Carte Blanche: My Osheaga Saga

An In-Depth Trip Inside the Biggest Osheaga Yet

  • Photos by Erin Sparks

How does one reporter remain completely objective in the midst of a three-day ordeal involving tens of thousands of people, nearly 100 musical and artistic performances, a myriad of mind-altering substances, record temperatures, and a seemingly endless physical and auditory assault? I dropped objectivity and adopted a more participatory philosophy: If you’re already wet, you might as well go swimming. This is the story of My Osheaga Saga.

In its sixth and most well received rendition, Osheaga Music and Arts Festival 2011 broke records, blew minds, and once again set the bar for North American summer festivals one solid notch higher. Osheaga 2011 saw itself expand in a handful of ways, but lets first look at the numbers:

- 3 days (up from two days with the addition of Friday)
– 30+ hours of music
– 92 acts
– 5 stages
– A record breaking 81,000 people in attendance

When faced with the opportunity of attempting to cover this gargantuan occasion I was admittedly slightly intimidated. However, when speaking with my editor she used a wonderful French expression when she explained that I’d been given a “carte blache” (in other words, complete and full discretionary power) and was to make what I could of the festival. So, it was with this encouraging carte blanche in mind that I confidently walked up to my first ever media table, hoping to attain press credentials with all my anxieties securely (albeit awkwardly) tucked into the crotch of my jeans, behind the brim of my hat, and hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. The only honest way to do something like this is to be fully involved, right?


Friday Warm-Up: A Precursor to the Madness

For the first time since its inception in 2006, Osheaga decided to add a third day of mayhem to its bill. Though the opening rituals only began at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, the hype and sheer size of this festival was about to get very real, very quickly. Arriving an hour before Kid Koala (who was dressed in an over-sized koala costume he later told me was sewn up by his wife) opened up the festival on the River Stage, it was easy to see what this day was growing into. Everywhere you looked there were gaggles of young girls in homemade t-shirts professing their love for Eminem, their thug-life bros in tow.

With a solid list of big names crammed onto Friday’s short bill, including girly-pop icon Lights, Bran Van 3000 (who apparently has more than just that one song about L.A.), the once-upon-a-time small stagers turned mainstream Canadian indie gurus Broken Social Scene, Janelle Monae, and of course, Mr. Mathers himself, it wasn’t much a surprise when the numbers finally came in: approx 38,000 people showed up on Friday, setting a new record for attendance at Osheaga.

Even with all the hype set around the main stages and the eventual bro-fest that was to ensue once Shady got on stage, Friday boasted some really great, and extremely memorable performances on its two smaller fringe stages.


Uncle Bad Touch

Admittedly, I had never heard of Uncle Bad Touch, and was fully expecting a group of older gents making some form of dirty joke rock n’ roll. How happily I was mistaken. Taking on the super intimate Tree Stage with their own brand of grungy garage punk, these four young humble Montreal rockers played a short but sweet set to a small but loyal crowd. Their sound ranged from straight up punk/blues to pop-infused rock n’ roll. Vocals were being traded or shared between lead singer/guitarist Mikey and his feisty bass-playing counterpart Kathryn (who reminded me a lot of a younger, modern day Cassandra from Wayne’s World) The band really made their point with the aggressive, Zeppelin-esque “I Wanna Love You,” and their hilarious self-titled punk-pop sing-a-long “Uncle Bad Touch.”


El Ten Eleven

In the week leading up to Osheaga I discovered Los Angeles’ El Ten Eleven and their super energetic electro-infused post-rock instrumentals. When they finally got up on the Tree Stage on Friday afternoon I was confused to see only two guys, one brandishing a mighty looking double-necked guitar/bass, and the other perched over a semi-electric drum kit. Regardless of their lack of numbers, these two took the Tree Stage with conviction and quickly had the crowd packed in and digging their sound. As the two conjured up some heavy, layered, and rhythmic vibrations, a fellow bopping festival goer grabbed me and yelled his verdict in my face: “This shit is totally pre-recorded!” To both our astonishment, immediately after the song was over front man Kristian Dunn made it very clear, “In case you’re wondering, there are no laptops up here. We are recording this and playing it back to you live!”

