“This is an incredible place to be, an incredible city,” says Raine Maida with a smile. Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace are just finishing a raucous hour-long set, and lead singer Maida pauses to gaze out at the 85,000 people spilling out across the Plains of Abraham. The crowd – mostly residents of Quebec City – roars back their approval. Maida smiles and gives a farewell en francais: “Bon soir, mes amis.”
But the night is far from over. Minutes later, Steven Tyler and Aerosmith explode onto the stage, complete with leather pants, sequin blazers and screams of “Holy s**t, Quebec!” The pulsating crowd erupts with screams of approval.
Late Sunday, Quebec City wrapped the 45th edition of what by many accounts is the largest outdoor music festival in North America. The Festival d’été de Québec – or Québec City Summer Festival – sold out its 150,000 wristband passes in less than 48 hours, and hosted more than a million visitors and more than 300 bands over 11 days.
Headliners this year included Bon Jovi, the aforementioned Our Lady Peace and Aerosmith, electro masters Skrillex, LMFAO, The Offspring, Sarah Mclachlan and Lionel Richie. Past performers include The Arcade Fire, Santana, Iron Maiden, Black Eyed Peas, Rush, Elton John, Metallica, The Black Keys, and many more.
It’s a fest on par with big American attractions like Coachella or Bonnarroo (each sell about 75,000 wristbands), but while those two mega-festivals each cost about $250 for three to four days, the non-profit and partially government-funded Festival d’ete costs only $65 for 11 days.
“When we tell bands that they’re going to have crowds of 80,000 people, they never believe us,” says festival production director Patrick Martin. “They’re expecting a country field and a show in the mud.”
The event did have humble beginnings, back in 1968, as a francophone festival featuring Quebecois music as well as acts from France. Then in 2003, organizers asked the people of Quebec City what they wanted in the festival.
“Stars and headliners,” says Martin. “The programming now reflects that.” The budget, too, has nearly quadrupled over the past decade, and now sits at $23 million. You’d think with the huge names that sing in English and the almost comically low price, the festival would be a bigger draw to out-of-towners from across Canada and the U.S., yet 69 per cent of attendees still come from the Quebec City area.
So why don’t the rest of us know about it?
Chatting in the bar La Ninkasi on Rue Saint Jean before his show, indie rocker Dan Mangan shares his thoughts. “I feel as though it’s a cultural service to the community of Quebec,” says Mangan of the festival. “It’s something everyone in the city comes together to celebrate.”
It’s true – anyone attending will witness an urban landscape transformed by the gift of music as venues across the city come alive with dancing children, seniors and everyone in between.
Canadian musician Grimes, who also played at this year’s fest, has another theory: “Most people outside of Canada haven’t even heard of Quebec City. If it’s not Vancouver or Toronto, it’s not on people’s radar. The funny thing is, this will probably be the biggest show I’ve ever played.”
While, for the time being, the festival remains primarily a Quebecois affair, it likely won’t be long before the rest of the country decides to join what is easily one of the best and most inclusive parties in Canada.
Factbox: Years to Remember
- 1968: seven young local artists start the Festival d’ete
- 1980s: the festival expands to include international acts from Africa, Europe and the U.S.
- 1992: the festival hosts 414 shows from 22 countries
- 2007: the festival hosts one million spectators for the first time
- 2008: As part of Quebec’s 400th anniversary, the festival draws 1.7 million spectators
- 2010: 28 per cent of Quebec City adults attend the festival – a record
- 2012: 90,000+ attend Bon Jovi concert on Plains of Abraham