Photo by: Renaud Philippe
In Toronto or Vancouver, Coeur de pirate typically plays to rooms of about a thousand. But here in Quebec City, the cultural and political capital of French Canada, the Montreal-born chanteuse has packed the Plains of Abraham — forty, maybe fifty thousand people — headlining the first Sunday of Festival d'été de Québec. Here, Hedley opens.
Coeur de pirate's performance is a part of a long-running festival tradition called Carte Blanche, a special show in which an artist invites their favourite musicians to accompany them on stage. It's sort of a Coeur de pirate and friends. The small handful of English media are buzzing because Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace will be among her guests (the pair had just confirmed they're in a relationship, shortly after Coeur de pirate wrote a letter for Noisey coming out as queer).
When Grace appears, however, the crowd — I'm expecting to really lose it — doesn't much transcend its baseline rumble. Nothing like the roar suggesting complete shock and excitement in the presence of celebrity heard when Alex Nevsky takes the stage. This is especially startling because: I have absolutely no idea who Alex Nevsky is. In fact, I don't know any of Coeur de pirate's other guests either.
Despite a lack of interest in francophone music most elsewhere in Canada, and perhaps because of it, Quebec has evolved a separate music industry, constellated by its own stars. That I don't recognize them is my own fault. I'm the Dorothy, and quite clearly, I'm not in Ontario anymore.
When North American music festivals begin to look and sound the same, FEQ stands out. You won't find M83 or LCD Soundsystem or any of 2016's other festival circuit staples, but that certainly isn't to say you won't find bona fide headliners. The festival programs some of the biggest names across every genre. Among its 300 shows, this year's edition includes Sting & Peter Gabriel (playing together), Selena Gomez, The Lumineers, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Ice Cube, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rae Sremmurd, Rammstein, and Kaskade, to name just a few. Last year, it got The Rolling Stones.
The real magic happens whenever it uses that brand name talent to deploy local and regional acts, connecting francophone artists with and contextualizing them within international scenes. Quebec City's own Safia Nolin thoroughly charmed (and warmed) a crowd wet from the rain with her darkened, soulful folk before The Tallest Man on Earth strode through with his peculiar Guthrie/Elvis swagger. Coeur de pirate's Carte Blanche showcase (ft. Nevsky, Grace, Milk & Bone, Loud Lary Ajust, and Les Trois Accords) welcomed many acts onto a stage multiples bigger than they might usually play. The festival builds bridges into a music community — to some a bit insular, and to others like another galaxy.
Photo by: Sebastien Dion
And while both artists and outsiders benefit from the opportunities for discovery, it is the people of Quebec that the festival was founded for 49 years ago, and it is the people of Quebec who are still served best. On a tour of festival venues, programming director Louis Bellavance mentions that about one in every six residents of Quebec City will purchase a wristband. Passes for the 11-day festival cost only $90, all taxes and fees included. And more still, they're transferrable. Friends can share wristbands.
Organizers want the people of Quebec City and the region to be able to see acts that might not have otherwise stopped there. Ice Cube, for example wouldn't regularly play the Plains of Abraham, but at Festival d'été, there he is, singing "Fuck Tha Police" to a crowd of rowdy, bouncing, overwhelmingly white French Canadian kids, middle fingers pointing to the sky, on the very battleground where it was decided that Canada would be British. It is a strange sight, perhaps problematic, maybe a bit subversive, too.
Walking the Plains to the concert clubs of Saint-Roch and back again, climbing one cobble stone hill after the next, getting lost down narrow side streets, and sustaining yourself on Boréale and squeaky cheese and more gravy than you can really ever imagine putting inside you, you get the idea that perhaps the biggest, brightest star of FEQ is Quebec City itself.
Venues are scattered throughout, activating different parts of the city, sending crowds off in every direction. Surprises happen: attracting a stream of people leaving the Alessia Cara/Selena Gomez spectacular, Montreal indie folk band Half Moon Run popped up for a short acoustic set at Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, a decommissioned church many likely wouldn't have ever stepped inside.
Photo by: André-Olivier Lyra
Most acts start at dinner time or later, a programming choice that forces festival-goers to explore through the day. But you'll quickly find it's easy to entertain yourself flipping through record stores or curiosity shops or pub beers. We regularly found ourselves running late to catch the one or two things we planned to see on any given day. You lose yourself to the festival a bit. And, in this case, the festival is the city.
If FEQ is like a bridge — connecting detached local, national, and international music communities — it's one I'll do a better job watching, paying attention to who's crossing over from the other side. It's also one of those bridge I'd tell everybody to go see, at least once.