Osheaga: Pretty Fucking Good After All

A good portion of Osheaga meant getting a sunburn while standing in the middle of this immense dusty lot, eating some free corporate snack. “You are a true homie,” I said to one guy as he gave my friend Erin and me 12 packets of hummus and four small bags of pita crisps for free. (An additional benefit to this was that it meant I could hang on to the hummus I’d taken there with me.) Hosted in the ruins of Expo ‘67 on Ile St-Helene, the two-day pop extravaganza, now in its fifth year, attracted a crowd replete with sideways ball caps and shirts that said stuff like “Blondes Have More Fun” and “I’m in Miami Bitch.”

Along the walkway between the two main venues was a beer garden that consisted of two fifteen-foot tepees, staffed by two platinum blondes in cowboy boots and push-up bras (the purpose of which I had trouble understanding, since we could drink anywhere anyway). Next to this was a tent that seemed to be jointly sponsored by an audio-visual company and War Child, where I saw some really cute teenage emo bands. And then there was a gigantic metal shipping container on which was perched a DJ against the backdrop of a billboard for a cellphone company, the name of which I’ll keep secret. When the front side of the thing would open, a bunch of employees ensconced by a thick cloud of fake smoke would run out in a hurricane of techno and team spirit, encouraging people to play some shitty games on the six iPads in there “for prizes.” The first step in this process was to enter a bunch of personal information, which I faked and then somehow accidentally deleted – so I said Fuck It and walked off.

The sun kept most of the crowd sitting under a patch of trees on the hillside like sweaty raisins, occassionally flagging down the big-breasted bitties who meandered the crowd in tight T-shirts that said “Shooter: $4” and carried 25-ounce bottles of Jägermeister. This was, incidentally, the same price as a bottle of water, which you could otherwise only access by refilling your water bottle at these green plastic presumably-African-inspired masks that sprayed a heavy mist out of their mouths. I visited these green plastic presumably-African-inspired masks several times throughout the weekend.

At the same time, I did appreciate how 4:20-friendly the whole thing was. In the event that I was collared by a security guard for smoking pot, the plan was to point to the STM bus parked at the top of the hill that was covered in grass sod and solar panels as some sort of mitigating factor. But fortunately I never had to rise to that occasion.

I was also impressed by how many couples in their thirties and forties were in attendance, though the absence of a number of friends who had wanted to come did make me lament the $135-ticket, which I had managed to bypass as a member of the press.

Part of the draw for the comfortably-settled was definitely due to performers like Sarah Harmer, the folk singer-songwriter from Burlington, Ontario who migrated around the Toronto country scene for over a decade before releasing her breakthrough solo album You Were Here. After that album landed her on the cover of Now magazine at some point in 2000, I downloaded her single, Basement Apartment, and put in on the first CD I ever burned for myself. (Yep, she was right up there alongside Sarah McLaughlin and The Cranberries.) And after almost a decade of facetiously revisiting that disc every year or so I was glad to catch her performance, which was about as somber as her lyrics (save for the cameraman at the side of the stage, who was perpetually blasted by a pointless smoke machine). She opened her set with her new single Captive, which is still stuck in my head, and continued with some of her more recent material. Harmer’s new album, Oh Little Fire – her first in five years – strikes many of the same catchy, though despondent, chords as her first, albeit with more innovative production and instrumentation. “Saccharine” was the term Erin used to describe her music, which was a fair point, but with her sensitive voice and well-grounded tunes it was impossible not to let my heart flutter a little. I think I was the only person smoking in the audience, and the entire time I was scheming for a way to score a candid interview with her, as her agent at Universal Music hadn’t responded to my email. I definitely would have asked her thoughts on her new album, but the main thing I wanted to hear about was her involvement in the movement to save Southern Ontario’s prison farms, which are currently being threatened with closure by the Harper government. She didn’t talk to the audience much, nor did she experiment wildly with her songs on stage. In her denim dress and big brown sunglasses, she struck more the pose of a high school teacher. Which is all to say that her music would appeal to anyone who grew up on a healthy diet of Canadian folk artists like The Crash Test Dummies and Joni Mitchell, of which I am certainly one.

The next act on the docket was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – an authentically cute band whose first LP debuted only a year ago, and who have been on tour pretty much ever since. Led by the stylish and flirtatious Alex Ebert of Ima Robot, the nine-piece group of twenty-something Californian rockabillies played a solid set, with Ebert occasionally foraying into the audience and getting smothered by the hands of the crowd.

They were good, but nothing had prepared me for the act that followed, as the legendary Jimmy Cliff leaped onto the stage wearing a red jump-suit with a bright yellow collar and a backward red ballcap. His band – a crew of about ten musicians, each of whom wore an orange T-shirt that said “JimmyCliff.com” on the back and looked to be at least three decades younger than Cliff himself – were deservingly talented performers. But it was impossible to upstage the main man himself, in spite of their soulful percussionist, steady guitarist, and relentlessly groovy bassist and horn section. Cliff – who, by the way, moves his body better than any contemporary singer in the world – opened with Beautiful People, followed by Many Rivers to Cross, I Can See Clearly Now, and Afghanistan, set to the tune of his anti-war classic Viet Nam. At one point he got the audience chanting the words “save our planet Earth” – which Jade Castrinos of Edward Sharpe, standing at the side of the stage, obligingly took part in – then wrapped up his set with a rendition of Rivers of Babylon that brought me near the verge of tears. Anything else and I may have ODed on good vibes.

