If you spend any amount of time at the main stages at Osheaga in Montreal, you’ll notice security guards have a habit of bringing out an absolutely massive fire hose to soak the crowd when the temperature rises. Or when it just stopped raining, or whenever they felt like it. Any time that massive hose made an appearance, regardless of the weather, the audience gave a huge positive response. I discovered sometime during Day 2, that the hose is a tradition at the festival, and it even appears on their official tee shirts.
Osheaga is operating a festival very differently than anything happening in the United States on the 40,000 capacity scale. The scheduling seemed especially wonky at first. For example, Charli XCX and the Walkmen played the very first sets of the first day. I’m guessing it wasn’t an error, but instead an effort to tailor the schedule to a Canadian audience.
Entering Osheaga feels like entering a heavily branded exhibitionist Shire. The tree cover in the park puts a very low ceiling on most of the festival, and there are so many sponsored booths that something like a small neighborhood formed complete with carnival games, yarn bombing, and free booze samples.
Osheaga vastly underestimated between-stage transit. You actually have to cross two temporary bridges (one over a road, one over a river) to cross the festival grounds. When I made that trip for the first time, I was shocked to see that the main stage was actually two full-size main stages directly next to each other. My first reaction was that there was probably a lack of space on the grounds, but when I actually watched two consecutive acts play on each stage, I realized that by having the two stages next to one another, it’s possible to have zero lag in between sets. There are never more than a few moments in the double main stage field without music. I didn't choose this option, but it looked like there was a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where you could have a decent view of both.
The double main stage area is essentially a huge gravel field with a massive grassy hill that stretches the entire distance of both stages. At the top of the hill is another heavily branded tent zone. The big problem with having a gravel field is that besides the stray stones killing your feet after a few sets, the gravel really doesn’t leave too much space to sit and rest. When you add in some scattered thunderstorms and two full days of the festival that gravel field turns mostly to mud with rocks.
Dum Dum Girls set up their own gear like they just didn't give a fuck. That sentiment was mostly present in their blank and vaguely irritated facial expressions that were a logical reaction to the clusterfuck time and place they were slated to play. The Scène des Arbres (Tree Stage) was at the intersection of two thoroughfares and not far from the base of the road bridge. For some reason I still can’t figure out the festival became insanely packed early on Friday. Dum Dum Girls’ apathy quickly disappeared as the sound woman audibly troubleshot nearly every microphone on stage. They started late at around 5:15pm, and played with sound as good as the last house show you went to. Luckily for them, muddy sound can't ruin a Dum Dum Girls set, but if they wanted to start their set with a certain pre-show vibe, the sound problems made any theatrics impossible.
It seemed like an odd time to see Franz Ferdinand on festival bills. If you didn’t catch them at Lollapalooza or Osheaga, my brief progress report would be that everything still sounds tight and they played three new tracks. The crowd was extremely receptive of each one. Also, Alex Kapranos has a pretty nice moustache now.
Atlas Sound played a rare electric set because (I think) his gear went missing after a Delta airlines mix up. The Delta issue aside, this was another indicator that sound problems would affect the majority of sets during the weekend, especially on the smaller and secluded Scène des Arbres stage. Bradford Cox made due in a big way with the substitute electric guitar, which makes sense considering he’s said before he’s sick of playing Atlas Sound shows with his acoustic set up.
MGMT was another kind of surprise billing. The sound was tinny, and the vocals were kept loud and clear. There were some signs of being out of practice (false start on "Song For Dan Treacy", apology after "Time To Pretend") but the goofs, and the banter, made the set feel unmistakably playful and casual. They covered the Rolling Stones’ "Angie", and turned the refrain into a joke afterwards: "They can't say we never tried to cover that song.” They ended with a new song called "Alien Days".
After the first day of Osheaga I went straight to the Divine Fits hometown show at Il Motore. It felt a little bit like an endurance test for both of us, but they played an intense set that started just after midnight and lasted just over an hour. The group definitely felt new-- there were (mostly unwarranted) facial expressions of grave concern on Britt Daniel's face during some songs, and big appreciative thank you’s for the audience coming to show of songs they hadn’t heard. Dan Boeckner told a story about how he gave the out-of-town band members a locals tour of Montreal that ended with a trip to The Giant Orange.
Feist separated her signature audience harmony participation into Quebec and Osheaga’s language groups: francophone, Anglophones, bilingual, and non-Canadian. After “My Moon My Man” she pulled some rock star moves with the acoustic guitar. Early in the set a dude behind me showed up holding a six-foot potted palm tree. He got a lot of laughs from the crowd around us when he pretended to water it with beer. In a minute or two the attention shifted back to Feist and the palm tree dude started getting more vocal during “I Feel It All”. I turned around saw that he had lost the subtle humor of the beer-watering, and was instead holding the tree at his crotch and swinging it around. He didn’t get any response and walked away. Only two songs later, the palm tree ended up onstage in the middle of "Graveyard". Leslie Feist actually stopped the song said something like “We have an offering!” and placed it prominently behind her. Then she dissed Coachella's food, which is a low blow considering Osheaga's food is about 25 percent poutine, 70 percent hot dogs, and 5 percent Dagwoods sandwiches, which is pretty much Canadian Subway.
