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July Talk | Photos by Renaud Philippe
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What can you get with the biggest talent budget for any festival in Canada? Eleven nights of legitimately A-list musical programming, apparently. Unbeknownst to most of the rest of the country, Quebec City's Festival d'été pulls it off every July. And this year? Pop stars du jour like Tegan and Sara and Jake Bugg. Polaris long-listers like Thus Owls and BADBADNOTGOOD. Guitar masters like St. Vincent, Bombino and Gary Clark Jr. Really famous bands from decades past like Steve Miller Band, Journey and Blondie. Pop music icons like Billy Joel, Bryan Adams and Lady Gaga. Resurging punks like Brody Dalle, mega-groups of the aughts like the Killers and dance music megastars like deadmau5. Aging rappers like Snoop Dogg, reigning emcees like A$AP Rocky.
That doesn't even touch all the francophone artists who are massively popular in Quebec and unheard of in most of Ontario.
There are festivals with a higher cool factor - more Pitchfork-reviewed bands and more VICE-endorsed rappers. But who doesn't want to see Summer Of '69 or Born This Way or Fly Like An Eagle or Drop It Like It's Hot on the Plaines d'Abraham with 90,000 spectators in the height of summer?
In that way, the festival is more Ottawa Bluesfest than Osheaga (in fact, it shares a lot of headliners with the former). But the price tag is a fraction of each. Bluesfest (11 days) and Osheaga (3 days) go for $250. An 11-day pass for Festival d'été costs $78.
This is kind of North America's best kept festival secret. And needless to say, it's nearly impossible for a non-Quebec-based journalist to decide which three or four days to go.
Ultimately, the inaugural weekend seemed like a good bet (Gaga, St. Vincent, Snoop, Steve Miller, Bonobo), and the first night kicked off in that strong and slightly slower way that most festivals do.
Landing late-ish, I missed the massive tribute to French-Canadian singer/songwriter Félix Leclerc as well as indie bands Royal Canoe and Groenland. Here are five things I did see that totally rocked:
1. Wet fans, high spirits
It rained and rained throughout L.A. indie-rock five-piece Local Natives' set. Understandably, the near-capacity Scène Loto-Québec stage audience were pretty stiff. The band were warm and gracious, but they were also a bit flat and their sound levels were often totally out of whack. As the set progressed, though, those got mostly ironed out. And when it came closer to 11 pm, about half the crowd, deterred by the ongoing downpour, headed out. But that turned out to be a positive thing, as it left behind fans most familiar with the material to dance and clap and revel in the sopping wetness. The band, in turn, really found their groove, taking time to dip into the crowd. Way cool.
2. French fireworks
Canada Day fireworks in Toronto last for, what? Twenty minutes? Last night, in a downpour, we got them for twice as long over the Plaines d'Abraham, which you could see from the Grande-Allée entertainment strip.
3. Attempts at bilingualism
Unlike in Montreal, if an anglophone speaks French in Quebec City, the locals will speak it back. They appreciate the effort. So, too, do fans. Americans Local Natives and Torontonians July Talk both attempted multiple French phrases, with moderate success and to maximum applause.
4. July Talk rock
Toronto band July Talk, fronted by Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay, play a very aggressive, Americana-heavy indie blues-rock. It might not be to everyone's taste, but last night's 11:30 pm show at Le Cercle proved they've come into their own as performers. They always seemed like naturals onstage, but there was something cutesy about the way they swapped vocal lines the last time I saw them perform in Toronto. They still lust after one another onstage in that over-the-top, get-a-room type of way, but they spend less time doing that, and more time lusting after the audience and drawing them into their sweaty fray. I've never seen them play such a packed, excited room.
5. Mononc' Serge
I understand French, but there's still a bit of a cultural disconnect for me with a certain kind of francophone musician. Take Mononc' Serge, or "Uncle Serge" for example. A kind of standup comic meets singer/songwriter, the guy strums his acoustic guitar and takes the piss out of politicians and culture. Lots of crassness and tons of Quebec in-jokes. Sample ironic banter: "J'aime le sex, j'aime les drogues, j'aime le rock 'n' roll!" I'm not sure we have much of an equivalent in anglo Canada.
It was the capacity crowd and snaking lineup that intrigued me in the first place. And though it wasn't my thing, the fact that the most excitement on the rue Saint-Joseph Est strip was for a local celebrity tickled me. Festival d'été has tons of international talent and draws a fair amount of tourism, but this is still a festival for citizens of Quebec City.