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As the sun began to set on the first ever Osheaga Friday, I had to make the crucial decision to break up my leftover expenses between enough beer to last the remainder of the evening, and the unavoidable need to satiate my aggressive munchies.

Osheaga had made it a point to offer a diverse food selection to hungry festival goers, and did a good job upholding that point. Never before have I seen a beer hawk walk by followed by a girl carrying around a tray of fruit cups and water.

After some serious scouring I came across a small trailer in the trees between the Tree and Green stages that looked like it belonged to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Naturally I was drawn in and soon found out they were cooking up veggie pulled pork sandwiches and some weird quinoa salad. Bless those damn hippies…


Timber Timbre

Wickedly stoned and satisfied by my vegetarian findings, I made my way through the trees towards the Green Stage for what will remain one of my favorite and most unsuspected discoveries of Osheaga. At 8:45 p.m., half an hour before Eminem was set to lose himself on the Mountain Stage, a relatively small crowd descended upon the darkness of the Green Stage, which was lit by only four small red lights and shrouded in a thick smoke.

When Timber Timbre finally made their way on stage, it was obvious that their following, though small, was loyal and excited to hear these three secrete their strange brew of strange, lumbering, black-on-black folk. Unsure what to think of the band at first, I was quickly entranced by Taylor Kirk’s low and haunting melancholic vocals, and the band’s minimalistic groaning sounds that seemed almost to emanate from the dark forest surrounding the stage. By the end of their nearly hour-long haunt I found myself sitting under a tree, terrified and encapsulated within the séance of their performance. The highlight of the show came from an extended version of the creepy yet hopeful repetition of “Black Water.”



Saturday: The Sun is High, The Freaks are Out

Day two of Osheaga didn’t see the 38,000 people that Friday night did, though the crowd was still massive, and certainly much more consistent. The sun beat down just the same, and it was obvious from a quick look around that Saturday was set up to be one of the most solid days this festival has ever seen.

By 1:00 p.m. Parc Jean Drapeau was a buzz with huge crowds spilling out of the jammed metro station only to be released like mad-people into the festival confines. Without a doubt, Saturday picked up the slack and offered a full day of festival attractions, where Friday had been focused solely toward the evening.

Hordes of young people ran and stumbled about the park in full-blown festival regalia: hip guys and gals in jean shorts, barefooted, bare-chested, bikini toped, hair-feathered, everything crochet, everything flowing, face-painted, tattooed, wide-eyed and wild. People wandered about in overflowing groups, all desperately seeking out their next high from either a provocative performance, a familiar face, a pop or puff or the saving grace of those god-sent beer hawks. This was Osheaga at its finest.

It was total chaos, and with a bill that included such highly anticipated acts as The Mountain Goats, Tokyo Police Club, John Butler, Bright Eyes, Bassnectar, and the resurrected Death From Above 1979, there was no doubt that Saturday was bound to get crazy.

The Mountain Goats

On Saturday afternoon I officially became a huge fan of The Mountain Goats. The three gentlemen lived up to the sarcasm I had heard of by allowing an anxious crowd to mass around the Tree Stage before opening their set with a deafening recording of some anonymous death metal band. The stunt confused everyone in the audience, and brought an ear-to-ear grin across front man Franklin Bruno’s face.

The band immediately kicked into their incredibly passionate but unfortunately short set of intense, ballad-driven satirical folk rock, keeping the audience totally enthralled and laughing along with every song. Their energy was hardly matched by any other band on the Tree Stage, with all three men jumping around frantic, pouring sweat. The highlight of their performance came with their track “No Children,” to which Bruno introduced by explaining, “One day you will all be singing this song… and I just want you to know that I tried to warn you.”


Suuns

There was plenty of talk around the highly anticipated performance by Montreal local drone champions Suuns. Known for their provocative, explosive and spastic performances, Suuns didn’t let down the huge crowd that packed in to bop and writhe to their dark and aggressive electro-noise at the Tree Stage. It was obvious that they had brought along some enthusiastic local support, but they absolutely gained some spontaneous admirers that afternoon as more and more people began to grind along, abducted by the bands strange and rhythmic pulse.

As one of those wholly abducted that afternoon, I couldn’t take my eyes off of lead vocalist/guitarist Shemi Ben, who seemed to be in the grips of some strange psychotic episode, or otherwise possessed by the sound that his own band was producing. The powerhouse songs “Arena” and “Disappearance of the Skyscraper” capitalized their performance.