Jesus and Mary Chain played to a mostly empty side-stage field. Jim Reid walked around onstage in the most low-key way possible: wearing a baggy tee shirt and jeans and sipping from a Budweiser can. At one point there was so much fog and no lighting, that the level of haze was closer to fire emergency than moody rock show. They stopped “April Skies” short because Reid forgot the words. At the end of the set they invited Mad Men star Jessica Paré to sing “Just Like Honey” and “Sometimes Always”. It was a regional version of the Scarlett Johansson Coachella duet a few years ago.
Passion Pit started in the rain. Right before "Carried Away" the quickest change of weather I’ve ever witnessed replaced the rain clouds with an extremely bright and hot sun in about 10 seconds. The sun got the biggest crowd pop, but also sparked the quickest removal of about 10,000 garbage bag ponchos. Short of Angelakos himself, the hardest working member of the touring group must be the female keyboard player who not only read sheet music during the set but who was also Angelakos' main harmonizer. Passion Pit’s set was swapped with Tame Impala’s, which made it about two hours earlier and immediately following Aloe Blacc.
Even though the festival brought the trusty hose out to cool off the crowd just a few minutes after the sun came out, preparations for bigger storms continued. The crew cut wind vents in fences and reinforced the same fence with metal spikes in the ground.
The relatively new Shins lineup was a Sunday-evening highlight. Like most headliners at Osheaga, The Shins are festival pros at this point, and I’m pretty confident that Joe Plummer is the best drummer in indie rock. He mounted a prosthetic hand in the center of his drums with this creepy string of sleigh bells wrapped in the fingers and a cowbell type block at the base. During the closer “Sleeping Lessons”, Plummer walked to almost every microphone on stage and shook a separate pair of bells on a string behind the head of each singer. He also had an unexplained black eye. Another highlight was an alternate arrangement of “No Way Down” that was punchier with more bells woodblock. The rain started during "Port of Morrow" and continued through the start of Bloc Party a few stages away.
At any given point in Bloc Party's set there were about four people dancing on shoulders and at least two crowd surfing, usually in ponchos because if you remember, it's still raining at this point. They went even crazier when Kele Okereke commented, “All my days, you guys are wild.” Like Black Lips in the heat, Bloc Party considered the weather and made a special point to not leave too much space between songs.
During the Black Keys on Sunday night, I got the feeling that headliners played with very minimal stage sets. Only a few months ago The Black Keys toured the U.S. with two or three 100-foot screens, but on Sunday night they played with standard stage lights, a minimal background, and some platforms for the auxiliary musicians. One notable change from the previous shows I’ve seen was when Dan Auerbach brought out a Dobro for “Little Black Submarines”. During "Everlasting Light" at the tail end of their set, Air France and Moment Factory staged a giant "Pixel Rain" that dropped thousands of LED bracelets, some with free trips from Air France, from a crane about 100 feet above the stage.
Hosting a festival in the center of a city has an entirely different set of challenges from more remote locations like Indio for Coachella or Murfreesboro for Bonnaroo. Sure those festivals have to deal with traffic too, but it’s nothing compared to the challenge of moving tens of thousands of festival goers to an island using only one line of the metro system. Montreal police manned the busiest stations during the morning and nighttime commute to and from the grounds, but even the best crowd control tactics can’t stop delays like this.
Zola Jesus was the only casualty of Sunday’s weather scare. The stage manager came onstage and cut off the set after two songs. She protested with something like, “Come on, I did this yesterday,” and the crowd expectedly booed. Unfortunately, only a few minutes after he pulled the plug, the weather cleared until Passion Pit. After Lollapalooza’s evacuation, Osheaga tweeted they would do the same if things got dicey, but luckily the storms didn’t get much more severe than some moderately strong rain.
After just a couple of hours at the festival it’s clear that Osheaga is making big changes to how large festivals are usually run. Some of the differences, especially how alcohol is sold and regulated, can be attributed to local Canadian laws, while others like the double main stage set up are conscious efforts to make a better festival experience. Food and beverage prices were extremely fair, beers were under $6, and meals were about the same, and both were in high supply. The toughest parts of attending Osheaga were definitely the Metro delays to get there, and moving between stages during a time crunch. If the organizers can manage to make the site more accessible for next year, and they maintain the strength of 2012’s lineup, Osheaga will solidify itself on the late summer festival circuit.