The train to the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal disgorged its passenger load. Hundreds of determinedly excited alternate rock fans, infectiously laughing and talking, crowded out of the station and into the sunshine at Parc Jean-Drapeau towards the festival site entrance.
My head went back to the head-spinning days of my twenties; not much more than a teenager, to rock concerts in the 1970s in Melbourne and Sydney. Further back, to folk music clubs in Hobart where folk and blues artists of the day paid their dues interpreting some of the master musicians of the genre.
We sat on the floor. Our bums or ‘butts” as we call them now, were more resilient then to hard surfaces for prolonged periods. In a large darkened room, with barely any furniture, we breathed in air tinged with a pungent smoke which I realised, even though I had not smelt it before, was from marijuana. I couldn’t see any “funny cigarettes”, as they were colloquially l known, being smoked but they were certainly there somewhere for sure in the mouths of the audience who kind of shielded their faces. I learnt later that the “weed” was certainly being sucked by the performers backstage.
The bands would come on, slowly, shuffling perhaps, but intently focussed, plugging in their guitars, brushing long hair away from their faces, scratching beards, tuning up. The lead guitarist or singer, it would have been Matt Taylor in the case of Chain, a top Melbourne heavy blues band, would make a brief comment about being glad to be here. They were glad to be anywhere earning money from playing music in those days. Then they would launch loudly into a blues track which might be familiar or obscure. It didn’t matter really.
It was a long time ago but the memory was fresh. Here in the now, “I NEED TICKETS” is the first thing I see as I approach the festival site gates. The plea is shouted in big capitals on placards waved hopefully by several people who obviously haven’t planned ahead and booked. So they don’t have tickets and they think people who have had foresight and booked ahead are going to sacrifice all that forethought effort and sell their tickets? Well, good luck with that, I think. I am definitely not one of those people, having bought tickets online from Australia six weeks before.
I walk on, smiling, not gloatingly you understand, just happy that I have tickets for the first two days of the festival. It is not as good as a three-day pass with the third day to include The Strumbellas, a Canadian band I had first heard back in Australia on the ABC Radio National afternoon program, The Inside Sleeve, but that’s ok. Their music has been pigeon-holed as “alternative country”, “indie rock” and the somewhat intriguing and tortured “folk popgrass”. Alas I would not be seeing them but their musical relatives, near and not so close, would be appearing on the other two days.
Through the security gates where bags are checked for whatever they check bags for these days. “I’m too old to be a risk,” I say with a small smile, risking a more thorough examination and maybe even a frisking. The security woman gives me a small smile and waves me through. They look for signs of nerves or shiftiness and I showed none of those with plenty of experience at airports. “Just look like you know the business and don’t get irritated”, I think.
The festival site takes in six stages spread out across the island reached by walking paths ranging from tarmacked trails to dirt trails through trees, over bridges and through clearings. Underfoot the walking seemed easy. But it was deceptively challenging and tiring, a tiredness which creeps up as audiences swell in front of the stages: River, Mountain, Green, Trees, Valley Stage and the Zone Picnik Electronik or Electronic Picnic.
The first cab off the rank at the Valley Stage is Canadian indie rockers Elephant Stone, a band from Montreal who had taken their name from a song by British rockers Stone Roses.
I was curious to see and hear what they had to offer because the front guy Rishi Dhir, the bass and sitar player had once said he wanted to “make the perfect psychedelic pop record”. I wondered whether or not that it would be achieved. I was familiar with psychedelic bands of the 1960's and how guitars, drums and sitars could be played and mixed. How would Dhir achieve it?
Three guitarists and the drummer led by Dhir bounce onto the stage energetically. One of the crowd of several hundred who apparently had seen the band perform late on the previous night in a Montreal club yells “I saw you guys 12 hours ago”. Dhir grabs the microphone and yells back “we’ve had two hours sleep since then.” I am wondering how they will perform. I need not have worried or even given it a thought. Nearly forty years younger than me, their energy is far greater, especially perhaps with sleep shortage.
Elephant Stone launch into a number from their latest album Ship of Fools. It is a blend of western psychedelic rock with traditional Indian music played on sitar, tabla and dilruba. It is sometimes heavy and dissonant.
Miles Dupire, the drummer gives out with a steady rock beat. It sounds different to me but I can’t quite figure out why. It is solid and supportive and that is what matters.
