FEQ in Québec Will Be Your New Favorite Music FestivalPhoto by Stéphane Bourgeois, courtesy of FEQ Music Features The Smile
Among a sea of summer music festivals, there’s no easy way to distinguish one from the rest. Lineups feel interchangeable as does the overall vibe of good time seekers pounding beers and food truck fare as they shuffle between stages. The only details that seem to shift is the branding and the font on the commemorative posters.
In many ways, Quebec City’s Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ) holds true to these maxims. The folks playing the big stage this year were many of the usual suspects: Weezer, Zach Bryan, Illenium, Lana Del Rey, Green Day. And the smaller stages were populated by other artists making the festival rounds like The Smile and Lamb of God. But nearly everything else surrounding this annual event felt markedly different than spending, say, a weekend at Bonnaroo or even nearby Osheaga.
The best example of what makes FEQ distinctive would be to look at what happened at the event on July 13. The city was hit by some surprise thunderstorms that were extreme enough to force the cancellation of the acts playing on the Bell Stage, the festival’s main stage constructed in the city’s Battlefields Park. Any other festival would be forced to take the financial hit and the artists would just have to move on. For FEQ, it was simply a matter of tacking on an extra day to the festival and letting folk rockers Les Cowboys Fringants, Robert Charlebois and Sara Dufour close out the event on the following Monday.
To be fair, the fact that those three artists were all from Québec and weren’t touring likely helped make FEQ’s decision that much easier. To these jaded eyes, however, that move felt like a testament to how deeply the festival has become embedded into the culture of Québec City since it was inaugurated in 1968. The event takes over a big chunk of the city center, and the surrounding businesses and residents seem to greet the scores of people who arrive for the evening shows with enthusiasm rather than frustration. The restaurants that run along Grand Alleé near the site of two of the festival stages adjusted their menus to be able to cycle through customers quickly. And the Hydro-Québec Stage, which held a series of free concerts in a small park across from the city’s Parliament building, was consistently packed with locals and their families.
More than all of that, it’s the festival’s insistence on celebrating the music community of their home province and the surrounding area. While I was only able to attend FEQ’s final weekend, I found myself gravitating toward the smaller stages where a bevy of Canadian talent held sway. As great as Pitbull or the War on Drugs are, they aren’t hurting for coverage in mainstream publications like this one. But how often do you get to hear about Les Hay Babies, a fantastic New Brunswick group whose music explored the full scope of the ’60s from rousing folk to crisp psychedelic rock? Or Anyma, an artist from Wendake, Québec who foregrounds her heritage as a member of the Wyandot Nation in her alert, spiritual future pop?
The lure of the bigger font acts on FEQ’s calendar was hard to ignore, of course. Closing out Friday night on the smaller stages set side-by-side in Parc de la Francophonie was a fine one-two punch of Toronto indie rockers Alvvays and The Smile, the musical concern of Radiohead members Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. The latter project is clearly a source of inspiration for the musicians involved. The group, rounded out by former Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner and joined throughout by woodwind player Robert Stillman, played their set of oblique art-pop with a furious abandon and included several new songs from a promised second full-length.
On the main stage on my final night in Québec City were a pair of punk bands — Bad Religion and Green Day — engaging in pure fan service. Neither had anything to promote as it has been at least three years since they last released an album. The job was simply to keep their names, faces and music in the minds of thousands of Canadians. Their sets were a striking study in contrasts, however. Bad Religion ripped through an hour of favorites from “American Jesus” to “21st Century Digital Boy” to “We’re Only Gonna Die” without swapping out instruments and using the massive LED screens behind the group for nothing more than the name of the group.
Their Bay Area pals in Green Day have been completely subsumed with playing the arena rock game. Fireworks were plentiful. Unnecessary cover songs, like KISS’s “Rock & Roll All Nite” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” dotted the setlist. And every seemingly spontaneous moment, like bringing a fan up to try and sing part of “Know Your Enemy” was meticulously planned. That doesn’t mean it was any less entertaining. The three core members of the group threw every inch of themselves into every song, and the crowd responded with stormy delight. For as much as I preferred the simpler, leaner approach of Bibi Club, the Montréal duo that specializes in propulsive pop in the mode of Stereolab (a cover of that group’s “Orgiastic” was a highlight of Bibi Club’s set) and Fabulous Diamonds, it was impossible not to get caught up in the spectacle of a big show like Green Day’s.
That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of a festival like FEQ. They left almost no popular genre behind, daring to be all things to all musical tastes. And their interest in satisfying everyone with a ticket or a festival pass is paramount. Hence the annex to the Parc de la Francophonie stages, set up to accommodate spillover crowds for the more popular acts. Big LED screens simulcast the performances with food trucks and abundant seating. The perfect place to kick back and watch a ska-punk band like Streetlight Manifesto while enjoying poutine covered in gravy and slices of corn dog. With the relatively late start to the proceedings every day, there’s ample time to recover from eating said poutine and downing the abundant cans of cheap beer.
With the proliferation of music festivals here in North America and throughout the world, the choice of where to spend one’s money and time to see the artists you love is not an easy one. Based on the brief experience I had at the fest, I daresay that FEQ might be your best bet.