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As the day’s heat intensified, so did the performances. The endurance test continued, and as I tried to move my way through the now sun-burnt mobs I learnt one very fundamental lesson: when it gets hot, and people are inebriated by whatever means, everything comes to a grinding halt. What does that mean? Line ups, everywhere. Line ups for food, for water, for beer, line ups for the metro, to cross the bridge between stages, for washrooms (however, those boys who did a walk around the park before the crowds get too heavy knew exactly where the urinal village was, and used it wisely). Oh yes, we all learnt a new dance that weekend, and I call it “The Osheaga Shuffle.”


Death From Above 1979

With just a couple hours between Suuns’ performance and 7:30 p.m. when Death From Above was supposed to resurrect themselves on the big River Stage, the only intelligent course of action was to “hydrate,” tighten your shoe laces, and move confidently for the front lines of what was starting to feel like a dangerously exciting situation. Recent DFA performances had led to back-alley riots and injured fans, and I don’t think the crowd setting up for this performance was expecting any different. By the time I’d got tired of forging my way through the compressed mass of bodies that had set up for the show, I was maybe 30 feet from the front. Slightly disappointed but complacent with my position, I prepared to view the madness from the outside. Everything changed when the two disco-punk, dance-rock noise makers took the stage and dove head first into “Turn it Out.” Suddenly the crowd seemed to implode upon itself 15 feet in front of me, causing the not-so-ready-to-brawl fans to back off sheepishly while I made a head-on charge for the center of the tumultuous and violent looking mosh pit that had broken out.

The band powered through a fast and heavy 45-minute set playing a mash up of all their best tracks to a hardcore elite fan base that punched, kicked, danced and screamed along the whole way through. As I walked out from the center of that incestuous mud-bath, my lip sore from an anonymous elbow, my body caked with a thick layer of mud, I knew there’d never be another dance party like a Death From Above dance party.

- – -

Later that night I found myself crawling up from Berri metro station right onto St. Catherine Street. A drag queen, a group of kids who looked like they’d spent the day at Osheaga, and a family of tourists walked by me. As it turns out, I had crawled right up into Festival Divers/Cité. The night continued in a strange and hilarious manner, but I suppose that’s a different story…

Sunday: Do you Realize?

Waking up on Sunday morning after two precious hours of sleep, I realized that a festival like Osheaga requires commitment, stamina, and flexibility. By day three my body and mind had fully tuned in to the pace that I had been running at, and Sunday morning, though hazy, was full of optimism. So, after gathering together all necessary provisions to allow me to see this festival off on the right track, I made my way back onto my new home at Jean Drapeau, safely through the gates, and out to see what one final day of Osheaga had to offer.

Much like Saturday, the crowds were huge, eager and seemingly tweaked on some form of purified excitement. The main difference in the Sunday crowd was that now most people in attendance had a certain level of experience to run off of, and they too had adjusted to the rhythm of a non-stop event like Osheaga, where everything is happening, all the time.

The theme of this festival, or so it seemed, was excess. Every minute of each day there were a handful of things you could be doing, and Sunday was no exception. Instead of tearing things down on the final day, new booths were going up along busy paths, the War Child stage more prominent than ever, and the bill for the final day of Osheaga was certainly not dialed back: Scotland’s very own Frightened Rabbit, An Horse, The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart, Ellie Goulding, Ontario hip-hop artist extraordinaire Shad, Crystal Castles, and above all else, the grand finale of The Flaming Lips. I think the organizers threw moderation out the window when they set this year’s line-up.

Cypress Hill

At 4:00 p.m. if you were standing at the top of the hill facing the two main stages, watching the crowd move toward the River Stage was like watching some form of grand migration. Stoners are generally pretty good at arriving just in time for events like these, but this particular event being Cypress Hill, who happened to be scheduled to take the stage not-so-coincidentally at 4:20 p.m., made for an impressive spectacle. People came from every direction to get a spot, roll up, and prepare to get super high with B-Real and Sen Dog.