The Elephant Stone set climaxes with what is usually a seven minute song, Don’t You Know a heavier-sitar drenched number stretched out to ten minutes. I hear the echoes of George Harrison but this is a long way from the opener on Side 2 of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - “Within You, Without You” by George and his friends led by Ravi Shankar. I can sense them looking on as I look up to the clouds above in a hot blue sky.
The drone of the sitar fades. Elephant Stone exit stage left to make way for Jack Garratt, British singer and songwriter and player of several instruments.
As a child, Jack said (in one interview) that he enjoyed making noises so much so that his parents, (perhaps to get him out of the house) enrolled him in music lessons.
“I really enjoyed the reaction that I got from making those noises,” Garratt said. As he starts to growl on the microphone and play his drums in a kind of fever up on stage, I can hear what he means about noise. There is something melodic in the synthesised piano sounds coming from off stage, plus some strangulated soul and what sounds like a drum machine. But for some reason I am not impressed. It’s a pity because Garratt’s influences include the blues, not that all blues influenced artists produce good music.
I am not an expert in what works for blues music but generally speaking, it’s not inaccurate to say that every guitarist who plays the blues, first immersing themselves in the greats such as Muddy Waters, does not become Eric Clapton. For every blues influenced rock record making the charts in the 1960's there were scores of failures for records not even making the Top 100's, not even “bubbling under” as the DJ language goes.
I had read recently some comments not by Garratt but about him by the acting music editor of Britain’s The Independentnewspaper, Emily Jupp. He was, she said, now “on the cusp of fame” having done “a few years of graft” since he was 14 years old when he finished last in the 2005 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. His music now “ticks all the boxes for record producers” because he plays all the instruments (fewer problems with split fees between a team of writers and producers apparently) and "live’ gigs are really now where it is at. But the songs are still not ones easily recalled and they fall into lots of genres, often creating an electronic soul sludge”.
But Garratt has years to hone his music. Give the guy a chance. I am thinking Julian Lennon was criticised for the “banality” of his first songs in the 1990's, criticism to which he responded, not quite as sharply as his father would, that not everything his dad wrote as a teenager was brilliant. That came later for John Lennon with lots of hard work, albeit underpinned by sheer talent and the ability to learn not only from his partnership with Paul McCartney and the guidance of producer George Martin but from the cream of rock and rollers who came before him.
So, hungry for more and different music if possible, I move on and head to the Green Stage.
The crowd, undeterred by the hot sunshine, is swelling quickly as South African singer and songwriter Jeremy Loops makes his entrance clasping a mouth harp. Yes, this is different.
Cheering and clapping greet Loops as he warms up, alternately blowing on the harp and stirring the audience with shouts of Osheaga. Getting deeper into the harp, he is accompanied by a thumping electronically generated beat. I’m not a fan of electronic simulation of drums, there's something not natural about it, but make an exception for Loops as he discards the harp and picks up an acoustic guitar. I am curious though that he doesn’t play the guitar but starts to sing in French and English with the beat continuing underneath him to the end. Hey this guy is bluesy!
Time to bond with the audience and gee them up. That’s how a performer works to keep the pot boiling. For Jeremy Loops this is his first music festival in Canada and tells the crowd “we’ve travelled a long way to get here”. Cue for a big cheer and whistles as the rest of his band, one with an electric guitar and another with drumsticks join him on stage.
“If you know the words, don’t be afraid to sing your fucking arses off,” he shouts. The crowd roars back “yeah”. I smile at his enthusiasm reflecting but only briefly on how far performers have come, or not with their vocabulary since the last time I attended an open-air rock concert. Anyway the band is on fire. Jeremy plays the guitar and the mouth harp. No need for a backing track now. It’s all musicians and more like I am used to, not that I am complaining.
At the back of them on a big screen, fish-like creatures created digitally flash up and start swimming. The music is Sinner, country rock, bouncing along drenched in mouth harp with just a little hard edge, as it might be described if it was on a restaurant menu, a song I know only and recently, from a video clip on the Internet, has the audience in Jeremy’s hands.
The fish on the back screen disappear to be replaced by views of Jeremy’s feet to go appropriately with the next song My Shoes, going much stronger and bluesy now, less country, with mouth harp leading in to a rap rock mix. The difference is exhilarating even to me who heard but passed on rap or hip-hop as it was also known. It came too late to engage me by the late 1970's and by hip-hop’s second coming, or second wave in the mid-1980's, I wasn’t listening to radio stations which played that music or going to places where a new style of Disc Jockey “scratched” and jerked vinyl discs under special pick-ups to spur dance club-goers into frenetic dancing.
