Tucked away in the northeast corner of the continent, Québec is a city caught between two worlds. Take a walk down the narrow cobbled streets of the Petit Champlain or along the stone ramparts that line Old Québec, and you’ll feel as if you’ve hopped across the Atlantic and back to the 17th century. It’s a charming city, fiercely proud of its French heritage but distinctly Canadian in temperament (the NHL’s Nordiques left town 20 years ago, but try telling that to the hundreds of folks who still roam the streets in baby-blue Joe Sakic sweaters).
Québec’s identity may be a strange mishmash of cultures, but like most alloys it’s all the stronger for it. And a huge part of that identity can be found in the Festival d’été de Québec, the city’s annual summer festival that’s now in its 49th year, making it one of the longest running music festivals in all of North America. Like the city to which it belongs, the festival doesn’t always make sense on paper. This year’s iteration featured three headliners — Rammstein, Sting & Peter Gabriel, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — from three different countries, none of which happens to be Canada. It also stretched for a mind-numbing 11 days, which might sound a bit hellish for those who can barely make it through a three-day festival without collapsing into a heap of dust and drink tickets.
Rest assured, though: Festival d’été de Québec is an astoundingly fan-friendly festival, seamlessly integrated into the city’s fabric and minimally taxing on the body and soul (shows tend to start around 5 p.m., allowing for plenty of time to sleep off that Molson hangover). This in spite of the fact that it attracts upwards of one million visitors, the majority of whom come from across the province of Québec to enjoy a festival that celebrates local Francophone talent without skimping on the big-name acts.
Though next year’s 50th anniversary will almost certainly be something to write home about, the 49th Festival d’été de Québec stood on its own as one of the delightful surprises on the summer festival circuit. Here are the lessons we learned while attending the festival’s second weekend, none of which includes basic French grammar. No, without further adieu, allons-y!
Red Hot Chili Peppers Are No Joke — Especially in French Canada
More than three decades into their existence, it’s become too easy to dismiss the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the punchline to a joke that stopped being funny at some point in the late ‘90s. (StarWipe even took a swipe at frontman Anthony Kiedis while he was in the hospital for intestinal flu. C’est froid.) But look beyond the scabadabadoos and you’ll find a band that’s still humming on all cylinders, fueled by the boyish energy of Kiedis and bassist/best bud Flea but also by the manic guitar playing of (relative) young gun Josh Klinghoffer.
While this year’s The Getaway wasn’t quite the comeback album fans hoped for, it did emphatically prove that the Chilis won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, an argument can be made that they’re one of the three biggest rock bands in the world, and the person making that argument would do well to cite their headlining set at Festival d’été de Québec as Exhibit A.
Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’ve been covering music for nearly a decade and haven’t been to a more massive rock show than what unfolded on the Plaines d’Abraham Saturday night. An absolute sea of people — it must have been Québec’s entire population, and then some — showed up to support the Chilis, and they were greeted with a career-spanning setlist featuring old standards (“Give It Away”, “Under the Bridge”), middle-career highlights (“Otherside”, “Scar Tissue”), and some of the strongest tracks from their new album (“Dark Necessities”, “The Getaway”).
Aside from some earpiece malfunctions that caused Kiedis’ voice to go a bit wonky at times, the set was everything you could have hoped for from a festival headliner: wildly energetic, huge in scope, and appealing to vast swathes of music fans. This band may not be taken seriously in every corner of the world, but French Canada proved a welcome home.
July Talk Is the Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of
Toronto’s July Talk served as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ opener on Saturday, and if you’ve never heard of the dance-infused indie rockers, well, don’t be too hard on yourself. They’re a relatively unknown commodity outside of their native Canada, though closer to home they’re the kind of band that can play to 80,000 people without batting an eye.
