18 things I learned on my summer vacation (Osheaga festival edition)

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For the first time in three years, I made my way to Montreal’s Osheaga festival earlier this month. Here’s what I brought back with me.

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1. Good logistics make McNutt happy. While the lineup was perhaps its strongest in some time, I was dreading returning to Osheaga this year because of its dramatic increase in scope. “Back in my day,” (2008-10), Osheaga was two days, mass transit was free to ticket holders and there was between 15-30,000 less people on the island. I remembered the busy days back during those years (like the nights when Coldplay or Arcade Fire headlined) and how difficult it was to get around the festival site, but credit where it’s due: Osheaga is figuring this stuff out. Organizers use more of the island now, throughways were easy to navigate and only a couple of the bands felt like they were mischeduled at the wrong stages. It did help, admittedly, that some of the headliners didn’t attract huge crowds. Which leads me to…

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2. The kids don’t care about the Cure. Often at these festivals, you’ve got to camp or claw your way to the front for the headliners, but the crowd for The Cure had more holes than the plot of a time travel movie, and a crowd full of people who were actually alive when Back to the Future came out. As the band tore through a blockbuster set — two-plus hours, all the hits mixed with moody, swoony deep cuts — I began to wonder why it is that The Cure, clearly a key part of the foundation of modern indie pop, doesn’t seem to get its proper due. Two theories: one is that The Cure don’t necessarily have that “definitive” starting-point album (though Disintegration comes close) and much of the nostalgia-geek music discussion is about albums, not singles; the other is that because the band has never broken up, its members haven’t gotten to play the “reunion tour” game that its peers have parlayed to great success.

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3. Or maybe the kids just don’t care about your nostalgia trip. While the Pitchfork crowd seemed more amenable to some of the older names on the bill, crowds for The Cure, Beck, the Breeders and New Order at Osheaga all felt sparse. In contrast, Icona Pop — despite only a handful of people knowing the words to songs that don’t rhyme with “I Glove It” — drew what might have been the weekend’s largest side-stage crowd, leading to one of the few crowd traffic jams when they finished. Osheaga crowds prioritized their now (Icona Pop, Macklemore, Imagine Dragons) over discovering your then.

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4. The kids do care about their own nostalgia trips, though. Starting with its new single, Jimmy Eat World’s Osheaga set was (minus a couple of detours) performed reverse chronological, ending with four straight Bleed American tracks and culminating with a massive singalong to “The Middle.” Most of the crowd looked like they would have been 13-18 when that record came up, suggesting that JEW will be well positioned for their own nostalgia tour in a couple years.

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5. Follow your head, not your heart. Okay, so this may not always be the best advice, but it was in this case. Osheaga offered me a personal Sophie’s Choice, musically speaking: the band behind my favourite album of 2013 (Vampire Weekend) starting at the exact same time as one of my personal favourite bands of the past five years (The Gaslight Anthem). I’d seen both before, so I went with the longer-term passion and watched mostly Gaslight before catching the end of Vampire Weekend and grabbing a good spot for Phoenix. But while Gaslight were solid, I could tell from what I watched that there was something special at Vampire Weekend’s set — and by the time I got there I’d missed almost all the Modern Vampires tracks (including its best song, “Ya Hey.”) A slow-burning, sensational “Hannah Hunt” gave me a taste of what I missed; I think I played this choice wrong.

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6. But back to Icona Pop for a second. What is it about these two manic Swedish pixie dream girls that’s so enticing? They make fairly standard modern dance songs, and their group-sing vocals aren’t anything new either, but their delivery flirts with something spectacular. Maybe it’s the tinge of reality underneath the escapism: songs like “I Love it” and “Girlfriend” make explicit that this music masks or hides feelings of angst, disgust, discontent: “The life, the dirt, the shit that hurts.” That dosage of of self-awareness, lacking in so much of today’s escapist dance music, made Icona Pop’s set one of the weekend’s best dance parties.

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7. About the beach balls. Does anyone actually enjoy bouncing those things around the festival crowd, or is their persistence an oversized metaphor for the sad, tragic inertia of human existence? Asking for a friend.

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8. Bob Mould has the stage presence of a charismatic but confused mouse. When most front(wo)men leave their microphone, they’re going to jam directly with their fellow musicians. Bob Mould looks like that’s what he’s doing, but then he just blows right past them in a circle, returning to his mic stand without losing any of his fevered determination. It’s riveting.

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9. Yes, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are headliners. When the Osheaga lineup was announced, the duo behind this year’s breakthrough rap record really only had “Thrift Shop’s” chart success to hang their hat on, so I was frankly a bit flummoxed that their font on the poster was so large. (In terms of hip hoppers, they ranked above both Kendrick Lemar and Big Boi). I’ll eat my hat: the two drew, by far, the weekend’s biggest, most energetic crowd. Even with a set full of time-killing stage banter (as you do when you’ve got only one record to work), the fans responded to the 60 minute set like they were watching the night’s real headliners. The single most intense moment of the festival was when, following a crowd-hyping intro, the opening notes of “Can’t Hold Us” blared from the speakers and the entire field felt like it was physically moving in response; a tectonic experience.