Cliff’s charisma went unmatched for the rest of the weekend, save for the likes of Snoop Dogg, whose tyrannical domination of the stage gave me an absolute boner. Dressed entirely in black and rapping into the most extravagantly decorated microphone I have ever seen, Snoop galvanized the crowd almost effortlessly by laying down early singles like Gin and Juice, newer ones like Drop it Like it’s Hot, and House of Pain’s ‘92 smash hit Jump Around. Flanking the stage during his performance were two body guards wearing immaculate three-piece suits, with silk handkerchiefs folded immaculately into their breast pockets. “There’s someone over there too? My God,” Snoop parenthetically said to himself when a third materialized next to the back curtain.

Less ecstatic though equally legendary were two of the great lo-fi bands of the late 80s in attendance. I definitely respect Sonic Youth for being the one band to refrain from playing their biggest hit – which is a truly incredible song so I was also a little pissed off. Ultimately I can’t think of anything to say about their set except that it was pretty good I guess.

Pavement’s show opened with Steve Malkmus notifying us that they had come on as early as possible and planned to play for as long as possible: “we’re gonna party like it’s 1996.” The audience demurely bobbed their heads as they sang along to the playfully depressing lyrics of Gold Soundz, but the mood decisively changed when, halfway through their second song, a plastic cup full of the overpriced, tepid version of Budweiser that was impossible not to buy and then regret was launched into the air about 20 metres from the spot where Malkmus was contemplatively soloing. Time stood still as we watched this thing sail towards him, until it finally smashed perfectly into his head, completely drenching his shirt and guitar. None of his bandmates seemed to notice though so he dejectedly resumed playing after a moment of shock. Aside from that, their act was one of the most predictable, but it was great to hear some of my high-school favourites off their album Crooked Rain. Their tambourine player and backup singer Bob Nastanovich reminded us all of what our dad would look like if he lost his mind one afternoon and decided to become a rock star.

Which is a trait Nastanovich had in common with every single member of Devo, who are so old, so pudgy, so funny, and whose beats were so incredibly heavy that I had trouble figuring out why their not still on Top 40. On stage, Devo vaguely resembled the Ghostbusters with their dystopian 80s humour and their yellow hazmat suits, which they eventually tore to shreds and cast into the audience, thus inaugurating their fifth outfit of the set. It would not be their last. The group, who also mirror Pavement with their quotidian themes and call-and-response duets, undoubtedly put on the most psychedelic act of the weekend – a title they claimed hands-down toward the end of their set as they played their sarcastic psalm Beautiful World, with lead man Mark Mothersbaugh dressed as an ice-cream cone, monologuing about the resurrection of Michael Jackson against the backdrop of a pixelated footage of oil spewing from BP’s broken pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico. The teleological direction of their aesthetic tends toward a sort of subversive corporate cyberpunk – which is exactly what makes it funny when they erratically deploy the F-bomb or produce loincloths from the depths of their shorts and fling them into the audience. The great irony of their send-ups of branding and fascism is that they use their name in their own lyrics at least as often as Limp Bizkit used to, and have maintained their own brand through their ever-present hats known as “Energy Domes,” their “Everybody Masks,” and their ongoing campaigns a-la 50s laundry detergent.

And now for the randos:
I had never heard of this band, The Arcade Fire, but I found their use of strings really cool and their lyrics really spoke to me. I kid. In all seriousness, their show was predictably solid, though amid the tacky light-effects and the sheer scope of the venue, it was nothing to write home about. And I did get really annoyed at Win Butler’s younger brother, who mainly just bounced around the stage overzealously hitting things with a stick. My recommendation to the band is that they terminate him immediately.

The Cat Empire are an Australian group trying their hand at being white rudeboys, and are for the most part failing, though they did play one salsa tune that was fairly energetic and catchy.

British-born Parisian Charlie Winston was the big surprise of the festival for me. His guys on bass and keyboard laid down some creative beats, while his guitarist played consistently good 50s-style rock licks. The lead man himself – who managed to pull off the fedora in the same way that British people always manage to get away with terrible jokes – sings with a soulful tremour in his voice, and opened one or two of his tracks with some skillful beatboxing.

And finally: while Edward Sharpe’s brand of country captures the naivety and flippancy of what it must have meant to be a young Californian in the 60s, Horse Feathers’ is more likely to evoke Kentucky coal miners and The Great Depression. With their simple instrumentation of guitar, banjo, cello and violin, the group struck a salt-of-the-earth chord that I really dug. But I had to ditch them in order to catch The Black Keys, whose guitar was a hundred times heavier than either of those bands, and whose vocalist sounds like he’s singing into the cheapest, crappiest and best-sounding microphone available.

It was an eclectic mix of musicians, with a roster ranging from one of the monarchs of hip-hop to a golden girl of Canadian folk to a few promising local acts I’d never heard of like Daniel Isaiah Schachter and Marie-Pierre Arthur. The sound quality at every venue was pretty good; the whole thing was a bit sleazy when it came to corporate advertisement and there was some absolute trash on the playlist, like Stars and Keane. Nonetheless, if the organizers’ objective was to pack as many hit songs as possible into a two-day festival, they definitely succeeded.

Now, I absolutely abhor Weezer but after feeling my body vibrating from musical tremors for two days straight it was pretty god-damn wonderful to meander out of the park as they played my grade-six anthem Buddy Holly, and then hop on my bike.