…in which McNutt recaps day one of Montreal’s Osheaga festival (Arcade Fire, The National, Pavement and more)

How does Montreal’s Osheaga festival do it?

Look, it’s not perfect. Yes, there certainly could have been more washrooms on-site for Saturday. Yes, the food and water could be cheaper. Yes, you have to put up with a crapload of corporate sponsorship.

But who else in Canada has been able to not only pull off, but grow and expand a multi-stage rock music festival? Virgin didn’t hold any VirginFest shows this year. Edgefest feels like a faint memory. B.C.’s Pemberton festival had so many logistical nightmares that it hasn’t been repeated two years on. There are lots of small festivals (like Nova Scotia’s Evolve) and lots of multi-night shows (from Ottawa’s Bluesfest to Sarnia’s Bayfest) but no one has come close to pulling off Canada’s version of Coachella, Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza.

Except Osheaga.

This year marked an important milestone for the festival: not only five years running, but the first year where attendance on both days crossed the 20,000 mark (or, at least, very close to it on Sunday). With arguably one of its deepest lineups to date, fans flocked to Parc Jean-Drapeau in droves. Though not as massive as last year’s Coldplay attendance, you could still feel the crunch on Saturday as the masses piled in. The Green Stage (the MEG stage in previous years) played to larger-than-usual crowds all day, and good luck finding a good spot to view hometown heroes Arcade Fire anywhere close to the stage.

But as is often the case, the music wins out in the end – even when you have to make tragic festival timeslot choices (you’ll note that there’s no recap of Robyn’s set below, for example; sometimes, you just can’t make the conflicts work). Below are Saturday’s highlights:

The Walkmen

Inexplicably, the Walkmen took the stage ungodly early on Saturday, only the second main-stage act of the day. They probably deserved a better slot; not only was their ramshackle rock-and-roll flawlessly delivered, but more time would have let them dive deeper into their back catalogue. As it was, they used the set primarily as a test run for their upcoming album, Lisbon, only dropping a couple of oldies including set-closer “In the New Year.” The new material is great, but oh what I would have given to have heard “The Rat.”

Rich Aucoin

With Cage the Elephant unable to play at the last minute, Halifax’s Rich Aucoin – who was scheduled to busk for War Child on-site and who opened for Of Montreal the night before – got a nice little upgrade to one of the main stages. He didn’t have the biggest crowd, and his multimedia show doesn’t really work in daylight, but I’m pretty sure his prop-filled, audience-participation electro pop won over more than a few converts.

Owen Pallett

I missed most of Pallett’s set – I saw him in Halifax back in February – but he played to a massive crowd on the Green Stage, a sign he clearly should have been put on one of the main stages. I arrived just in time for the glorious “The Great Elsewhere” but the set ended soon afterwards as Pallett cut “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” short due to sound issues; apparently he was playing without monitors, a difficult task for an entire performance based around looping.

Sarah Harmer

I always found Harmer’s brief time as a radio darling – when “Don’t Get Your Back Up” and “Basement Apartment” were modest Cancon hits – a bit surprising, considering she’s always had a strong alt-country streak to her work. Though she hit a couple of crowd pleasers, her set was charmingly modest, the sort of thing that is perfect for mid-afternoon lounging on the hill.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

We’ll have to wait and see if this hippie-ish crew manage to take the success of their song “Home” (bound to be showing up on commercials everywhere) and build a sustained career out of it. Their live show is great fun, but I couldn’t help but get a Dandy Warhols vibe from the whole experience: great while it lasts, but possibly unsustainable. Time will tell. (Sidenote: Those watching Beach House later in the day could catch the Magnetic Zeros, sans frontman Alex Ebert, perched atop the soundman’s riser watching in the sunset.)

Jimmy Cliff

A complete workman – and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, no less – Cliff performs like a man half his age. Even if his music wasn’t your cup of tea (although frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not enjoying themselves during his set), the showmanship on display impressed from the entrance through to the final bow.

