly took the spotlight off of himself, showcasing his predecessors.

Quebec rap OGs Sans Pression took to the stage to perform “Territoire hostile” alongside Loud. 

Montreal rap vet Connoisseur Ticasso — whose profile in recent years has finally caught up with the versatility and persistence that have kept him in the game for two decades and across 11 studio projects — was handed the stage, solo. 

But the certified show-stopping moment in a 90-minute, bangers-only set came when Loud unexpectedly introduced late ’90s Montreal Nord hip hop icons Muzion, who got the whole city singing along to their creole-heavy anthem “La vi ti neg.” 

Often compared to Fugees, Muzion’s 1999 studio debut Mentalité Moune Morne is at once a time capsule of its era and as fresh and impactful as it was when it took the streets and MusiquePlus by storm on the eve of the new millennium. 

The audience was also treated to a moment with Lost, heir apparent to a new generation of Quebec kids who, like the rest of the world, evolve, grow and look past the strictures of patrimoine to find their own identity. 

Our current premier can hang out and chat with has-been, one-note culture vultures all he wants. 

But what happened on the Francos stage at Loud’s showcase on Wednesday was an exercise in moment-making that no PR firm, marketing expert, pundit or spin doctor in the world can orchestrate without that one magic piece of the puzzle. 

Ironically, it’s the thing they crave most: an audience whose attention is not for sale.  

Robert Charlebois Francos Montreal
Robert Charlebois. Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich for les Francos de Montréal

On Saturday, festival organizers spared no effort to give this 34th edition the dramatic conclusion it deserved. 

Veritable Québécois music icon Robert Charlebois bridged all the gaps with a swinging, strutting affair on the Bell Stage to close out the festival.

Over the first half of his six-decade-long career, Charlebois changed the face of Quebec’s music scene, over and over and over again, packaging popular emerging genres and tastes as they evolved and delivering them to our province’s unique audience of millions of listeners with an insatiable appetite for rock, pop, psychedelia and disco in their native tongue.  

As the sun eventually went down on his heyday, Charlebois’s appeal in Quebec became something of a tongue-in-cheek birthright of younger generations. His music made parents, aunts, uncles and grandparent smile, or tear up nostalgically, and sing together after a few too many Labatt Blues. Charlebois remained respected, if not necessarily critically adored, by Gen X and millennial Québécois youth. 

But as these generations, too,  grew older, Charlebois and his music were inevitably embraced in their entirety as part of Quebec’s cultural fabric. 

And yet throughout all these decades, most anglophones, if we’re being 100% honest, never gave a damn. 

At best, Charlebois and his contemporaries chez nous were dismissed without a second thought. At worst, they were mocked, as if respecting the idea that anything in French could be as worthy a talent as…who? Gordon Lightfoot? The Guess Who or Bachman Turner Overdrive? April-fucking-Wine?

Charlebois’s presence on the modern pop stage over the last 50 years make him as important and historic a musical figure as any of his international peers still standing. 

And at age 79, in fighting shape and with a little help from a longtime collaborator, friend and Quebecoise diva in her own right Louise Forestier and his absolutely killer eight-piece band, on Saturday night, Charlebois ran Place des Festivals as if he’d built it himself. 

Robert Charlebois gave Montreal what his beloved hometown has always given him: l’amour, in the form of a gigantic, excessive, histrionic 90-minute singalong that drew well over 30,000 festival-goers, jubilant despite the cold temperatures and rain. 

I happened to bump into fellow anglo and Evenko VP of Concerts & Events Nick Farkas, who, in an informal chat, explained that he had briefly stolen away from the second night of Brit alt-rock legends the Cure at the Bell Centre to get a quick fix of Charlebois’s closing Francos gala. 

Farkas, who was headed back to home ice to see Smith and company wrap up their equally triumphant two-night stand (night one of which I attended), offhandedly summed it up so well that I couldn’t even have asked for a better insight into what Charlebois means to modern music if I’d tried. 

“I had to see the two Roberts!” Farkas remarked.

I’m a proud, first-language-English-speaking Québécois with ancestral roots in Montreal that go back to the turn of the 19th century. And as a spectator among Charlebois’s adoring, diverse, multi-generational public — and at les Francos at large — I also felt like a welcome guest in my own city. 

And that strange, beautiful feeling, mes amis, means more than any words I can muster, whether in English or in French. 

Having fun at les Francos may truly be the most impactful measure a Montrealer can take to help preserve our true culture and promote our shared identity as festival-going, multicultural, diverse and inclusive lovers of summer nights and party-rocking in a spirit of joy where no translation is necessary. 

So next year, when les Francos de Montréal hits its milestone 35th anniversary, I hope to be dancing right beside you. 

And if I say bonjour, and you say hi, or vice-versa, I promise you that no one, ourselves included, will even notice. ■

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