There are few festivals that take over a city—or at least an incredibly beautiful, historic downtown—the way Le Festival d'été de Québec (FEQ) does. Its reputation as one of Canada’s “best kept secrets” is kind of ridiculous, as if just because it was stationed in the country’s most gorgeous city in La Belle Province makes it semi-unknown. But with a consistently bonkers lineup that descends upon Quebec City for 10 days every summer, FEQ is a destination festival experience on an international level, and should probably be on every music fan’s radar for next year’s travel plans.
On the first Sunday of the fest, hairy Haligonians Wintersleep, fresh off the release of The Great Detachment, helped kick things off with a rousing bang, treating a packed Imperial de Quebec to their heavy brand of gripping rock. Predictably, the crowd lost it for their 2007 hit “Weighty Ghost,” singing along at the top of their lungs to its shimmering, folky stomp.
But the main event that night—bilingual pop force Coeur de pirate aka Béatrice Martin at the main stage on the Plains of Abraham—was a spectacle that was hard to match. Martin’s tunes are such precise, wild, and exciting pop gems, and clad in an outfit that made her look like a mermaid superhero, she put on a terribly fun (and emotional) show, bringing out numerous guests to showcase on the big stage. She swung from extreme to extreme: giant, catchy stage-shakers to dramatic piano-driven balladry, at one point even tearing up after playing a stirring new song. Her set was a pretty big production, employing a bevy of plainclothes backup dancers for some songs, and bringing out pals like Loud Lary Ajust and more for others. One of its best treats, though, was the appearance of her partner, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, who Martin called “one of the important people in my life.” Adding her own voice to the mix, Martin provided extra depth as Grace ripped through ”Thrash Unreal” and “Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart.”
The next day, after some long hours of traveling, rising Toronto star Alessia Cara sat in an empty business suite at the top of the Hilton and explained her relationship with Quebec City, which she’d visited previously on a school field trip. “We saw the Plains of Abraham, and re-enacted the war between the English and the French,” she said. “We had like fake swords. So it was crazy to come back here and see it again. I’m playing literally metres away from where we did that, at 12.” That same day, July 11, Cara turned 20. But based on her runaway hit “Here,” it was easy to tell she probably wouldn’t be getting crazy in the conventional, tired 20-year-old way. “I don’t like parties that consist of people that I don’t really know, and no food, and people who are just pretending to like each other, and bad music.” Instead, Cara celebrated with tens of thousands of fans at the very spot she’d fake fought at, treating the main stage crowd to her smooth brand of pop R&B, sharing powerful messages of solidarity with the young women in the crowd before “Scars to You’re Beautiful” and blasting everyone with the anti-”party” anthem “Here.” Her set—punctuated with a birthday teddy bear thrown on to the stage and the festival’s impromptu presentation of a big chocolate cake—was refreshingly low key, with the emphasis off of production and on to her impressive voice, which made sense with her earlier sentiments on the idea of pop stardom. “I don’t really like the attention when it’s not on my music,” Cara said. “I don’t really consider myself a pop star or famous at all. I think with the little bit of a platform that I’ve gotten already, I’ve started to notice people talking about things that are irrelevant like my clothes and things that don’t really matter to me. I just don’t like that attention. I want it to be on the music. And I think that the pop scene is very much based on things that aren’t really important.” The music—which is, of course, the most important thing—was stellar, and based on her command of the massive crowd grouped on the Plains of Abraham, Cara’s tunes will only keep finding more and more fans. In contrast, headliner and mega-star Selena Gomez’s striking set was a massive spectacle, complete with a cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” but her deft hand at creating earworm melodies and pop explosiveness took centre-stage.
Later that night, baroque-pop group Half Moon Run charmed some deeply dedicated fans at a church down the road, playing a surprise set for a small crowd rapt by the band’s passionate, lush tunes.
Honestly, though, the major attraction for the early part of the week was the legendary Sheryl Crow. Crow’s songs—at least four big singles of which you know, even if you don’t know if you know—have proved timeless, mastering a down-home pop Americana that marries hit-worthiness with everyperson relatability and showers riveted audiences with chances to sing along as loud as they can. She kicked things off with four tracks that it’d be near-embarrassing not to be familiar with: “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” “A Change Would Do You Good,” “All I Wanna Do,” and “My Favourite Mistake.” Her band was tight as hell, pulling sharp, Nashville-flavoured solos out of their back pockets at the snap of Crow’s fingers, seasoned veterans that brought extra badassity to covers of Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough,” Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Headliner Brad Paisley followed valiantly, with his own homespun Nashville country tunes like “Celebrity,” but Crow was a tough act to play after.
While the line-up, year after year, is ridiculously stacked—outside of this little three day slice, Sting and Peter Gabriel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Ice Cube all graced the main stage—the city is the real draw of Le Festival d'été de Québec. There are few cities in Canada that can boast such a gorgeous setting to experience live music. The world class tunes are just the icing on the cake. Or, more appropriately, the delicious, squeaky cheese curds on your drunken, late night poutine.