Cypress Hill opened their set with “Get Em Up,” and in a matter of minutes a large cloud could be seen rising up above the stage. Standing alone in the crowd and nodding along to tracks like “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” “Dr. Greenthumb” and “Insane in the Brain,” some friendly stoners must have taken pity on me, as I somehow ended up in a circle with two large joints being passed about. There is nothing quite like a generous stoner.


Beirut

After such an energetic marathon of smoking pot to Cypress Hill, I was eager to lay low and be soothed by Beirut’s worldly brass-infused gypsy-folk. I had one serious concern with Beirut though, and unfortunately my concern proved to be true. A band like Beirut, with their ukuleles, French horns, tambourines and accordions, should be seen in a smaller, more intimate setting. For some strange and inconceivable reason, the band was setting up on the main River Stage, doomed to suffer the consequences of big stage sound quality.

Despite the technical difficulties that plagued a large part of Beirut’s 45-minute set, the band, led by crooner Zach Condon, charmed the pants off of the relaxed crowd. They opened their set with “Nantes” an obvious crowd favorite, and continued through improvised ukulele mic set ups with incredible vocal melodies, mariachi styled trumpet duels, and a great stomping rhythm section that the crowd only helped accentuate.

The band’s obvious charm was only solidified for me while backstage by the media tent I watched Condon drive off on a golf cart with several pretty young ladies.


Going Green

Osheaga’s green efforts were an obvious aspect to this years’ festival. An event as large as this can easily produce not only large amounts of physical waste, but use up exceptionally large amount of energy just to keep the whole thing running. To combat the ignorant tendency that many people have to toss their garbage on the ground, Osheaga set up countless garbage and recycling receptacles all throughout the festival grounds. Not only could people dispose of their waste, but they could recycle as well. In true Osheaga fashion, artists had also been set about to make these receptacles pretty obvious and easy to distinguish.

Wandering about the Green Stage I became aware of not only several massive solar panels, but of two large wind-turbines as well. Teaming up with Sennheiser, Osheaga has been working hard with the Green Stage to promote energy efficient and low energy alternatives to putting on large-scale events like Osheaga. The Green Stage used its solar panels and wind turbines to charge large batteries, and help power parts of the sound and lighting systems. Combined with these renuable resources, the Green Stage also used compact audio equipment that produces the same sound, but uses up to 40% less energy.


The Flaming Lips

I think I can suffice to say that the majority of the festival, certainly the entire third day, was spent building up to the end, the grand finale, the final bang of The Flaming Lips, who were set to perform their 1999 epic The Soft Bulletin from start to finish, possibly, as front man Wayne Coyne let us all know, for the last time.

Early Sunday morning it was obvious that modifications were being made to the River Stage so as to be able to contain the grandiose that is The Flaming Lips’ well-known theatrical performance. All day long a giant disco ball hung looming over the heads of each and every act, almost as a constant reminder of what everything was culminating towards.

As the sun began to dip, and the energy in the air shifted in an obvious direction toward the River Stage, I ran backstage into the media area where I saw a super-massive net bag full of enormous balloons. On my way back into the crowd I was caught up in a mess of squealing young girls (and a few squealing boys) who had apparently been hand picked to be Wayne Coyne’s infamous backup dancers. He really is a Willy Wonka of sorts…

When it was finally time for the show, Coyne himself, in his classic humble demeanor, came out onto the stage and very calmly set out to explain the disclaimer that proceeds a typical Lips show, warning the anxious crowd of the intense strobe lights the band uses, and to take care of one another, no matter the drug trip.

The performance went off like a bomb, though filled with confetti and good vibes. Coyne rolled out, as expected, in his giant bubble, tumbling and crawling over an ecstatic sea of hands. The next hour followed suit with all the expected peaks and valleys of emotion as the band led the crowd through an heavy but uplifting performance. The festival ended with Coyne marrying a couple who had traveled from Calgary, and according to Coyne, had taken 10 hits of acid each and decided to get married that evening.

Not to entertain some strange sentimentality, but as I walked away from the spectacle of The Flaming Lips’ closing song, as the festival was coming to an end and I was headed for a greyhound bus that would take me back to Ontario, I couldn’t help but consider what Wayne Coyne implored: Do you Realize?

For three very long, very arduous days Osheaga wowed tens of thousands of people, totally out-doing all previous years and once again placing itself high up on the charts as a must-see summer music and arts festival.

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