Festival D’Ete De Quebec
A few weeks ago when I got a text message asking me what I was doing. My reply was short and sweet: “Standing on the Plaines D’Abraham waiting to see Aerosmith.” Clicking send, I quickly stopped and thought “woah, that’s something I never thought I’d say.”
Yet, there I was: standing in a sea of 90,000 people on the historic Plains of Abraham awaiting the arrival of Steven Tyler and the rest of “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” It was an energizing and unique revelation. Minor in its scope but major in its implication, it was that moment when I realized the true point of the Festival D’Ete de Quebec: to take part in an experience unlike any you’ve ever done before.
Celebrating its 45th year, Festival D’Ete de Quebec (or Quebec’s Summer Festival if you don’t want to speak French) is the oldest music festival in Canada and has grown exponentially over the years.
What started as a weekend activity in the summer to contrast the famed Winter Carnival, it soon grew to become a benchmark festival. Sadly, the Festival D’Ete began to struggle at the turn of the century as other festivals began copying its structure.
“At the beginning of 2000, it wasn’t as much of a success because we had the same artists that all the others had,” recalls Communications Director Luci Tremblay. “We sold less passes and had less revenue.” Going straight to the source, the festival asked their customers what they wanted and they answered.
“The festival was almost free at that time; I think it was five dollars at that time. They said ‘we’re ready to pay much more if you can attract artists we cannot see during the year, if you attract international artists.’” This response got the festival to increase their programming budget, Tremblay explained; and they began budgeting eight to ten million dollars a year into attracting the biggest stars they could find.
In the decade that has passed since then, ticket prices have been raised slightly but it’s still a steal of a deal. Sixty-five dollars will get you an eleven day pass – allowing you access to ten venues all across the city for every night of the festival. That’s around five dollars a day to see bands like LMFAO, Skrillex, City and Colour, Metric, Mastodon, Lionel Ritchie and more. “It’s probably the best deal ever if you want to see a lot of big shows” says Mute guitarist Alex Trépanier.
And that, says Tremblay is the point. “We want to get as many people as possible to the festival. Last year we had a good lineup but we had two big shows: Metallica and Elton John. And we know that out of the 150,000 passes, that 40,000 passes were used only once. Mostly for Metallica and we don’t like that. Because we want people to come five, six nights. To enjoy the festival.”
So they worked on broadening the structure – enticing people to come on more than one night and maybe check out someone you wouldn’t normally see. Tremblay used French rocker Johnny Hallyday as an example. “He’s a big, big star in France but here he’s never been a star. You would never pay 100 dollars to go and see Johnny Hallyday in a hall because you don’t know him and you don’t really know if you’re going to like it. But with the festival, if you like Aerosmith and Jon Bon Jovi – maybe you’ll try and go see Johnny Hallyday because it’s rock music.”
Plus, the diversity keeps it interesting. “Generally with punk festivals, it ends up being a lot of punk bands that sound the same. Without being cruel, it just turns into kind of mishmash,” recalls Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba of his time at numerous punk festivals over the years. “Whereas if you have something with diversity, it helps to kind of highlight each performance.”
Even if you don’t want to go exploring the differing styles, the wristbands still shouldn’t go to waste. “We can share the wristbands” said Programming Coordinator Louis Bellavance, “So mom was there the first night and last night she gave the wristband to someone else for Aerosmith and Bon Jovi and someone else took it for Skrillex and someone else will use it for Offspring.”
The number of tickets sold isn’t their main priority for this non-profit festival; not that selling 173,398 tickets is anything to scoff at. Instead Bellavance’s focus is the number of people walking through the gates every day. “I want to make sure that there’s a lot of people. This way there’s a feeling that there’s something going on. That’s why we went so diverse and so far it’s worked quite well.”
That feeling, the fact that something is always going on, is the true selling point of The Festival D’Ete de Quebec. “I think people here in Quebec City just want to hear good music, whatever the style is. The weather’s nice, so they just come out every night,” says Mute’s Étienne Dionne. “They like to go out and just enjoy whatever’s playing. I don’t think the precise genre of music really matters, “ echoes his cohort Trépanier, “I think they’re happy with whatever they get.”
It may be Skiba who says it best. “If you’re a big music fan – it’s the same energy. Whether there’s a circle pit or whether it’s a bunch of house wives smoking weed, watching Lionel Ritchie. It’s still the same energy. It’s still people that want to see good music, whatever their taste may be.”
Unlike some of the more mainstream festivals, like Lollapolloza, Coachella and Reading and Leeds, that attract people from all over the globe to see the hippest bands of the moment, Festival D’Ete focuses inward. “We’re selling 160,000 wristbands in a 500,000 city and most of them, like 80% come exactly from the city” says Bellavance as he quickly does the math. “So twenty percent or so of anyone who lives here – including babies and grandparents – are participating in it.”
That community feel creates the energy that seeps through every moment you’re on the festival grounds. The city turns alive and entices you to take part in all it has to offer, from the countless patio restaurants on the Grand Allees, to the portable CD stores where you can buy music from all the artists and the random street performers spread across Old Quebec.
For when I tell stories of the Festival to my friends back home, the music won’t be on the tip of my tongue. That’s not saying the music selection wasn’t memorable – it was. The over the top antics of Steven Tyler on the day he announced his departure from American Idol was a sight to see. His sinewy body thrusting towards the cameras he waved his bandana-clad microphone stand around was just as cheesy as I expected it to be, and the crowd ate it up.
Kathleen Edwards’s voice soared over the Plains of Abraham and songs from her recent Polaris short-listed album, Voyager, gave me chills while the delicate musicianship of Hey Rosetta! seemed to come out of nowhere. Sadly I missed I Will Remember You but Sarah McLachlan seemed genuinely happy with a broad smile and pristine white dress when I caught the last half of her set. Of course, the punk night of Mute, Alkaline Trio and Offspring was my favourite and by the way the dust spun into a tornado as circle pits broke out left, right and centre, it seemed that many others ate up The Offspring as well (although I do know at least a few people who stormed out a few songs in, appalled at the band’s seemingly lacklustre delivery).
Yet, a year from now, the performances of Beirut and The Barr Brothers will meld into one and the same. I won’t remember McLachlan’s smile nor the name of the Cajun folk band I saw on the free stage at Place D’Youville on the day I first arrived.
No, what I will remember are the friends I made and the excitement that the city imbued within us all. I’ll recall running down the hill with some fellow journalists after the Aerosmith show for a non-Festival related concert at the recently opened EXO Lounge. Yes, we got there too late and the show was over – but we shared beers with the blood-soaked owner and talked about music into the wee hours of the morning.
We made friends with several Quebecois who were proud that we had travelled so far for the festival and took it upon themselves to show us the city. Inviting us to their home for a lunch-time barbecue and taking us to a secluded and hidden jazz bar in the heart of Old Quebec. I’ll remember running to the Cercle to catch a late night Festival show of Buddy McNeil & the Magic Mirrors and being pulled into an Irish pub on the way there.
I’ll remember the friendliness of the city and the random conversations with locals and fellow travellers alike. I’ll remember the hospitality and exploring the sights of the city and I’ll remember the moments I can’t remember because of one too many beers.
The Festival should be proud for the bands they’re able to attract, but with so many festivals out there – you need more than just bands to stand out in the crowd. For Festival D’Ete, they have the Quebec City and the genuine excitement of all its residents that work to make it unique.
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