On the screen behind Loops there is a change of scene as a tiger crawls forward through assorted trees and leaves and drawings of railway lines which a child would recognise. The singer is pumped and so is the audience. “It’s good to see you Montreal, how ya doing?” If there is anyone there who wasn’t a fan of Mr Loops before, they are now, collectively pumping the air with their hands to show their approval. Fine sprays of water pumped from hoses at the front of the stage give us a drenching to keep us cool. The sun has begun to shine more strongly. The drenching is welcome.
With a final plug from the singer for his new LP – “it’s on vinyl and it’s awesome”, the band exits stage right to make way for the next act, US rapper Goldlink. But watching someone, no doubt an expert, playing mix tapes is not my ‘bag’. Turning away I see my two friends from the train, Brody and Julian on the other side of the fenced off enclosure at the front of the stage. I give them a shout and surprisingly over the noise, Julian hears me and looks across. He grins, nudges his friend. They wave. Both are grinning and giving me a thumbs-up for the experience we have just shared, we head in different directions for other venues.
With my program displayed on my electronic tablet (backed up with a scrunched paper copy in my rucksack) I trudge in the mounting heat and along grassy and dusty paths, pounded and scuffed by thousands of feet, towards the River Stage.
On the way it is time for a pit-stop and a bite to eat to refuel. The first is not easy to achieve. Hovering balloons indicate where the toilets are so finding them is not the problem. It is the queues which are challenging to say the least. Younger queuers are secretly envious I fancy of seniors getting into line. “I’ll bet they are wearing pads”, I can almost hear them thinking. Well, maybe not. The odd one or two younger people do however allow a ‘senior’ to move in front of them. A kind of chivalry is still alive here.
I smile to myself but soon after I am a little saddened when I walk past a man in his twenties wearing a thought-provoking T-shirt. Not the shirt itself but the slogan on the front, declaring the wearer’s religious, or more correctly non-religious beliefs. “Fuck God – Believe in Yourself”. Now even if you don’t believe in God, is it really necessary to be as strident as that? It is more likely, judging from the “look human” on-line ordering website that the shirt is what they call “edgy and naughty” appealing to “atheists, agnostics, and people who want to be cool” or to deconstructing Christians or aetheists. I do not stop the wearer to ask him but perhaps, and here I take a broader view, his slogan is a kind of tongue-in-cheek reverse declaration meaning the opposite of what it says? Pity I don’t have time to have what would probably be a deep conversation distracting from the excitement of coming here.
After a delicious vegie burger which according to the food franchise van poster was not cooked in animal fat, I arrive at the River Stage where Los Angeles band Silversun Pickups are soon to perform their brand of alternative rock. I have read that this group whose music I am unfamiliar with apart from some online listening, brings to mind an “alternate universe Smashing Pumpkins” updating a “gauzy heavy rock”. Unsure exactly what that means but recalling my son as a teenager liked one of the band’s records I thought Silversun Pickups should be given a hearing.
The music commentators say this band is: “shoe-gaze” or “dream pop”. I wonder if “shoe-gaze” is the equivalent in the second decade of the 21st century of the sometimes indulgent blues style music of the 1970's where, as mentioned earlier, the performers engaged more with the floor than with the audience. Is it fuelled by the same substances as then? Somehow I think not. But what do I know?
Silversun Pickups’ got their name from a liquor store in Silver Lake and playing in clubs. The front man for the past 14 years, and out front singing today, is Brian Aubert. He is a bearded 40-year-old but he appears a decade younger. Aubert is energetic as he pulls chords and riffs from his Gibson guitar fretboard, jumping up and down and posturing a la Mick Jagger.
The band is unusual, underpinned by solid low-end bass player Nikki Monninger who also sings. Nikki appears to be uneasy on stage and smiles nervously as the band belts out their songs. Bad Dreams. There is no nervousness from the drummer Chris Guanlao with his long black hair flailing as he attacks his kit in a fierce solo. This is hard driving rock and blues which I had read owes something to distortion heavy rock of the 1990's associated with Radiohead. The words, something about “bad dreams” are almost buried in the mix but they don’t seem important, it’s the energy and vibrations man.
In between songs from their latest album, Aubert stirs up the audience, calling out to them that Osheaga is “hands-down our favourite festival in the world… because it’s the best one”. Well, I guess that depends on what else you’ve seen. But no matter, the crowd roars approval and what would I know, this is my first alternative rock festival anyway.
