Inside the ARTRAVE and a host of local discoveries at the mammoth Canadian event
In Québec City's newly crowned creative hub Basse-Ville (Lower Town) there is precisely one tiny vintage store, a farmers market, and a restaurant advertising elk burgers. Like Williamsburg before it, it’s a Jewish neighbourhood amid transformation, and on one early evening in July, sleeve-tattooed Seattle songwriter Noah Gundersen fits right in. I’m in Le Cercle, a hushed and dim backroom venue to hear a moving and intricate set of country-leaning songs with elysium harmonies and violin backups from his sister Abby. On the official Festival d'été de Québec (FEQ) app he’s compared to Jeff Buckley, though it seems gnarlier, as his lyrics of brimstone and redemption are snarled as often as sung. Between songs he addresses the hushed crowd. "I'm surprised you guys aren't already in your spots to see Lady Gaga." The crowd chuckle while sipping their specialty beers – but yet it came to represent much of the dual tension at work at FEQ, an inner-city event sprawling across six stages, international star power meets native talent in a diverse – and affordable – ten day event.
Like most similar events, Festival d'été relies on corporate sponsorship – later in the festival Cypress Hill appeared on a Québec Loto-branded stage – but, unlike Wireless et al, mainlines these savings directly to the attendees. A pass to the 11-day festival costs a cheap-as-poutine $78 CAD (£42, or $72 US), giving access to the outdoor shows of Gaga, Snoop Dogg, QOTSA, The Killers and Blondie, all performing on the historic Plains of Abraham. Elsewhere in town, St Vincent, Bonobo, Stars and BADBADNOTGOOD will play over the week-and-a-half. It's a canny move, especially when contrasted to the increasingly unaffordable prices for UK inner-city events. A one-day non-VIP pass to London's Lovebox this year cost £60.95. The FEQ philosophy is simple: pass the savings of big bucks sponsors on to the punters, and pile them in.
The city is stunning, with historic sights from the grand Hotel de Ville and old port to those untapped vintage stores, where you can find great letterman jackets for a half the price Montreal's thrift haven Boulevard Saint-Laurent. After exploring the narrow streets of the Saint-Roch district, where pastel-painted houses wind down to the elegant spires of Chateau Frontenac, I spoke to programming director Louis Bellavance in the Bell Bar, who told me that the prices were a crucial bartering tool for the international names. What the festival perhaps lacks in reputation, it makes up for in ego-massaging numbers. "The Black Eyed Peas played here to 90,000 people," he says. "Roger Daltry played to 100,000." It's not only numbers that pull in the acts, but a bespoke treatment. "For Roger Waters, we built him the biggest Wall of the whole tour," Bellavance says. They had been in talks with Lady Gaga since the early days of the ARTPOP campaign, leading her to schedule the festival as part of her ARTRAVE tour. The fact that FEQ boasts the largest stage in North America (yes, bigger than Coachella) doesn't hurt, either.
The first act I see on the gargantuan Plains of Abraham construction is Tegan and Sara, the Canadian duo who swapped out their plaintive lyrics’ usual guitar backing for slick synths on 2013's great, Greg Kurstin-produced album Heartthrob. The black-dressed pair's "Now I'm All Messed Up" was spikier here, with a red backing guitar packing a tougher punch into the searching chorus, while Sara clenches her raised fists and screws her eyes up during "Shock To Your System", making it feel as intimate as Le Cercle. "I feel like Bono in the 80s!" declares the smiling Tegan – but on the Taylor Swift-endorsed closing track "Closer" they showed themselves deft at commanding a crowd in the tens of thousands.
Calgary-formed Tegan and Sara were technically on home turf in Québec, but the smudged line between Québecois and non-Québecois acts was clear this weekend too. The larky electrofolk band Groenland were among the best of the local acts I saw, where singer Sabrina Halde darkly murmurs French lyrics with a Fiona Apple-ish timbre, before bounding around stage while banging on a drum. The biggest cheers came for their quirky, early-Florence-ish "Immune" – incidentally their only track with English lyrics.
The question of Québec’s bid for independence still rages in the region, while some people I spoke to compared to the current Scottish debate. In a 1995 referendum asking whether the region should acquire nation-status, it was a 49/51 per cent split. When the JUNO awards’ 2014 artist of the year Serena Ryder performs, it’s to support Québec artist Bobby Bazini. She’s practically unknown in the region. Other acts can't resist commenting on the region's idiosyncrasies. "I spent about two hours looking for a nine-volt battery, without knowing how to say nine-volt battery," says the keyboardist in Canadian indie-pop's Royal Canoe. "Somebody showed me a toothbrush."
Others have their own on-brand interpretations of the region's culture. "How do you say 'I wanna make love to you' in French?" shouts a grinning Snoop Dogg during a hit-packed, half-baked set that runs from "P.I.M.P" and "Gin and Juice" to, less successfully, his "California Gurls" verse and the David Guetta-produced “Sweat”. With crowd interaction from the Doggfather scarce, the stage’s young bucks stole the limelight: Joey Bada$$ with his kangaroo energy and "I wanna slick somebody in the face!" hubris, and A$AP Rocky's stylish performance, with crowd-pleasing versions of "Fuckin Problems" and "Peso". "Who likes to smoke weed?" Rocky asked a roaring crowd, as red-eyed 14 and 15 year olds were pulled over the barriers and stretchered out. Hype man A$AP Twelvy's helps to create a circle pit for "Wild For the Night" – a fun highlight in a set that leaned heavily on mixtape deep cuts and piped-in A$AP Mob tracks.
"You better grab some glow sticks and smear some beer in your face!" screams Lady Gaga in the middle of her cyberbaby neon ARTRAVE spectacle. For the one-two pop punch of “Poker Face” and “Telephone”, she wears a tentacled latex headpiece and skirt like Queen Amidala taken captive by The Little Mermaid's Ursula, as at the front of the premium-ticketed Avant-Scène, a cluster of superfans wear spike bras, Pierrot the clown t-shirts and customised Gaga leather jackets to fist-pump and dummy-suck. With a bulbous landscape as backdrop, the staging tonight may not feel compromised, but without the clear plastic sprawling stage of the rest of her tour it’s certainly customised to the limitations of FEQ. Even so, there’s nothing quite like seeing a massive pop show among an 87,000-strong glowstick-wielding crowd.
This evening, she is clearly moved to be playing to a crowd that she probably couldn’t draw alone, in a show that’s more aggressive and at the same time more accessible than her last tour, The Born This Way Ball, where extravagant set pieces at times eclipsed the performance. "Mon spectacle est un peu different", she declares as she is stripped to her pants by assistants – like her pop-Brechtian on-stage changes of her September’s SwineFest – and transfigures into a neon-dreaded decora girl for an electrifying "Bad Romance". She proclaims this to be the biggest crowd she's ever played to, sitting teary-eyed at a piano. That night, a prominent member of her fan base posts an ariel shot of the immense crowd that stretches up the hills bordering the plains with the knowing caption "Lady Gaga is dead? I don't think so".
It wasn't just Little Monsters that were catered for this weekend though. Other festivals may have a lineup this diverse, but with FEQ’s sharp curation it feels like everyone, from the biggest headliners to homegrown Québec talent, sees the spotlight trained at them. And with those prices it sets the scene for new discoveries as the showstoppers – and Noah Gundersen's statement about us all biding our time for Gaga? He couldn’t be more wrong.