Recapping the 2009 Osheaga Festival with Coldplay, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more

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Friggin’ Coldplay.

Oh I’m not a hater – you may recall my wrestling with the band when I reviewed Viva la Vida last year and ultimately coming out of it a supporter. And although some evil genius decided to put them on at the same time as Girl Talk at the 2009 Osheaga Festival this past weekend at Montreal’s lovely Parc Jean Drapeau, I was really looking forward to their set. And apparently, so were 29,999 other people.

There’s always a line to be drawn between how many tickets a concert promoter CAN sell for a gig and how many they SHOULD sell to ensure that everyone has a good time. Last year I saw Radiohead at the Parc with a crowd of 35,000 and it was pretty crammed, but hey, it was a two-band show with doors opening just before suppertime so no big deal. But Osheaga is an all-day festival, one where people have to get food, go to the bathroom and be able to move around the concert from band to band. Getting Coldplay and the Beastie Boys as headliners was a huge coup for the festival (even though the latter sadly dropped out with a week to go due to Adam Yauch’s cancer diagnosis) but could it support their drawing power?

I vote no. While Saturday had its highlights, I found the whole experience a bit stifling. It became increasingly difficult to get anywhere near the main stage as the day rolled along – if I had wanted a good spot for Coldplay, I would have had to camp for a spot during Jason Mraz’s set and miss watching most of the Roots directly. The bathroom lineups were massive, and especially bad for the ladies. And food? Good luck with the 30-45 minute wait. Oh and getting off the island at the end of the day was a disaster.

This was made even stranger by the fact that, to my ears, Sunday boasted the FAR superior lineup, even without the Beastie Boys. It was diverse, deep and substitute-headlined by an amazing band touring one of the year’s best records. And yet, approximately half the crowd showed up for day two. While this made for a much more enjoyable experience overall, it was disappointing as a music fan.

But enough dwelling on the disappointment, because the show itself was anything but. After the break, photos of every band and artist on the bill that I was able to check out (even for only a short time) and short writeups for those that I have something to say about. If I haven’t talked about a band you’re curious about, just ask me in the comments and I can put a few quick thoughts together.

Day One

Jesca Hoop

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NLF3

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Kitty Daisy and Lewis

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Donavon Frankenreiter

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Silver Starling

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Every good music festival should have a discovery or two buried in the early hours of the day for the keeners who arrive early and don’t mind spending their time with a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of before. For me, Silver Starling was the hidden gem of Saturday. We happened on them by accident, as they were soundchecking before the day began and had an impressive presence about them. That translated later in the day into an anthemic, loose set of indie pop with great hooks and an even better vibe; music to soundtrack a long drive home to. Frontman Marcus Paquin’s got one hell of a resume – recording and producing for Stars, Arcade Fire and Tomgat –  and their upcoming debut record, due out in September, was mixed with Peter Katis (The National, Interpol). Consider me excited.

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Josh Ritter

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K’naan

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Eagles of Death Metal

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Elbow

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Out of all the bands that were taking advantage of Coldplay’s massive audience, I’m going to guess that Elbow probably got the most new fans out of their performance. They really play up their loud dimensions when playing live, and their sound is impressively dense and quite massive. When you add to that a wonderfully British self-deprecation to show they don’t take themselves too seriously, you had the most successful of the late afternoon performances.

The Stills

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The Roots

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I remember reading an article a few years back bemoaning how “black” music had become entirely individual-driven since the rise of hip hop, and that there were no more black “bands” anymore. The one exception cited was the Roots, and their live show almost feels as if they’re consciously aware of the weight on their shoulders. Part concert, part cultural event, a Roots show knows few boundaries and even fewer pretensions as the band works and weaves their way through the entire history of black music. There’s rock, R&B, hip hop, funk, soul, jazz and everything in between. They play their own material, they play through pieces of “Apache,” “Immigrant Song,” “Sweet Child of Mine”…they leave you believing that they can and will play anything.

