Toronto's favourite music pilgrimage is back for its seventh year. Canada's only real music festival that rivals mega-fests like Coachella and Lollapalooza, Montreal's Osheaga once again attracted huge hordes from all over the country (and some from beyond) for a solid lineup of fresh faces, early decade nostalgia acts, legitimate rock veterans and a few outliers.
Arriving in the afternoon when things were starting to get into swing may have been a mistake. Mobs of deck-shoed, flower-haired, Expos-tanktopped hipsters were packed so tightly into the Montreal subway that police had to perform crowd control.
But once we were past the bottleneck, Radio Radio was a perfect cheer up on the mainstage. Though they're from New Brunswick, they're one of the best-suited acts for a Montreal festival like Osheaga. Rapping in franglais, the three emcees appealed to both the native francophones and the visiting revelers with their bilingual party anthems about Jacuzzis and Kenny G, and their unusual band set up: drums, organ and trumpet. They're not the deepest group in the world, but they're perfect for a festival kickoff.
Last year's big headliner, Eminem, attracted one of the biggest crowds Montreal has ever seen. This year, the organizers have made a few notable changes to accommodate bigger acts and spread the attention beyond one or two bold-named bands. Where the two side-by-side, gravel-grounded mainstages typically house the large-font names, one of the park stages (Scene Verte) has been moved and increased exponentially in capacity. Neo-bluesman Gary Clark Jr. isn't a huge act by any means, but he attracted a sizeable audience that wouldn't likely have fit otherwise. Clark Jr. obviously styles himself as a 21st century Hendrix, letting his soulful croon take a backseat to his guitar heroics. A bit too jammy at times, the set felt like a little bit of Bonnaroo at Osheaga.
Back on the mainstage, the Weeknd captured a lot of attention with his second Montreal show. Though he's not as allusive as he once was, a set by the Toronto R&B wunderkind carries a sense of occasion, and the crowd gathered early evening rivaled any of those from the more official "headliners." Abel Tesfaye has a magic set of pipes, but by forgoing playing shows before putting out a trio of excessively hyped mixtapes, his audience was already more rapturous than his stage chops could allow when he first started performing. A year into his live career, he's obviously found his confidence. Jumping around, belting and actually talking, the young star seemed like a veteran festival act. A beefed-up, bass-heavy live band setup helped fill the large space, but often overshadowed his best asset: his voice. An acoustic final song showed what he can do as a soul singer rather than the leader of a rock band.
Later on the same stage, Sigur Ros played the set to beat this weekend. Reviews of the Icelandic post-rock idols typically feature words like "majestic" and "ecstatic," but this time around the setting collaborated with them to double the effect. Playing against a beautiful sunset, the expanded band's arrangements swelled with strings, falsetto and bowed guitar, leading more than 30,000 fans in a simultaneous bliss-out. An unrelated nearby fireworks display directly followed their last note, as if planned (it wasn't). Then French electro duo Justice changed the mood 180 degrees, setting up above their trademark illuminated cross and let the breathless audience dance away their Sigur Ros tears with their enormous rockstar dance hooks.
As we've learned from NXNE, if you gather enough music fans in any city, good things will happen whether you plan them or not. That certainly proved true last night as Divine Fits, the heavily hyped new supergroup from Spoon's Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs' Dan Boeckner, played a secret concert at the tiny rock venue, Il Motore (a hometown set for Boeckner). The show had nothing to do with Osheaga, but there were more than a few wristbands visible on audience members who had rushed over from the festival grounds at Parc Jean-Drapeau.
It was only Divine Fits' third ever show, but the combination of players promised a seriously swaggering groove, and they didn't disappoint the sold out audience (including towering Arcade Fire players Win Butler and Richard Reed Parry, who showed by standing directly in front of me that they are tall, tall dudes). Few of the songs have been released, but they should sound familiar to fans of either Spoon or the Handsome Furs. Boeckner and Daniel switched off on vocals and guitar, and their tunes really did sound like a perfect combination of both bands. A rare example of a supergroup meeting its potential.
Bring on day 2.