K’naan

Just a photo from K’naan, I’m afraid; having seen his Osheaga set last year, I spent my time with Japandroids instead.

Japandroids

At the Halifax Pop Explosion last year, Japandroids sadly started their set late due to frontman Brian King’s illness and never really got to play a whole set. Even though they met their allotted time at Osheaga, you could almost tell how desperately they wanted more. Their brand of garage rock is so loose, raw and blistering that keeping track of time probably isn’t at their top of the list or priorities. Though the band were apologetic about not being able to play longer, the large Green Stage crowd surely went home happy.

Stars

I only caught a bit of Stars’ set – I needed a break, and I wanted to see some of Jamie Lidell – but I heard they were troubled by sound issues. A shame, because the starting one-two punch of “I Don’t Want Your Body” and “Elevator Love Letter” seemed a great introduction. I’m not super gung-ho on The Five Ghosts and I’m starting to wonder how sustainable the band’s routine is, but from the massive crowd it seems many are still on board with their heart-on-sleeve romanticism.

Jamie Lidell

 

Two years ago at Osheaga, Lidell’s funk extravaganza took me completely by surprise. This time, with a better timeslot and a solid new record (Compass), there was nothing shocking about his soul-man show. I only wish I had the energy to keep up; by this point in the day I was fading, so I took a quick breather by the new Green Stage bleacher (which, along with the stage’s weather-resistant temporary floor, was a great addition).

Keane

Four quick observations:

  • Keane frontman Tom Chaplin looks a lot like Michael Buble these days.
  • Keane and K’naan is still a weird pairing to me, but it was fun to see them do “Stop for a Minute” together.
  • When Chaplin talks, he sounds like Russell Brand’s inoffensive twin brother
  • Though I’ve never really been impressed by the band, “Somewhere Only We Know” is a rather impressive piece of schlock; I found myself caught up in the singalong without even noticing.

Pavement / Beach House

Normally, I would have (sadly) skipped Beach House for Pavement’s reunion tour, but given that I’ll be seeing Pavement again in October I split my time with the dream-pop duo. However, that time wasn’t as much as I would have liked: Jamie Lidell’s late start due to technical issues meant that the entire Green Stage lineup was pushed back, so I only got to see a few songs from Beach House. But the Teen Dream tracks were good; maybe a little too good. Part of me felt as if I could have been having the same experience lying at home in my bedroom, but perhaps I was just too far away from the stage to really zone in; the crowd was, once again, huge.

As for Pavement, it was hilarious watching the Twitter chatter about their set: it alternated between bliss and anger. Pavement aren’t the sort of band that’s going to convince anyone with their live show: if you like the band, you’ll love it, and if you don’t know the band you’ll be left bewildered by what the fuss was all about (or, as in the case of one concertgoer, you want to throw a beer at Stephen Malkmus’ head). But from the moment they started with “Gold Soundz” and worked through classics from “Cut Your Hair” to “Unfair,” the show lived up to Malkmus’ opening words to the crowd: “Hi, we’re Pavement, it’s 1996 all over again.”

The National

For much of the past five years or so, The National have closed their show with a raucous live rendition of “Mr. November.” This year, though, upon the release of High Violet, they’ve taken to following it with a riveting take on “Terrible Love,” that album’s first track. In doing this, they not only put together perhaps the strongest 1-2 indie rock punch since Arcade Fire paired “Power Out” and “Rebellion” (more on that below): they’ve perfectly elucidated their own growth as a band. No longer finding power in noise and release, they now build amazing, glorious moments out of restraint.

Well, to some extent. The reason why The National have earned their rep as a live band is that they bring out some of the chaos they hold back on the record. Distortion pedals are turned on, song outros build to noisy climaxes, and vocalist Matt Berringer transforms his baritone into the occasional raspy yell. It’s a brilliant translation of The National’s strengths (the male angst, the classical musicianship, great pop songs) to the live setting, as songs like “Squalor Victoria” and “Afraid of Everyone” gain new life in front of an audience – this particular night, with the assistance of Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry. Drawing mostly from Boxer and High Violet (with a token Alligator track or two for good measure) the band made the most of every moment of their allotted hour.