Most of the band’s attraction (and I do mean attraction) comes from the interplay between lead singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay, the former of whom sounds like he’s gargling broken glass while the latter tempers his Tom Waits vibe with a sweetly traditional pop croon. On record, the two have established a nice push-and-pull dynamic, but throw them on a stage in front of thousands and they give off enough heat to smolder those standing in the front rows.
I met July Talk backstage for a brief conversation before their set, and they seemed like fairly normal Canadians — modest, affable, gracious in a not-forced kind of way. It was hard to reconcile that meeting with the group to the image they project on stage, a lethal mixture of confidence and pure firepower powered by the playful flirtation between Dreimanis and Fay. A band can be great without quite having the stuff to make it to the festival main stage; this is not that band. They have the (pardon my French, but we are in Québec) certain ne sais quoi it takes to be goddamn massive, and my money’s on them headlining festivals across North America within the next five years.
The Chiac Language Really Lends Itself to Hip-Hop
The headliners may be the main draw for out-of-towners, but Festival d’été de Québec prides itself on featuring local Francophone artists that even the most assiduous music journo types (ahem) may have overlooked. In any case, one of the biggest parties of the fest went down Friday night on one of the side stages downtown, and it came courtesy of a Québecois electronic hip-hop duo called Radio Radio.
Wearing neon green pants and rapping in Chiac, a vernacular French language that borrows heavily from English and various Canadian aboriginal languages, the group served as a stark reminder of all the cool shit that goes on north of the US border, unbeknownst to ignorant American ears. I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but there was one song called “Sweater Party”, which in hindsight strikes me as the most Canadian thing possible.
Framed by Québec’s 17th century fortifications and lit by every color of stage light imaginable, the rap duo hopped into the audience, led emphatic (and incomprehensible) sing-alongs, and generally made a case for why festivals should go out of their way to keep things local — especially when local is as fun as this.
No Festival Supports the Tiny Fonts Better than Festival d’été de Québec
Speaking of local talent, Festival d’été de Québec does one brilliant thing that deserves to be replicated at festivals across the world. Fans must pass through the Coeur de FEQ (literally, the “heart of the festival”) in order to pick up their tickets and grab food before heading into the shows, and the organizers use this layout to their advantage.
They’ve positioned the festival’s smallest stage in this area and curated a lineup of exclusively local, largely unknown groups to play each night. Whereas other festivals have a bad habit of tucking the tiny fonts away in some forgotten corner, Festival d’été de Québec takes the opposite approach, practically forcing attendees to engage with music they’ve almost certainly never heard before. The fact that they can do so while sipping on a cold Molson or checking out the VR booth only adds to the appeal.
While the quality of these bands admittedly varied over the course of the weekend, the idea itself seems like a rock-solid way to solidify a festival’s role as curator and taste-maker. Several bands that weren’t initially on my schedule to watch, including the garage rock duo Blanche et Noir and the Paramore-esque Muted Screams, were welcome surprises, and I’m sure that’s true for others who happened to stumble through the Coeur de FEQ at the same time.
The Best Festivals Aren’t Just About the Music
Plenty of festivals opt to focus their efforts on curating a stellar musical lineup, and plenty of them can’t be blamed. Part of the problem is location; fests that take place out in the middle of nowhere don’t leave a ton of room or budget for other cultural opportunities, be they family activities or art installations.
Festival d’été de Québec is one example of a festival that uses its surroundings to its advantage, incorporating its urban setting in ways that feel natural (and likely contribute to the local economy in a meaningful way, too). Add to this Québec’s long and proud tradition of street performance, and you’re left with a festival that’s about much more than the music. It’s a living, breathing representation of the city’s residents, many of whom are artists, shop owners, or terrifying stilt walkers instead of musicians.
Poutine Is the Greatest Fest Food of All Time
French fries. Light brown gravy. Cheese curds so squeaky they nearly qualify as musical instruments in their own right. If you’re not on the poutine train yet, there’s no time like the present. If one thing can justify coming back to Québec in the festival off-season, this deliciously disgusting late-night snack is that one thing. Until next time, au revoir.