Long before music festivals became de rigeur summer fare, Quebec City was filling its streets with multiple stages and myriad musicians for its 11-day music extravaganza. Celebrating its 50th year of existence, this year’s presentation was fitting for a golden anniversary, with some of music’s biggest headlining artists slated including Pink, Kendrick Lamar, Muse, and The Who.
I arrived in 411-year-old city on Friday, July 7, as the first weekend of festivities was in full swing. Unlike many festivals, Festival d’ete de Quebec (FEQ) music doesn’t kick into gear until 5 p.m., but once it does its nine separate stages come alive with a stellar selection of local and imported bands, an aural potpourri from which to choose.
On the Imperial Bell stage, for example, New Orleans-based cello player Leyla McCalla performed her folk-style music that draws on the traditions of Haitian, Cajun, and classical techniques. A former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, McCalla came to FEQ in support of her latest solo record, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, with her band mates guitarist Daniel Tremblay and violist Free Feral.
Also on the slate for the evening was the Quebec indie rock band, Plants and Animals, consisting of Warren Spicer, Nic Basque, and Mathew Woodley. The group, whose first full-length record, 2008’s Parc Avenue garnered them a Juno Award nomination, drove up from Montreal to play a 7 p.m. show at the Scene Loto-Quebec stage. They were followed by The New Pornographers, with headliners Wolf Parade closing out the evening.
At the Scene Bell, the festival’s largest stage, the headliner that night was Grammy Award-winning artist Kendrick Lamar. I strolled up sloped streets bordering Parliament — a late 19th century architectural stunner built in the Second Empire style — that led to the Plaines d’Abraham, a gorgeous 240-acre urban park, where Lamar was scheduled to go on at 9:30 p.m.
I merged into the stream of people entering the Plaines to see the rap artists and found a nice standing spot a bit back and to the left of the stage. The air was charged with excitement as tens of thousands of folks awaited Lamar’s performance. Before the 30-year-old emerged, a seemingly Christian-themed, slightly bewildering video set the mood for a spirited performance by the superstar. Widely considered one of the most brilliant rappers of today, the singer was humbled by the crowd’s adoration and spoke genuinely of his appreciation of his fans.
As the clock neared 11 p.m., Lamar concluded his show and bid the crowd adieu. With an air of collective joy, the audience filed out of the naturally occurring grassy bowl subbing as a concert arena, and dispersed back onto Grand Allée, the street where merchants, food vendors, and sponsors had set up shop to entertain FEQ attendees.
A visual treat awaited those of us who took Avenue Honoré-Mercier in front of Parliament: Surrounding the Fontaine de Tourny, giant marionettes were inflating into life thanks to the French artists collective Les Plasticiens Volants. Created specifically for this year’s FEQ, the giant puppets grew and then meandered slowly off, with the help of their “handlers,” into the night to surprise and delight pedestrians roaming the Grand Allée.
I headed back to the Hilton, the sponsoring hotel at the epicenter of the FEQ, and took the elevator to my fifth-floor room. With a brilliant view of Parliament from my floor-to-ceiling window, I drifted off to sleep as midnight came and went. I’d not even been at the festival for a full 24-hours and I’d already had a magnificent day.
The Backstreet Boys were the main stage headliners for Sunday and their die-hard fans couldn’t wait — many of them slept over night at the venue gates to make sure they secured a front-and-center spot for the general admission set. But before the ’90s boy band’s 9 p.m. set, there was heaps of music to feast upon.
At the top of my must-hear list was Geoffroy, a Montreal-based artist whose debut record Coastline, released in March, is one of the best I’ve listened to this year. While Geoffroy has garnered a large fan following in Quebec, he has yet to break into the United States market, though seems just a matter of time. A graduate of Berklee School of Music and McGill, Geoffroy’s musical acumen is impressive and readily apparent in the attention to detail given to each song. I caught up with him ahead of his show at Scene Fibe. (Read interview with Geoffroy here). We spoke about the business of music, writing for certain venues, and the conflicting ideas explored in his debut record Coastline. The rain clouds scooted across the sky as Geoffroy began his show, which included songs from Coastline, such as “Sleeping on My Own,” “Thirsty,” and “Coastline.”
Later that evening, I headed to the Bell Stage to see the Backstreet Boys opener Nick Jonas. The 24-year-old struggled at the beginning of his set to take command of the enormous stage upon which he played to a 100,000-strong audience. He eventually found his groove and ultimately offered up a satisfying set.
The BSB’s show was the antithesis of Jonas’s straight-forward pop/rock performance. It was a spectacular spectacle that looked every bit transported from the group’s recent four-month Las Vegas stint. The two-hour show included four sparkly costume changes, a grip of backup dancers, a light show for the ages, and an encore that included confetti guns that shot millions of tiny paper pieces into the crowd.