Monday, August 2, 2010

Osheaga: An Island of Rock

The Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal is basically an indie-rock marathon. This is a jazz blog. Ignore that. One of the reasons I like jazz shows is because I can usually sit down at them--in a club, a theatre, a concert hall; even the Newport Jazz Festival has chairs. I get tired easily, and after two days of standing in front of gigantic stages among huge crowds at Osheaga, which I attended this past weekend, I was exhausted. But it was a satisfying exhaustion; one that made me reconsider my tastes.

I had been to two big music festivals before Osheaga: The All Good Music Festival, a three-day mini-Bonnaroo in West Virginia; and the Newport Jazz Festival. All Good upset me when I went six years ago as a confused, shy, sensitive sixteen-year-old. I didn't want to dance in the mud to Les Claypool, I didn't understand the beauty of an acid trip, and invocations of peace and love seemed to me like sanctimonious platitudes. Everything was not all good. Newport was beautiful, but something seemed missing when I went three years ago--perhaps people my age. It didn't seem as exciting as the videos I saw from the 1950's, when Count Basie was synonymous with swing.

At Osheaga, I came upon almost every band never having heard its music. I believe in the power of live performance, and I believed, as I eased my way into the crowd before a set, that each band could teach me something I could not learn from a record.

Sarah Harmer, who stood erect before her microphone, her legs straighter than natural, offered the cleanest, most understandable rock I heard the whole weekend. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, led by vocalist Alex Ebert, created a home on stage with its happy, ragtag, honky-tonk folk-pop. "When I was five years old, I listened to Beethoven and he told me I was going to die," Mr. Ebert declared with David-Byrne-like absurdity and intonation.

I wasn't sure what Mr. Ebert was saying, but I was confused by a lot of lyrics throughout the weekend. At points, I just stopped listening to the words, focusing in, rather, on the tone of the singer's voice. The ambient silkiness of Amy Millan's voice (Stars) and the sedated baritone of Matt Berninger's (The National) did it for me.

The only delay I counted was for Snoop Doog, who walked slyly on stage, ten minutes late, to the apocalyptic blare of Carmina Burana. He referred to himself in the third person for almost the entirety of his hour-long set while pointing out the sexiness of the women in the audience and eliciting cheers for weed and liquor. Everyone seemed to love it, perhaps relieved for a moment by the absence of raw indie-self-consciousness. (Devo also referred to themselves in the third person, but in a facetious, mechanical way that distanced them from the audience.)
Seu Jorge might have been the hippest performer of the weekend as he danced gracefully about the stage in a black, straw trilby hat, Heineken in one hand, microphone in the other. He satisfied the crowd with Ziggy Stardust, but his original, bossa-rock songs were more effective, incisive; even if you couldn't understand the Portuguese lyrics, his low, breathy voice offered enough. The Black Keys, joined by a keyboardist (whose keyboard, sure enough, had black keys) and bassist for a few songs, sounded more comfortable performing as a duo, their usual format.
The most striking, yet necessary, dissonance of the weekend came when Sonic Youth played directly after Snoop Dogg. If Snoop Dogg makes women feel sexy and men sexual, then I have no idea how Sonic Youth makes us feel. But as the mosh-pit widened behind me, and Kim Gordon's voice flowed on with rugged determination, I began to understand how little I understand myself and what I like.

In George Saunders's book of essays, "The Braindead Megaphone," he writes: "Fuck concepts. Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen."

In the middle of Arcade Fire's set on the first night, a torrent of white confetti erupted out and over the crowd. The confetti slowly and gracefully descended like a seine net, diffusing by the second, as Arcade Fire unleashed an equally formidable wall of sound. Two songs later, the confetti had landed, save for one twirling ribbon above us, illuminated by the stage-lights. The wind tossed it about, and, eventually, I lost sight of it.

I looked back and noticed how much I was a part of the massive crowd palpitating as one to the music. Eventually, perhaps by the second to last song, Arcade Fire made me forget that I would be writing about them later on.


  1. Great writing! Love your description of All Good 6 years ago, hah. What was your favorite band at the festival? Israel was pretty great, btw

  2. Thanks for the great review of Osheaga! Makes me wish I could have gone. I really loved your description of the Snoop Dogg portion! And I really wish I had been in that crowd at the Arcade Fire show.

  3. Thanks from both of you. To Dan, my favorite band may have been Arcade Fire or Stars. Can't decide. To Andrew, it was certainly an ecstatic experience.