Bloc Party (Photo: Tim Snow)
In recent years, it seems like more and more Torontonians have been making the August pilgrimage to Montreal (as an acquaintance jokingly asked on Twitter, “Osheaga is a holiday where Torontonians go to Montreal & take pics of bagels and smoked meat, yes?”), but this year’s festival seemed to mark a tipping point for out-of-towners. When I arrived on the grounds Friday afternoon and planted myself next to the relatively shady Tree Stage, this became abundantly clear to me, as fellow Toronto writers, friends, ex-crushes, and casual acquaintances drifted by. Some stopped for a quick hello before rushing to another stage to catch the next act on their list, while others stayed for longer.
It wasn’t just Toronto natives there, though. Of the course of the weekend, I saw a guy carrying a massive New Brunswick flag during Justice, Americans decked out in red, white, and blue cheering when Alaska’s Portugal. The Man played their song “So American”, and even found myself involved in a singalong of the Maritime standard “Barrett’s Privateers” while waiting for Bloc Party to take to the stage. The crowds’ regional diversity was perhaps the best testament to the organizers’ ability to put together a world-class festival lineup–even if that meant occasionally being elbowed in the back of the head or long lines for bathrooms, beverages, and $14 veggie “pulled pork” sandwiches.
Taking place over three days on five stages, Osheaga strikes a good balance between popular big names and smaller up-and-coming acts. You can see celebrated ‘90s bands making their “comeback” bids (Garbage) or Pitchfork favourites (Dum Dum Girls) trying to live up to their 8.0 scores. The first day included sets from a Finnish DJ/producer (Huoratron), two bands from Iceland (Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Ros), one duo from Mali (Amadou & Mariam), and acts from four Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia). How’s that for diversity?
“I’m just sipping on some gin and juice down here.” – Leslie Feist
With the crowd kicking up clouds of dust during a sweaty and spirited mosh pit, Black Lips’ Tree Stage set was one of the early highlights of Day 2. Though nobody made out onstage or flashed their genitals, in true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, guitarist Cole Alexander did end the set in a pool of his own vomit. (Of course, this might have had something to do with the fact that Alexander and his bandmates were spotted drinking in a bar on St. Laurent the previous night, along with members of Franz Ferdinand and MGMT. But I digress.)
The high-energy pace contuinued with A$AP Rocky, one of the most-anticipated sets of the festival. The buzzed-about Harlem emcee has yet to put out his debut album, but based on the strength of last year’s LiveLoveA$AP mixtape and a handful of MP3s, he’s already managed to gain the attention of Sony/RCA, who signed him to a $3 million record deal. While his live shows have become notoriously antic-filled, typically featuring Rocky’s A$AP Mob posse crashing the stage or occasional aggressive behaviour, his set was just him, a DJ, and accomplice A$AP Twelvy. Wearing a Campbell’s Soup-patterned t-shirt and clutching a leopard-print towel, Rocky grinned as he surveyed the crowd, most of whom were female and clutching lit joints. There might have been older and more established rappers at Coachella, but no one worked harder onstage than Rocky, eventually losing his shirt and winding up in the crowd, who enthusiastically sang along to “Purple Swag” and “Peso.”
At one point, a potted palm tree managed to make its way to the stage, which Feist accepted with a bemused smile. “This has always been a dream of mine,” she joked, before placing the tree behind her for drummer Paul Taylor, who made use of its unique percussive qualities. Backed by three female backup singers and a band that included Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin, Feist put on a set that proved why she’s Canada’s First Lady of indie rock. The new songs from Metals (which was recently named to the short list for 2012 Polaris Prize) sounded even better live, and older material received new, bulked-up arrangements. Whether ending with “Sea Lion” was a deliberate choice or not, it was a weirdly perfect intro song for the man who recently rechristened himself as “Snoop Lion.”
Having caught Snoop Dogg a few times in the past, I decided to skip him to catch a less-attended set by the Jesus & Mary Chain at the Green Stage. Like their 2007 Coachella performance, which featured an guest appearance from Scarlett Johansson, Montreal-born actress Jessica Pare (who plays Don Draper’s wife Jessica on Mad Men and proved her musical chops with a rendition of French standard “Zou Bisou Bisou” this season) joined the Scottish band to sing backup vocals on “Just Like Honey”. Maybe Osheaga organizers can give her a solo set at next year’s festival?
“We aren’t going to let a little rain spoil the fun, are we?” – Kele Obereke, Bloc Party
After hearing reports of a major storm that delayed Chicago’s Lollapalooza Music Festival–whose lineup featured many of the same acts playing Osheaga–there was some fear amongst the crowd that the day might be cut short due to safety concerns. Despite early downpours turning Parc Jean-Drapeau into a muddy pigpen, the only casualty was the audience’s cleanliness, and American singer-songwriter Zola Jesus’ set, which was stopped two songs in. Aloe Blacc, who is best known for his single “I Need A Dollar” (the theme song of the now-defunct TV series How To Make It In America), lifted everyone’s spirits with his feel-good old-school soul/R&B and shimmying dance moves in front of his sharply-dressed backing band. The sun broke through Passion Pit’s set, who, combined with appearances by Bloc Party and Metric (plus MGMT on Friday), made the day feel very much like the DJ’s playlist on a Saturday night at the Dance Cave. Common and Santigold kept the dance party going well into the late afternoon as we dried out only to get sweaty from dancing.
It’s been two years since Bloc Party’s last album Intimacy came out, and they seemed determined to remind fans why they became one of the biggest bands from the post-punk revival of the early 2000s. They gave a generous preview of their upcoming fourth album, conveniently-named Four (which is due out August 20), as well as fan favourites like “Helicopter” and “Hunting For Witches”. The new material, which seems to reflect Kele Okereke’s maturation as a lyricist while hearkening back to the musical immediacy of Silent Alarm, went over well with the audience, who crowd-surfed with reckless abandon. Between the stage crew squeegeeing down the stage and the security guards pulling errand bodies to safety, it was hard to tell who was working harder, which Okereke acknowledged before singing a few lines from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and transitioning to the band’s own “Flux”.
The Black Keys are no strangers to Osheaga, having played in 2008 and 2010, but since then they’ve won a handful of Grammy Awards, topped the Top 40 charts, and headlined every major North American and European festival. While long-time fans might gripe about how their most recent material has been stripped of the grit of their early albums for the sake of being more accessible to a wider audience, Auerbach and Carney have never been shy about their desire to be the World’s Biggest Band, and they’ve managed to do so on their own artistic terms. I caught the first third of the set, apparently missing the Moment Factory’s “pixels rain,” before heading to get poutine around midnight from La Banquise and eating it in a park with some friends. If there’s a more cliche and fitting way to end Osheaga, I can’t think of it.
Max Mertens is a regular contributor to the Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @Max_Mertens.