I join some of the crowd moving on and heading for the River Stage where a band called The Wombats is due to play in the early evening. Perhaps there’s an Australian connection? But the band is from Liverpool, England and the only Australian echoes are in the name and strangely in the long shorts worn by the Matthew Murphy, the lead guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist, a la Angus Young of AC/DC. But their music also has the hard edge of AC/DC and maybe tinges of Easybeats. “Maybe it’s the English Summer, maybe it’s the atmosphere” sings Murphy as he leaps around the stage pushing out English Summer from their latest album Glitterbug. The songs have melody and rhythm, but with a definite hard edge.
It is late in the day and from the corner of my eyes I am alerted to a disturbance in one section of the crowd. People are getting tired. A woman, hardly out of her teens, and a man who is probably her boyfriend, are arguing or at least they seem to be. As the band on the stage ramps up the aggression in their music, the couple raise their voices. The woman is pleading with the man not to go deeper into the audience at front of stage. He walks off and after a very short while she shrugs her shoulders and walks after him. No doubt they’ll sort it out. The dying rays of the sun slash across the smoke haze hanging above the crowd and I call it a day too, heading for the rail station to return to my Bed and Breakfast for the night.
Yes the Bed and Breakfast in downtown Montreal’s Sherbrooke West district was in among the variety of B&B establishments to be found, indeed to be on the alert for, on the variable Airbnb website, papered with photographs of varying accuracy as to quality.
I had a room, part of a rabbit warren of rooms called apartments above a restaurant. It was certainly handy to the metro and I had a room to myself albeit created by a sliding partition but with a gap at the top letting in light from a kitchen about twenty feet away. The bed was comfortable but only just and there was a desk and a lamp by which to write on my laptop. For $40 it was not “flash” as country folk say and I should not have expected it to be. “Clean and comfortable” I believe is the expression people say as faint praise without wishing to offend.
The other rooms, I worked out, were mostly rented to university students, some of them in their teens. I had made the brief acquaintance of 17-year-old Ji Ji, who told me she was from Istanbul and learning English and of course keen to talk to anyone who spoke English. Letting me in to the apartment’s dining room area when I arrived, Ji Ji made me a cup of coffee and sat with me at the table while I waited for my “host” Valery. After two hours talking, and struggling at times to find something to talk about with a teenager - it had been a long time since I had conversed with someone 40 years younger than myself - a jolly Jewish woman came in. This was Valery who had apparently been in her rooms across the hall. “Oh, I didn’t know you had arrived… you should have knocked on my door,” she said. Well, I would have if I had known which door to knock on, I thought. No matter.
Valery showed me my room which as I said was basic. I hid my slight dismay at the obvious lack of complete privacy and the fact I would be sharing a bathroom with the occupants of three other rooms divided by thin walls.
“We eat at 7pm” stated a sign in big capitals on the wall. I opted to go down the street for dinner and have an early night ahead of my first day at the music festival.
At breakfast on the morning after, the journey back to my early 30's days of shared houses, continued. Other students came out of rooms off the kitchen. They nodded and smiled. But like Ji Ji from the previous day’s interaction, that is having little English, conversation was again limited. No-one mentioned, they would have thought it impolite anyway, to say if I had disturbed anyone with my snoring during the night. Not that I would necessarily have been snoring, of course
Valery is a talkative and slightly bossy, Jewish “momma” who tells me how able-bodied and mentally active her ageing mother is and what a fertile garden she has. I took an apple from the basket on the table, presumably from that garden, drank my coffee and left after about twenty minutes to prepare for my day.
Day One of the Osheaga Music Festival has already been worth the price of admission so I am ahead and feeling in the mood for more alternative rock, indie rock, whatever, I turn out for the second day.
It’s a Saturday late morning and with a paper cup of coffee in hand; I travel in again from the suburbs to Parc Jean-Drapeau.
It seems like everyone has had the same idea to start late today after sleeping in.
The trains were jam packed starting at the junction of several lines as festival goers converged on the main line to Osheaga. Laughing, jabbering, smiling, shrieking people standing like randomly distributed sardines. Police and security officials at station platforms keep order and safety, roping us into queues and keeping the lines moving.
It is late morning when I enter the festival site and already it is hot and the crowds are building, kicking up the dust on the trails to the music stages. There are bleary eyes staring at mobile phone screens, tapping their whereabouts and present lives and thoughts into Facebook. There are yawns from those who stayed on till late last night but the glint of anticipation is still there.
No time for breakfast for some people so the takeaway food outlets were meeting the hunger deficit. The picture forming is speckled with walking breakfasters carrying food trays in one hand with the other hand waving or punching the air to music from stages already in swing.