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Coldplay

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I don’t think Chris Martin ever saw a Bono stage move he didn’t like. That’s not a bad thing, actually – Coldplay’s most endearing attribute, in my books, is their almost shameless desire to be a big, important band and to push their sound – and their show – into the stratosphere. While Viva la Vida is the first Coldplay album to begin to justify that ambition, they’ve done a wonderful job taking their earlier material and making it fit the 2009 Coldplay model; it’s fascinating how small and odd the songs from Parachutes feel after you’ve seen their modern live incarnations. But for the most part, a Coldplay show is more about spectacle than the sound (since there’s only so much four guys and a whole ton of samples can do to muck with the songs) and Chris Martin and company pull that off in spades. I’ve never seen so much confetti as was dumped on the crowd during the wonderful Viva highlight, “Lovers in Japan.” Last year Radiohead’s show coincided with the International Fireworks Competition, lighting up the night sky as the band played their most iconic songs. On Saturday, the fireworks did the same for Coldplay. For their devoted fans, I’m sure it was every bit as magical as my experience last year was.

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Girl Talk

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I didn’t get to see all of Coldplay’s set, though, and with good reason. At Coachella in April I chose Morrissey over Girl Talk – the correct choice but not one I wanted to make. This time, there was no way I was missing out on the mashup king. So the middle portion of Coldplay’s set was spent at Osheaga’s biggest dance party, complete with confetti, toilet paper guns, tons of balloons and a whole lot of sweaty people. The music was pretty great: in addition to many of his albums’ highlights, DJ Gregg Gillis put together a ton of new gems, many of which reflected the recent passing of Michael Jackson (combining “Remember the Time” with “Under Pressure” stood out). And there was a fantastically self-aware moment when he melded “Boom Boom Pow” into Coldplay’s “Clocks,” which I had just seen the band perform no less than 20 minutes earlier. But having said all that, it felt as if everyone else was having a better time than I was. Maybe I was just tired, maybe I was too busy trying to take photos or I was worried about making it back for the end of Coldplay…or maybe there’s just something underwhelming about seeing a DJ at a rock show when you’d rather be at a club.

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Day Two

The Honey Brothers (drummer Adrian Grenier)

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Lanan

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Miike Snow

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Beast

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The Ting Tings

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Vampire Weekend

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Given how much I loved Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, my considering their Osheaga set a surprise might seem, well, surprising. But it was – I’ve had this grudge against VW’s live stylings because I always felt like they were treating their songs as every bit as slight and precious as their detractors think they are. But something clicked in Montreal. Maybe it’s that the crowd was full of keeners singing along, or that Ezra Koenig seemed energized by the fact that the early afternoon rains were giving way to an awesomely sunny day. Mostly, though, is that they’ve gotten better at this game, comfortable with projecting these small little pop songs onto a wider festival canvas.

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Rufus Wainwright

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Cursive

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Amazing Baby!

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The Decemberists

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“Nous sommes The Decemberists and that was The Hazards of Love. Good night.” Those were the only words that Colin Meloy spoke on-stage at Osheaga, right after they played the final note of their set-filling, complete performance of their 2009 prog-rock concept album. I frankly admit surprise that they had the guts to pull it off in front of a festival audience: it’s not only a difficult album but a polarizing one, making an equally strong argument for the band’s detractors as their supporters. I don’t think Hazards is the band’s best work, which is why I was  a bit disappointed when I first realized partway through the set that it was all we were going to get. But it found its groove, especially during its incredibly strong middle portions, and there’s no question that the record works better as a live performance piece, with top-notch contributions from Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. As a sudden and brief torrential downpour fittingly soaked the final notes of “The Drowned,” the band was smiling almost as much as we were. Not my ideal Decemberists gig, but a very cool experience to be a part of.

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The Rake Song, live at Osheaga:

Heartless Bastards

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Arctic Monkeys

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I hate being “that guy.” The guy who is close minded about a band’s new material. The guy who holds a band’s debut record higher than the rest and is too judgmental about everything afterwards. But here I am: I wanted to hear a lot more from Whatever People Say I Am than I got at Osheaga. Oh well.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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This past year, I’ve gone from being a casual YYY’s fan to a full-blown fanatic. Part of the reason for that is that I consider It’s Blitz to be the band’s best work, still getting play on my stereo months after its release. The other part is that I’ve now seen the band twice live and am completely willing to bestow upon them their deserved status as one of the best live bands in the world. There are few frontwomen (or frontmen) as captivating as Karen O, few soundsmiths as blistering as Nick Zinner and few drummers as dance-note-perfect as Brian Chase. Moving effortlessly into a headlining slot when the Beastie Boys canceled, the band delivered a performance that would have made putting them on at any other time in the schedule absurd. From the creepy, nervy take on “Heads Will Roll” that opened the show to the sparse, haunting acoustic version of “Maps,” it was the sound of a band completely at peace with its own chaotic equilibrium: smashing heads and breaking hearts in equal measure.

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