QUEBEC CITY, QC – JULY 12 & 13, 2012
The Plains of Abraham, the historic battlefield, which is now a beautiful park, occupies over 100 acres in the centre of Quebec City. An acre in size is comparable to a football field, and an estimated guess puts the Bell Stage area, the festival’s main stage, somewhere around half a dozen football fields. That’s a huge concert space, and when standing in the middle of its open, vacant field during the day, you can’t help to think that this is going to be one crushing mass of drunken yahoos by the time the headliners come on later that night (sorry, I’m from the Stampede City).
Man-o-man, that assessment couldn’t have been further from the truth. By the time I returned to the Bell Stage at 10 p.m., Areosmith, in all the their glorious swirling scarfs (Steve Tyler must have a personal assistant dedicated to his wrap-around garments), the crowd had set in 70,000 strong.
Yeah, beer outlets banked one entire of the site, beer was in the press tents, in the VIP area, dudes lugged big cases of Molson Dry throughout the crowd who kindly parted as they made their way. Alcohol was an integral part of the festival, and many partook. Of particular interest, was none of the liquor vendors put the patrons through that idiotic drill (that the rest of Canada adores) by asking anyone who looks under 30 to produce ID that says they’re legally allowed to consume. Quebec relies on common sense, and there in the swirling mass of party-goers were waves of jubilance kept rolling non-stop, not a trace of annoying drunks.
I can’t emphasize how astonishing this was. All sorts of people, ages from 15 to 65 were mingling, swaying to the music. Quebec clearly loves the celebration. It’s estimated that 70 percent of the festival is compromised of local residents, who night after night for 11 nights straight filled the Plains of Abraham. There were reports that Bon Jovi pushed up to 90,000, and Skrillex the following night, who some speculated would only interest 10,000 or so, maintained the momentum at 60,000. Areosmith and Sarah McLaughlan clocked in at least 70,000, thoroughly impressing the Divine Ms. Mac who mentioned, more than once, it was the biggest audience she had ever played to.
And you might think that the audio-visual experience of this mass spectacle would be diminished because of its enormity. Not so. While standing in middle of the field members of Areosmith looked like wee leprechauns doing a jig on stage, but on the video screens overhead you could see every grimace on their scraggily faces. And you could hear every note played. Muddled sound does not exist on the Bell Stage. As I filed out during Aerosmith’s greatest hits encore (they left every big hit to the very end), the PA powered Steve Tyler to near perfection as he screamed “dream on, dream on, dream awwwwwwwwwn,” a 100 times better at 65 than he did in 1973. Weird.
Pouring out on the streets in downtown Quebec, you can’t help but notice the very low profile police presence. All those people full of fun, and just a few cops mulling around certain intersections. Remarkable.
Of course, the main thrust of Festival d’été de, especially on the Bell Stage, is that it’s a family affair. There are, however, smaller stages and venues with more eclectic folk, metal and dance acts were you can suss out artists like Grimes and Mastodon.
The city itself and street festival corridors are also gently divided between mainstream and left of centre. There’s an intersection on Rue Saint Jean that if you head in one direction you’ll wonder through a pretty, historical part of the city well preserved for tourists. There you’ll find the Pub Saint Alexandre, famous for their jazz nights and 200 plus beers, most of which come from Belgium and cost $8.75 and up, way up. If you go in the other direction on Rue Saint Jean, you’re in the locals’ territory with wonderful, no-frills, century old, stone wall watering holes like le Sacrilége who pour the best Quebec beers for a mere $4.75. Both are real Quebec experiences. You just need to utter a few French words once in awhile to make the most of it.
By B. Simm