August 26, 2011

Je me souviens: A final note on Quebec and music festivals

My French immersion program was set up quite well. Classes ran for four hours every morning, but afternoons, evenings, and weekends were ours to spend as we pleased. This meant we could go and explore Vieux Quebec (the old city) for ourselves, or take off to Montreal (just over a two hour drive) for the weekend.  I can't praise Quebec City highly enough. It's a manageable size (slightly smaller than Winnipeg) and the older sections are really quite stunning. Surprisingly enough, its also a relatively affordable place to live.

Several weeks ago, some friends and I drove to Montreal to catch the final day of the Osheaga Music Festival. Eels (aka Mark Oliver Everett) was grooving when we arrived, and was followed soon after by one of the 90s' most popular stoner-rap groups, Cypress Hill. After an impressive and wickedly funny set by Cypress Hill (who are clearly riding the present wave of 90s nostalgia, which is suddenly everywhere), we were subjected to music of several outmoded, European indie rock groups (The Sounds, The Raveonettes). A good time to search out the port-a-potties.

The day's headlining acts did not disappoint: Beirut were predictably charming, aspiring to a level of musical sophistication and professional tact that I wasn't expecting from scruffy looking indie darlings. Seeing them perform live was easily worth the price of admission. They dipped into some new material from The Rip Tide, but mostly stuck to playing favourites from Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup.

The Tragically Hip also kept to their hits. As a casual fan, I was surprised by how many songs I not only recognized but could sing along to; and, as anyone who's ever attended a Hip concert will tell you, Gord Downie's concert routine is a spectacle in itself. I was honestly blown away by Downie's showmanship (the apparent ease with which he steps into and maintains his onstage persona), and how significant the Hip (not to mention Downie's lyrics) are to Canada's cultural self-identity.

Malajube and Death Cab for Cutie were relatively low-key in comparison. In a festival setting, this shift in tempo and energy isn't necessarily a bad thing. It gave us some downtime before witnessing what I have call (in all hyperbole) the concert event of lifetime: The Flaming Lips play The Soft Bulletin.

The Flaming Lips, who've actually been together since 1983, are widely celebrated for their live performances.  I've never had so much fun at a concert, and, as a member of the audience, I've definitely never felt so loved and appreciated by the performers on stage.  Of course, it wouldn't have been the same without Wayne Coyne's ridiculous props (the hamsterball, the giant laser hands, the balloons, the confetti guns), the emotional rawness of his monologues, or the bizarre video projections that accompanied each song. I've been to a lot of concerts (and summer festivals are especially bad for this) where the performers give their audience sparse attention. With the Lips you get the exact opposite of those pretentious performances; here, the audience isn't merely a conduit for coolness, or a mirror that reflects back the performer's aura. From my perspective, every moment that the Flaming Lips were on stage seemed to be in service of a greater collective experience.

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