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10. Tegan and Sara know they have a hit on their hands. I know I’ve written some reasons why Heartthrob might not be receiving much of a backlash, but it’s still bewildering to me on some level. I was surrounded by T&S die-hards during their Osheaga set, in which eight of the 13 songs were from the new record, and they ate up every note. To paraphrase a Simpsons quote, perhaps the twins became a hardcore pop band so gradually that people didn’t even really notice. (Tegan & Sara also joined Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to sing the hook for “Same Love,” which would have been great had I seen it, but it came early in their set while I was making by way back from a much-needed break with a beer and the slow-burning crescendos of Explosions in the Sky.)

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11. Why isn’t Beck playing anything from Midnight Vultures? I’ve talked to people who loved Beck’s Saturday night headlining slot and those who were less than generous. I was more on the “love” side of the equation, as I thought Beck played a nice mix of hits and more-recent material, but we heard nothing from Mutations or Midnight Vultures. Granted, the latter of these is a bit of an outlier in Beck’s catalogue, but it’s a brilliant one, and Beck even told the Osheaga crowd how much he appreciated Montreal being one of the only cities that actually danced at the show when he toured Vultures.  If Beck could play to Sea Change for a few songs (a divisive point of the show, but I loved it), surely there would have been some space for some funking.

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12. Someone will inevitably lose “festival sound roulette.” It’s simple festival logic: there’s no way that many quick set changes will go off without a hitch. Granted, most could have handled better than k-os, who stormed off-stage halfway through his first song, throwing away his festival wristband to the crowd and saying “I love music too much to do this.” (Osheaga organizers gave him another chance on Saturday when Miguel, a replacement himself for a sick Frank Ocean, cancelled because his guitar player couldn’t make it.) But Ellie Goulding probably fared the worst: a fuzzy speaker through most of the set and her whispery vocals totally disappearing into the mix.

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13. Competition for “weirdest visual accompaniment” was intense. New Order would have walked away with this easily — a string of silly, literal, ripped from 1998 computer visuals — but Big Boi’s above-and-beyond effort won out. Now, granted, Big Boi was a trooper, performing with a bum knee after tearing his patella. But while clearly a video feed of him rapping from a throne wouldn’t have been very entertaining, the alternative — playing the music video for each track he was rapping, often perfectly lined up with his live vocals — was more than a bit odd. Even stranger was during one song when the screens showed a set of still photos of Big Boi animated with iMovie’s Ken Burns effect. Really?

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14. People have lots of interesting ways for their friends to find them in the crowd. There was the flamingo, the squid, the dude who had a plant in his backpack. But for my money, disgusted Rob Ford took the cake.

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15. The “Rabbit” is “Frightened” because your drummer is terrifying. Seriously, terrifying.

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16. New Order is better off without Peter Hook. Now, granted, I’m not interested in New Order making new music without Hook, the man with one of the most distinctive bass styles ever. But given their reputation as a spotty live band, I was shocked by just how good New Order sounded, playing classics from “Temptation” and “Blue Monday” with effortless enthusiasm and finishing the set with three Joy Division tracks (“Atmosphere,” “Shadowplay,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). Perhaps without Hook’s drama as an albatross, the band is able to focus on delivering a festival-worthy greatest hits set — and deliver they did.

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17. Phoenix is just the right amount of “too good.” I can be somewhat cold to bands that sound a little too note-perfect — and I don’t mean canned sound (though the chorus effect Thomas Mars uses to bump up his vocals had more than one person suggesting to me that he was singing to a backing track). I mean when a band is so tight and perfectly put together than any looseness, any spontaneity, dissipates. But there was something awe-inspiring about just how good Phoenix sounded. Their set skewed heavily towards Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (as it should), with highlights including “1901” and a stunningly slow-building version of “Love Like a Sunset.” During the latter, I saw a number of kids leaving the pit, unimpressed by the set’s greatest moment seemingly because there were no words being sung. They didn’t know what they were missing out on.

Speaking of which, to wind down…

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18. Are we raising a bipolar musical generation? For a person who’s only 30, I sure referenced “kids” a lot in this piece, but I was really feeling the generation gap this time around, more so than musical festivals I’ve been to in the past. Something that struck me was the popularity of the neo-folk movement among the crowd’s contingent of 20-somethings. I’d long suspected that a driving reason for the popularity of bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers is cross-generational appeal, but the crowds those bands drew suggested that their single-generation appeal is doing just fine. Which leads me to the biggest epiphany of the weekend: that the kids holding their hearts singing along to every word of “Ho Hey” and “I Will Wait” are the same neon-sporting concertgoers who were dancing their hearts out to the synthetica of Icona Pop, or the chart-ready dance-rap of Macklemore. The whiplash between the two worlds got me thinking about how folk revival’s appeal could be a superficial balancing of the musical palate: the way to survive on a diet of hyper-processed sound is to consume a couple meals of (equally calculated and packaged) “authentic” sound, signified by the acoustic guitars and 1960s folk echoes. We consume “realness” with the same superficial engagement with which we consume processed pop.

…or perhaps this theory is as half-baked as the group of bros that stood next to me during Kendrick Lemar.

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