So this is the first day of the fifteenth staging of Osheaga, Montreal’s favourite summer pop festival that isn’t Pop Montreal. From its first staging in 2006, Osheaga has always been an ambitious affair with huge, varied line-ups and multiple stages – do know the impossibility for one person to take it all in, but we tried our best!
The sprawling fest had to take a pandemic break for two years, but on the first day of its welcome return, the spectre of contagion is not quite gone, but it was a clearly celebratory occasion for the throngs of spectators as they excitedly exited the metro station and marched towards the entrance gate.
Its last iteration was during a time before TikTok became omnipresent, which seems like a whole other era. Though the app has been around since 2017, it became a source of entertainment (and solace) for many during lockdown. And TikTok was ahead of the game – this is the second time around that it’s offering livestreaming for people to see what’s going on without actually being on the island at the fest. But it isn’t just a way of gaining access to the audience, it’s also how some of the artists gained access to the music industry.
Walking between stages, it was impossible to escape the sound of a crowd belting out Tones and I’s monster hit “Dance Monkey” – whose meteoric launch into ubiquitousness occurred with help from a TikTok dance. This was the same for PinkPantheress: a 20-year-old singer/songwriter/ producer whose song “Pain” took off on the app in January 2021. Channeling the sound of a dark London nightclub in 1998, she was still able to bring a bit of that late night attitude to the Osheaga stage, albeit combined with the type of stage banter that sounds like a phone call with a friend (example: “If you know all the words to this song, I’m going to find you and give you a hug”). Admitting that folks who know the 1990s have probably heard her beats before, she combines her take on garage with oh-so-relatable lyrics that sound like a social media storytime. Not surprising that other TikTok-famous songs like “Just for Me” and “Break it Off” received the most reaction from the crowd, but it was nice to hear some more recent music, even though she insisted that her singing voice wasn’t up to the task (it is) of singing Willow Smith’s part in “Where You Are”.
L.A.’s Local Natives were as excited to be performing as the audience was to hear them, explaining that they’d not been touring for three years and were quite jazzed to be at Osheaga. The soaring vocals and clean, crisp guitar on songs like “When Am I Gonna Lose You” and “Wide Eyes” got the crowd moving and the lazy feel of “Dark Days” was a perfect accompaniment to the perfect waning sun of the afternoon. The band makes music that sounds like it is from a TV show you should really be watching.
Also looking like they were having the best time, Baltimore’s Turnstile was able to easily produce a mosh pit and some sporadic crowd surfing. Their brand of hardcore, which, for old folks in the crowd, is clearly drawn from multiple hardcore, punk and hardrock influences with a touch of stuff you can nod your head to – and this is not a bad thing. Pitchfork called their album Glow On “spectacular” and the band is equally so live. Also, as a Canadian, it was nice to see that Expos cap on bassist Franz Lyons.
Moving from one set of stages to another at Osheaga takes a bit of time, and sometimes lets you take a moment to listen to something else on the way. Today this was Les Louanges. Shortlisted in 2019 and longlisted this year for the Polaris prize, Vincent Roberge’s acid jazzy project drew quite a crowd who clearly knew all the words, enthusiastically singing “I only have eyes for you…” from the relaxed and groovy “Pitou”. Programmed at the same time as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it was nice to see the huge home-province support for his creativity.
The evening ended with the one-two-punch of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire. Like every other act, there was a sense of excitement and enthusiasm both on stage and in the crowd – but particularly so, as these band have headlined Osheaga before, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Karen O, as incredibly well-dressed as usual, tried out some new tunes, hesitating a little when she stumbled over lyrics, but no one cared. The band delivered, especially with their massive hits, “Maps” and “Heads Will Roll”.
Arcade Fire then took the stage and tore through a range of songs new and old and in-between, introducing new touring member, Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, who sang “This Heart’s On Fire”. The wall of sound that the band is known for was in full effect, with Sarah Neufeld’s stunning strings on full display as well as another new addition to the line-up, multi-instrumentalist (and oh-so energetic) Paul Beaubrun (quick fact – he’s the son of Theodore “Lòlò” and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun of spectacular Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans).
The highlight, however, was when Arcade Fire firmly identified themselves as a Montreal band, no matter how you want to define that term, and define it Win Butler did. Talking about what it meant to move to Montreal and meet people from all over Canada, all over the Caribbean and all over the world, it was hard not to think of the recent and renewed tension over Law 96, which, in the interest of reinforcing the position of French in Quebec society has raised questions about just who belongs here. Win underlining that everyone belongs in Montreal and shouting to the audience that “we’ve gotta keep this shit going” and launching into “Rebellion (Lies)” was most certainly the highlight of the set and of the day.
It seems that, in the era of streaming, festivals are particularly useful occasions to reflect the experience of listening to one’s own playlist, jumping from indie rock to viral TikTok tune to new groove and beyond. Osheaga offers this experience in real life, but also reminds that there’s something particularly important about the live experience. When someone gets up on stage and uses that to entertain, but also to remind us that we’re all in this together, it’s pretty darned special.
Words by Erin MacLeod