First off I buy the festival T-shirt. You have to, don’t you. Hey it’s the second day so it’s not an impulse buy. I am not under the influence of anything, not the music, just the euphoria of having enjoyed the music and the expectation of hearing more of the same from bands I haven’t heard before, playing long sets, almost full concerts, to audiences of up to a couple of thousand in front of some stages.
Silversun Pickups, on the first day breaking away from the three guitars and drums line up, had been a joy to watch and listen to.
Today I am going for Montreal band Half Moon Run who I hadn’t heard of. That’s why I’m here, to explore and discover. The line-up is two guitars, Gretsch guitars (only the best), keyboards and two drum kits with heavy percussion and splashes of electronica. They are all multi-instrumentalists, switching instruments and sometimes playing two at the same time for different songs. All of them sing, in three-part harmonies on some songs. The main percussionist Isaac Symonds moves rapidly from mandolin to keyboard and to guitar. Husky-voiced lead singer Devon Portielje dazzles with mouth harp with echoes of Bob Dylan, on Everybody Wants from their year-old album Sun Leads Me On.
On a country number Devil May Care, a skilful picking of acoustic guitar reminds me again of Dylan in his early years in the 1960's. On another song, one of the guitarists plays the strings Hendrix-like with his teeth. I can hear George Harrison’s voice in cartoon-character on The Simpsons staring up at a spoof rooftop concert and saying dismissively “ah, it’s been done”. No matter, “teeth guitar” done well is still impressive.
This band, together for three years since starting rehearsals in down-at-heel rooms in downtown Montreal, and with appearances at Britain’s must-perform-at Glastonbury Festival in their resume, is at the top of their game and the audience knows it.
“It’s great to be home,” shouts drummer-singer Dylan Phillips between songs and the crowd roars. “Everybody needs to be somewhere else, everybody wants to be someone else to fit right in” sings Phillips but it doesn’t apply to this audience. They are at home here.
Call me in the afternoon from the band’s first album shows influence from the heavier side of Californian country rockers, Eagles, which goes down well with me as a big fan of the group for these many years past.
With a light show – greens, oranges and blues – flashing across the stage, I felt complete and visually and musically satisfied. Half Moon Run is a band I will be on the lookout for back in Australia should they make it down under.
Moving on through the festival site, walking past green shrubbery surrounding lay-byes furnished with seats for people tiring as the day goes on, I overhear snatches of conversation.
Two young men are talking in English about separatists, maybe the Quebec sovereignty movement since we are in Montreal? But maybe that is not the subject since one of the men, with a Glasgow accent mentions “Brexit” and “mother-fuckers”. He is obviously passionate.
Coming upon a bench with a vacant seat, I sit down. Opposite me are two young women eating hamburgers. We exchange smiles and I take out my exercise book and pen.
“I’m Beryl, this is my friend Alee. What’s your name…what are you writing?” she asks.
“John… a journal of travel and music... and things I hear and see,” I say.
“Ah, secrets, I knew it” Beryl says.
We talk. Beryl is from the central Canadian province of Manitoba and her mother, like me, was born in Wales. It’s a small world. Beryl and Alee are both in the fashion clothes industry.
I had been reading about precious stones for a radio program theme I did recently back in Australia, so “Beryl” has a ring to it, metaphorically that is.
Beryl’s name was picked by her mother who also knew about precious stones. “Some days are diamonds,” she says, quoting a line from a John Denver song, songs which are a million miles away from what we have been hearing for the past two days at the festival.
That’s as far as the conversation goes and after eating a veggie burger for my late afternoon meal, I say goodbye to Beryl and Allee.
Walking away I reflect that many people are precious stones. Sons and daughters are precious, generally speaking, to their mothers and fathers. Continuing my internal conversation, walking towards the rail station, “Mums and Dads are precious, valued by their children, certainly when they are growing up”, if you get my point.
The music here has been crafted by the artists into their gems or precious stones. The audiences have been entertained and have revelled in the music. For my part I have heard music which was new and fresh to me. I have delved deeper into alternative and indie rock, decades away from the music I enjoyed as a teenager and over the past forty years. Through British rock and pop, starting with Cliff Richard, moving to The Beatles, going into the late 1970s with US West Coast country-rock from Eagles and singer-songwriters Jackson Browne and Carole King, it has enriched my musical appreciation and without exaggeration, my life.
The sun is going down as I reach the rail station. People arriving to swell the night concert audiences are getting off the train as I board to return for my last night in Montreal.