Hot acts, cool Canadians make Osheaga worth the trip

Review: Spectacular sets from Arcade Fire and Pavement top Montreal music festival.

Montreal’s Osheaga Festival is so quintessentially Canadian. 

The crowds are respectful and polite, the surroundings are calm and peaceful, and the lineup is filled with Canadian musicians.

Staged in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Saint Helen's Island, the festival effectively mixes the urban and natural world. I was only able to attend one day (Saturday) of the two-day weekend festival, but the homeyness and simple charm of Osheaga made the trek up north well worth it

Photo: Seth Sommerfeld
Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus, left, helps bring the indie rock legends' slacker rock bliss to the Osheaga stage.

Stumbling out of the gates

The day took a while to get rolling, with no artist performing until 1 p.m. Once the festivities started up things remained fairly calm. Even the howl of The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser didn’t seem to stir the early audiences.

The day's first substantial crowd turned out for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ main stage set, but the performance did not get me any closer to determining what all the fuss is about this rambling band of pseudo-hippies. Is it just that people who do enough drugs like almost anything with lots of instrumentalists playing simple and derivative upbeat music?

The songs lacked pep and Sharpe’s stage presence was dull. He seemed more aloof than anything, bantering nonsense between songs and giving off the impression that he wasn’t prepared with any sort of set. This idea was underscored when the band ran out of time before playing their last number, “Home,” and they had to rush through an abbreviated version while still messing up the time slots for the rest of the day.

In contrast to Sharpe’s bombastic fizzling, Japandroids offered much more with much less. The guitar and drum garage rock duo from Vancouver, British Columbia, rocked a fairly substantial side stage crowd who clearly came for an aggressive change of pace from the day’s predominantly unthreatening indie vibe.

Errors and egos

Technical difficulties and diva-like reactions to hang-ups got the better of a few acts. Owen Pallett’s set of solo looping violin work was artful, but after previously calling out the sound engineer as incompetent he finally stormed off stage during his final number because of monitor issues. 

Frontman Torquil Campbell of Stars was much more blatant about his frustration. From the start of Stars’ set he was shooting death glares over to the sound board and running over and chewing the sound engineer out every chance he got. At first it was because his microphone wasn’t loud enough, but the majority of Campbell’s anger was focused on his keyboard, which never worked during the entire set — until he eventually “accidentally” knocked it over and off stage. On the positive side, Campbell seemed to channel his seething emotions into his vocals, giving Stars' tunes an edge that they need, but are lacking at times.

And they’re coming to the chorus now

In stark contrast to these outbursts stood Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus — drenched in beer. 

Early in the band’s terrific set, an audience member pelted Malkmus with a full beer (they’re sold with lids by the vendors). Instead of throwing a hissy fit, his face mockingly took on a pouty expression before he simply remarked on how precise the throw was. He then went on playing without missing a beat.

Pavement’s set was sonically on note, a more finely tuned sound than when I caught them at Sasquatch! Music Festival in May. The group excelled both in their highs (a rowdy rendition of “Unfair”) and lows (simmering perfectly on the slow boil of “Stop Breathing”). The only downside was that their set lacked some choice cuts from the group’s classic Slanted & Enchanted, such as “Trigger Cut” and “In The Mouth A Desert.” Still, the slacker rock bliss was soaked up by the very vocally appreciative audience.

Fire burns bright

All the day’s events led up to Arcade Fire’s headlining set, which served both as a homecoming and the band’s first major unveiling of its newest album The Suburbs (released Tuesday).

It’s always a bit awkward to be a concertgoer when a band heaps on the new material. On one hand, it’s incredibly cool to be among the first people to hear a song live. And for Osheaga, Arcade Fire performed “Deep Blue” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” for the first time ever. 

On the other hand, it’s hard for fans to feel connected to material they have little to no familiarity with, which can be a very hit or miss process. Some tracks fall flat (“Rococo”) and even the ones that fare well (“Month of May” and “Ready to Start”) don’t receive comparable levels of audience appreciation.

Arcade Fire was best when tapping into its back catalogue. Songs such as “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” off of Funeral seem scientifically engineered to be played at festivals, capturing the crowd’s imagination and sweeping them away with every anthemic note. 

Though the set was noticeably light on Neon Bible songs, frontman Win Butler did pour out his emotions during a stirring version of “Intervention”. The night was capped off with a performance of “Wake Up,” which had the entire audience harmonizing along with grins locked securely on their faces.

While the sing-along was moving, the real goose bump-inducing moment came during “Rebellion (Lies)”. As Win Butler strode into the audience, the fever pitch began and continued to grow. By the time the song reached its peak, a massive (unrelated) fireworks display was being set off on the other end of the park. 

The grandiosity of the spectacle could only be described as epic. It was a perfectly magical moment that no other band in the world could pull off right now.

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