Arcade Fire

I hesitate to spoil my thoughts on The Suburbs, so I’ll just say this much: it’s a record with a lot to prove.

The band’s live show is part of that proof. Arcade Fire are sitting at the juncture between “big” and “huge,” their popularity fast eclipsing most of their indie rock peers. One could argue that they were always a band with stadium-sized ambition, but performing at a theatre show like you’re playing to a crowd of thousands is not the same as actually playing to a crowd of thousands. And though the band has regularly played festival gigs to hordes of people, the expectations change when your name moves to the top of the bill.

The proof is there on stage, though: Arcade Fire are the real deal. Even with a few challenges thrown at them – the fickleness of any festival gig, combined with the fact that they’re touring a record that’s not out till Tuesday – they exhilarate, they rush, they thrill. Having never seen the band before (missing their one and only Halifax gig due to a university trip remains a key regret of mine), one found little, if anything, to suggest that their sterling renown as a live act is unearned.

At moments, it did feel like a test drive for the band’s arguably more important shows later this week (a two-night, almost-sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden, night two of which will be filmed by Terry Gilliam for a live webcast). The band tried not ending their main set with “Power Out/Rebellion,” but instead followed those songs with “Month of May” and “Half Light II”; both well-performed, but the crowd had already peaked and kind of crashed. As well, they eschewed a few key tracks (“Keep the Car Running,” “The Suburbs”) in favor of trying out new Suburbs material they’d yet to play before a crowd before. At times, it showed; for example, as great as it was to hear “Sprawl II,” The Suburbs’ hidden masterpiece, it’s such a shift in the band’s sound that it’s going to take some time for it to weave more naturally into their set.

“We Used to Wait” is an instant live classic, though. Rather than play piano as seen on YouTube clips of shows earlier this year, Win Butler went mic-only and joined into the sprawling antics usually left to his brother, his voice breaking with each cry to “sing the chorus again.” The song was also a cue that rhythm is going to be a big deal on this tour; tracks like “Rococo” and, surprisingly, “Deep Blue,” thunder along, sometimes with the help of Regine as a second drummer. All of these songs were received with less audience fanfare than the standards, but hey, that’s what happens when you tour in advance of a record. They’ll find their way.

But that said, the set’s high points are still those Funeral anthems we all fell hard for six years ago. Some might consider this a problem, a sign that the band peaked right at the start. But Funeral is special, and that’s worth remembering. For all the bands that manage to make truly great records, few manage to create something that transcends artistic excellence into a broader phenomenon: an album or a song that touches nerves, claims hearts and sends souls soaring. The Suburbs is a great record – one could even argue it better than Funeral on a clinical level – but it’s not special.

And this isn’t a problem. Because Arcade Fire will write many, many great songs in the years to come to build out their set, and who knows: they may even come upon something truly special in the process. But I bet that in 10, 15 years, Arcade Fire will likely still be building their set’s high points around Funeral the way that Radiohead climaxes with “Karma Police” or “Street Spirit,” or the way U2 ramps up to “Where the Streets Have No Name” every single show. Arcade Fire have been doing the “Power Out/Rebellion” segue since 2005; it never gets old (and it’s even better backed by the International Fireworks Competition). Nor does hearing 25,000 belt along to every chorus of “Wake Up,” or the band’s glorious snowscape of “Tunnels” turn literal as confetti rains down on the crowd.

These are more than just great songs; they’re something special. And in Arcade Fire’s capable hands, they’re every bit as magical in front of 25,000 as they must have been in front of 25.

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One response to “…in which McNutt recaps day one of Montreal’s Osheaga festival (Arcade Fire, The National, Pavement and more)

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt reviews Arcade Fire live at Alderney Landing in Halifax…well, Dartmouth « McNutt Against the Music·

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