By Glenn Alderson
July 7-17, 2016
QUEBEC CITY — Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ) is a world-class festival set in one of the most unique and historical landscapes Canada has to offer. This year, from July 7 to 17, more than 100,000 people took part in the Quebec City music festival, descending on multiple venues around the city, including the historic Plains of Abraham where the British once defeated the French during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. This pivotal battle eventually led to the creation of Canada as we know it and French culture is very much preserved in every breath the festival takes. Unlike the Battle of Quebec, everybody wins at FEQ. The mere fact that there are only 600,000 people living in the city and one in every six Quebec City residents purchase a pass, it is a testament to the diversity of the programming. This year saw a typically diverse cast of performers like Sting & Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, Selena Gomez, Ice Cube, Rammstein and so many more that it’s actually exhausting just thinking about the scope of programming that goes into the festival. I actually believe that only French-Canadian culture could embrace so many variables in the uncontrollable musical spectrum and make it come together so harmoniously under one banner.
BeatRoute was invited to take part in the first weekend of this 10-day celebration and were once again pleasantly surprised by the top-tier production that goes in to this well oiled and meticulously executed annual event, celebrating its 49th year.
I landed in the suspiciously quiet Quebec City airport on the Thursday afternoon to find a chipper and cheerful driver waiting to take me into the city. This would be one of nearly 100 trips this driver would be taking to and from the airport and I’m positive I was the least famous or important of the lot but he treated me with the same amount of respect that he probably showed Bryan Ferry, pointing out historical landmarks and neighbourhoods along the drive there. I hope Bryan Ferry was nice to him.
That night I put on my flashing badge, something all festival-goers are given, and headed out to the Plains Of Abraham amidst the blinking lights to catch the first night headliners, Sting & Peter Gabriel. The tantric twins! Together at last! I’ve always said Gabriel’s “Shock The Monkey” would sound better with a little bit of Sting in it and I was right. The duo was incredibly charming and came through larger than life, pausing once in a while to address the thousands of spectators, speaking in French with the help of a cheat sheet they had prepared. It was actually really adorable. Their entire 90-minute set was as magical and captivating as you’d expect. They blasted through the hits, taking turns to let each other claim the spotlight. From Police bangers like “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” “Invisible Son” and even “Roxanne” to Gabriel’s classics like “Solsbury Hill” and “Don’t Give Up.” Gabriel also took over vocal duties for Sting’s “If You Love Someone Set Them Free” and I cried a little while acknowledging the truth of the sentiment. The night ended on a beautifully choreographed high note with the duo coming together to drop the curtain with “Sledgehammer.” Smash.
Once their set ended the Plains cleared out in perfect abandonment. Buses were lined up within a short walking distance from the field and all the nice people got on them and went home. The rest went for poutine and I of course joined them before retreating to my hotel to catch the rest of the SpongeBob SquarePants marathon.
Friday night at the festival was a bit more of an indie affair with Lord Huron, City and Colour and The Lumineers taking over the main stage action on the Plains of Abraham. I instead opted to check out Quebec-based blues legend Steve Hill and The Cult. I caught up with Hill before the show to crack a couple Labatt 50s in his trailer and chat about FEQ. He’s a real interesting guy with a beard who grew up in Trois-Rivières (TR for short!). Started playing blues when he was a teenager and noodled his way through the ranks. He won a Juno in 2015 for Blues Album Of The Year and doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. Because of the shape of the music industry, Hill operates as a one-man-band to keep things simpler, but the sound and talent coming out of that one-man operation was impressive to say the least.
“I’ve been playing at the Festival D’ete for 20 years now,” Hill says. “I’ve opened for Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, Santana, Steve Winwood, Metallica. I mean, it’s been a great festival for me and it’s become so big in the last five or six years especially. Now it’s one of the biggest festivals. This type of event wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago.”
Hill attributes the success of the festival to the organization and the fact that Quebec City loves to party. Standing in the back of the Loto-Quebec outdoor venue, where Hill was sharing the stage with The Cult, drinking my festival-sponsored Molson Canadian, I can attest to the fact that the people of Quebec City do in fact love to party because I hardly recognized any of the newer Cult songs that frontman Ian Astbury was belting out, but the greasy bangers next to me sure did. “She Sells Sanctuary” is for posers, man.
Day three at Festival D’ete begins and I’m feeling pretty good, even though I accidentally ordered Zoolander 2 on my hotel television for $20 before I fell asleep because I don’t know how to use the remote. At least the bed at the Hilton I’m at is way more comfortable than the mattress I’d been sleeping on at home. Plus having cable or a television in front of your bed is something to be celebrated when you’ve grown accustomed to Vancouver quasi-poverty.
Unfortunately my high spirits weren’t high enough to keep the rain away from the city on this particular day. But when it comes to outdoor music festivals you really only have two choices — get a fucking poncho and get out there or shut the fuck up. It took me a while to realize the same guy selling beers was also capitalizing on rain gear so I bought a $10 poncho and put it over my fat wet head to leave my ego behind and truly embrace the rap show going down. I missed Belly because I was being a baby hiding from the rain, but Rae Sremmurd, the young rap duo consisting of brothers Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown and Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown, was up next and the high-energy radiating from the two playboys was almost enough to make you forget about the buckets of rain pouring down on the Plains of Abraham. These two Mississippi boys have a really good thing going right now and even though the attendance on the Plains was about a quarter of the amount of people compared to my first night, they commanded the audience as if it was an intimate club show. I kept waiting for one of them to slip and fall because it actually looked like a tsunami was sweeping the stage as they were jumping around like it was the last show of their lives. I guess if I was opening for Travis Scott and Ice Cube, I’d also be lit AF.
Fetty Wap was supposed to be playing next but sadly he had some border issues so the festival did their due diligence and found the next best thing. Travis Scott was definitely a suitable replacement. I’ve seen my fair share of rap shows but this one was hands down one of the most exciting and, by this point, I’ve grown to embrace and love the relentless rain pouring down. Scott breaks in to his verse on “Feedback” from the new Kanye album and I’m immediately re-charged. Some more odes to GOOD Music paired with “Piss On Your Grave” only make things better.
A couple more Molson Canadians later and Ice Cube was the man of the hour. The notorious rapper plus star of Anaconda and the Are We There Yet? franchise did not fail to impress. The Plains had filled out a bit more by this point and the younger generation of Quebec City was collectively putting their backs in to it. All things considered though, I think the best part of the Ice Cube appearance at FEQ was the headline on the daily newspaper the next morning proclaiming “Fuck Tha Pluie!” Because, like… Pluie, in French, is rain. And I totally get the joke for once. At the end of three days in Quebec City I was just getting in to it but it was time to go home. If I could have stayed for the whole 10 days I probably would have. And as I boarded the plane the next morning to head back to Vancouver, my biggest regrets were that I didn’t get any poutine to go and that I wasn’t going to get to see Sheryl Crow the following night. But as they say in Quebec… C’est la vie!BC, British Columbia, Festival d’été 2016, Le Festival d'été de Québec, Plains of Abraham, Quebec City