With 400 miles of interstate highway and the American-Canadian border behind us, we were craving fresh air and live music, and badly. We were ready for Montreal, and Montreal was ready for us. When the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival opened its gates last Friday, the city was already braced for the sudden influx of hipsters.
The concierge at our hotel had a stack of pre-printed maps at the ready; police officers herded kids like cattle into the proper subway cars. Actual Montreal residents were conspicuously absent. Despite the high volume of attendees — a whopping 120,000 people in and out of the festival over three days — it took just minutes to get to the venue, whose entrance was located mere feet from the metro stop. Color me impressed. Or to quote Florence + The Machine’s leading lady: “We fucking love Canada.”
Osheaga’s island locale, Parc Jean-Drapeau, is a sort of wooded fairyland. Inside the park, the two main stages stand side-by-side overlooking a massive gravel lot, peppered with patches of turf for lounging, and a large grassy hill. It is nothing spectacular. But trekking a bit further in, battling hordes of wandering concertgoers, the magic of the venue quickly becomes apparent, with stages and tents hidden among trees, streams and winding trails.
Early on Day One, Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men performed on a stage deep within the park, playing to a massive yet mellow crowd in a sun-drenched, meadowy clearing in the woods. Pairing male and female lead vocals with folksy instrumentals to produce the flighty melodies that make up whimsical hits like “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound,” the band’s set epitomized the spirit of the festival. On a nearby side stage in a shrouded clearing, smaller acts like the Jezabels and Dum Dum Girls entertained chiller audiences throughout the day and provided music-on-the-go for hordes of fans traveling between stages.
Later in the evening, Florence + The Machine was stunning as ever, with an eerily, hauntingly beautiful sound and one of the most enthusiastic performances of the weekend. Singer-songwriter Florence Welch drew screaming approval from the audience with each drawn-out high note, and her youthful exuberance — she literally jumped up down, galloped back and forth and clapped her hands excitedly — was contagious. Opening with “Only If For A Night” and closing with hit singles “Shake It Out” and “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch and tremendously talented keyboardist Isabella Summers knocked it out of the park.
The slow, drowsy stylings of Sigur Ros arrived just after sunset and seemed to lull some weary fans into a daze. The band’s full-hour set in all its serenity seemed a strange choice as the lead-in for Day One closer Justice, the French DJ duo whose electronic mixes have become a dance party staple. Nonetheless, thousands of people had no trouble rallying for Friday night’s final act, brandishing glow sticks and dancing until the finish.
Day Two isn’t worth dwelling on beyond the notable vocals of Young the Giant’s Sameer Gadhia. Unless you’re a serious Feist fan (I’m not) or you were dying to see the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg attempt reggae (I wasn’t), Saturday failed to offer much else. Rather it was Osheaga’s third and final day that boasted — and delivered — a stellar lineup. Artist after quality artist took the stage in quick succession on Sunday, drawing and maintaining a staggering audience at the island’s two side-by-side main stages until the bitter end. And this in spite of the torrential downpour that turned Parc Jean-Drapeau into an enormous mud puddle and led festival staff to pack up their giant hoses, which they had used on the crowd to help battle the blazing heat on Friday and Saturday.
The first storm on Sunday began — and ended abruptly minutes later — in the middle of what became a ragingly fun set by electro-pop sensation Passion Pit, whose synthesized sound provided fodder for an impromptu dance party in the rain. The only disappointment of the act was its brevity. Electronic pop songstress Santigold took the stage shortly after for a similarly high-energy, dance-inspiring set. Decked in neon and gold sparkles and accompanied by her two outrageous, signature backup dancers — and, at one point, inexplicably, two people in a horse suit — the Philly native’s performance was as out there as her arguably genreless music.
The Shins, Sunday night’s penultimate act, powered through the second wave of the storm, which hit just as the band’s set got underway. But despite the rain — and by rain I mean thunder, lightning, massive gusts of wind and buckets of cold water besetting concertgoers for several consecutive hours — the crowd hardly seemed to thin all night. By the end of Day Three, garbage bag ponchos were as prevalent as vintage denim and floral Keds. The masses stuck it out because, ultimately, Osheaga organizers seemed to have saved the best for last.
The festival’s final act, the Black Keys, closed out the weekend with a well-earned, phenomenal 90-minute set. The dynamic rock duo delivered sharp, clean vocals and instrumentals throughout, performing with the seasoned maturity of a band that’s been on the scene for a decade. The Black Keys keep it simple: At one point, lead singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach went rogue, along with Patrick Carney on drums (for the win), ditching their backup guys for several beautiful numbers. It’s no wonder that the Black Keys hit a trifecta of festival gigs in 2012, also featuring prominently on the rosters for Coachella and Lollapalooza this year. The band’s straightforward delivery at the end of Day Three was somewhat of a welcome departure from the less traditional, albeit entertaining, performances of the newcomers that dominated Osheaga 2012.