By Sebastian Buzzalino
July 3 – 13, 2014
QUÉBEC CITY — That DJs are the new rock stars shouldn’t be news to anyone paying attention to pop culture in the past decade. Few contemporary rock and roll acts have the sheer draw power or instil the kind of feverish urgency that can match a top-level producer like deadmau5. Standing alone on an outdoor stage of staggering dimensions — the largest of its kind in North America — with only his trademark mouse head to identify him and dwarfed by a dizzying and spectacular light show, Joel Zimmerman captured the Plains of Abraham in Québec City without saying a word — indeed, without scarcely engaging with the audience beyond his production. Close to 100,000 Québecois kids made the pilgrimage to Festival d’été’s massive main stage on a Wednesday night to partake in something that comes as close to a collective ritual as possible in our contemporary, fragmented, culture. Deadmau5’s set was less about him as a performer and more about the shared experience of traversing 100,000 other moving bodies in the dark, trying to score drugs in broken French off the babe in the Springsteen crop top on your right. Nous sommes des journalistes de musique, you can say before she peels off a giggle to her friends, but it doesn’t matter: for the Toronto producer’s two-hour set, what matters is being there, dancing under the enormous stage lights depicting Dante’s Inferno and flickering smartphones uploading to Instagram, drinking white wine straight from the bottle, looking around to realize that you’re in one of North America’s oldest European settlements and everything is exactly the way it should be tonight.
Mammoth, shared moments like this don’t often exist in a climate that has obliterated the monoculture and embraced the acceleration and proliferation of interconnected subcultures as the norm. But, the annual Festival d’été specializes in them. The long-running Québec City summer tradition is an anomaly on the Canadian festival circuit, with enormous ambitions and a budget to match. Deadmau5 wasn’t the only megastar to grace the festival’s programming this year: Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Queens of the Stone Age, Snoop Dogg, Journey, Big Wreck, Sam Roberts Band, The Killers, Bryan Adams — the festival’s organizers and programmers swing for the fences each year and stack their line-up with almost reckless abandon, booking a vertiginous smorgasbord that seems to defy physics. Best of all, the entire thing is readily available to almost anyone: for a paltry $78, Québecois kids book time off work en masse and party for 11 nights in the middle of summer. Festivals elsewhere similar in scope and scale seem to cost double and even triple and seem to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Festival d’été, on the other hand, manages to balance a sense of community with their mass scale.
Despite the size, Festival d’été feels homely and welcoming. Three outdoor stages and a smattering of indoor venues form the entirety of the Québec City circuit, introducing foreigners to the many quaint side streets that snake up and down the city’s cliffs. On my first night in Québec, our cab driver laughed as he hurtled his way to L’Imperial de Québec where we would catch a relentless set by Phantogram: many of us in the anglo group were first-timers to Québec City and he was proud to introduce us to his home.
Phantogram proved to be an excellent way to start our stay at the festival. With a spectacular light show and a wall-of-sound approach to their live electro pop rock, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter’s group put on a high-energy delight that filled the theatre with dancing bodies. Barthel and Carter traded front duties throughout, providing a dual point of focus that kept the audience engaged and the set varied. As they raced through euphoric pop numbers and crunchier dance hits, Barthel, in particular, seemed to be totally consumed by the performance, enraptured in her own art. Phantogram lit up the last set on Monday night with aplomb and Barthel even stepped up to become a human disco ball, glittering orange rays of light into the crowd.
From there, it was a whirlwind three days. Mornings were spent shaking off hangovers and exploring the historic sites just steps away from the festival main stage. Québec City is teeming with charm at every turn and really does feel like a European oasis in the middle of Canada. I made some new friends at a nearby bar, bonding over Brazil’s World Cup humiliation, and we spent the afternoon drinking wine and communicating in some bizarre hybrid of French and English. That night, we caught Italy’s electro house destroyers, the Bloody Beetroots, underneath a steady rain that intensified the whole experience and it was a blast. Sets like that are meant to be ephemeral and enjoyed in the moment; sometimes, a set is just a set and everyone around you is your best friend for 45 minutes.
The best moment of my three days in Québec City came midway during Gogol Bordello’s set at the Scène Hydro-Québec stage, just before I would make my way to the Plains of Abraham for deadmau5. The stage is set in a majestic square at the foot of La Citadelle, which fortifies the old city. In front of 3,000 people, Gogol Bordello set their transcontinental caravan in motion, illuminating the night sky with a riveting, pan-cultural performance. Looking around, people were everyone in the square, mingling in the streets, sitting on the fortress walls overlooking it all — again, Festival d’été seems to have these sorts of mass shared experiences and gatherings as one of their core values and the communion at Gogol Bordello’s show felt electric beyond words.
It’s hard to call Festival d’été a well-kept secret considering its size, but it’s perhaps one of the biggest stories to not be told in Canada. West of Montreal, it seems, the festival doesn’t exist, a massive gathering on the streets of Québec City that flies underneath the rest of Canada’s radar. Those who have attended, and those who eagerly await summer each year to see their favourite acts, can attest to the festival’s unmarred success: 2014 marked the 47th year for Festival d’été and it was one of their biggest yet.AB, Alberta, Big Wreck, Billy Joel, Bloody Beetroots, Bryan Adams, deadmau5, DJs are the new rock stars, Festival d’été, Festival d’été 2014, Gogol Bordello, Journey, Lady Gaga, Mozart's Sister, Phantogram, QC, Quebec City, Queens of the Stone Age, Sam Roberts Band, Snoop Dogg, The Killers