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If there was any doubt that Osheaga was Canada's biggest music festival, it was shattered last night. The Montreal event has had its attention-grabbing headliners in the past - Coldplay and Arcade Fire spring to mind - but this year's (reportedly $2 million) coup, Detroit hip hop juggernaut Eminem, launched the festival into a new stratosphere.
Now in its sixth year, the arts and music festival has ballooned to accommodate ever higher-profile performers. This year's edition increases the number of stages from four to five and adds an extra day, a move that certainly paid off last night as Eminem attracted upwards of 38,000 people - by far the biggest crowd in Osheaga history. An informal survey of the grounds revealed more than just curious Montrealers, but travelers from all over the country (including a sizeable smattering from Toronto) making the pilgrimage to Parc Jean Drapeau.
It was an undeniable success for the festival, it also had its drawbacks. Osheaga has always done a good job of booking talent from all over the musical spectrum, from folk to electronic, indie rock to soul. And that usually brings out a diverse, open-minded crowd, but if the glut of Eminem t-shirts was any evidence, it appeared many were there strictly for the headliner.
As a result, many of the other acts felt a bit like glorified openers. The mainstage area was packed and buzzing all night, but the aptly named Green Stage was a little more low key. Folk looper Joseph Arthur and Montreal-via-Toronto gothic-blues act Timber Timbre both benefited from the less rowdy atmosphere, especially Timber Timbre who played while ensconced in face-obscuring fog.
But back at the dual mainstage area (the two stages are set up side-by-side so that one can set up while the other's in use), many seemed to be waiting politely for the night's headliner. The night's second biggest act, sensitive rapper Kid Cudi, cancelled at the last minute (an unfortunate trend for Osheaga), leaving Janelle Monae to justify her second-billed status.
And the genre-jumping bizarro soul singer did everything in her power to do just that. Monae has an undeniably strong voice, but that's just one aspect of her performance. Her set included everything from choreography to costumes to props. She even spent the duration of one song painting a canvas. There were sometime upwards of 15 people on stage - a string section, horn section, backup singers and dancers - but Monae commanded the most attention with her charismatic stage presence and versatile Michael Jackson-style dance moves.
It would have brought the house down in most settings, but that task was reserved for Eminem. Dressed in a baseball cap and Bad Meets Evil t-shirt (the name of his new group with protégé Royce da 5'9), the rapper did the best he could to entertain the whole crowd. He's made some concessions to stay in the spotlight this year, but his more mainstream-friendly newer material was interspersed with hits from all over his back catalogue. Many were performed medley style, spitting one hook after another with little regard to which song it's from.
The sound was spotty, but the crowd was happy to fill in any time the mic cut out. As he finished the night with a powerful rendition of Lose Yourself, it looked nearly all of the 38,000 attendees went home happy. At least until they tried to cram themselves onto the subway.
Photos by Zach Slootsky