Osheaga 2011 – Sunday review with The Tragically Hip, Crystal Castles, Flaming Lips

August 10, 2011

Crystal Castles at Osheaga music festival 2011, Montreal - photo by Liz Keith, Music Vice

THE GIG: Osheaga
WHERE: Montréal, QC, Canada
WHEN: 31 July 2011
IN ONE WORD: Temperamental

I arrive late on Sunday to Parc Jean-Drapeau, but just in time to catch the end of the set from Montréal locals The Luyas – beautiful and loud, ethereal and powerful, they’re like a power breakfast starting off my day at Osheaga.  Hopefully their proximity means I get to hear more of them in the future.  In the background I can hear “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” bleeding into the set from the next stage over, and it’s clear their high end is cranked entirely too loud – it’s tinny and ear-blistering, and not much else is really holding me to their sound.  Earnest power-pop isn’t my thing, so I move on to the main stage areas which will remain absolutely packed throughout the day – not an issue unless you’re feeling the pinch of not having a pass for the photo pit, but at least they spray down the sweltering masses every once in a while. Yup, that’s a bonus.

Head bobbing to the refrain of “How I Could Just Kill a Man” – but disappointed by the absence of the London Symphony Orchestra – my protracted adolescence gets another hour or so to cling on as Cypress Hill sparks up a fatty of crowd nostalgia.  Much like how the old burnouts and hippies at my first Pink Floyd concert must have felt watching me and my friend enjoying the music they smoked up to, I am surrounded by shirtless, sunburned and stoned kids who were barely in diapers when CH’s first album came out. I am old.  And hungry.  And by far the soberest person here.  And old.  And my feet hurt.

But no matter – Sen Dog, B-Real & co. sound fresh like the day is young, turning out the more recognizable hits like “Insane in the Membrane” and “Dr Greenthumb” with chilled-out ease that keeps from sounding stale. They feel so at home that they bogart the stage for an extra twenty minutes, pushing back Malajube’s set on the the stage next door. No idea if they had started late, but after three songs from the francophone indie locals that I can barely distinguish from each other, I leave for other stages and to track down food in what proves to be a fruitless search – the lines are huge, and the narrow paths over the bridge are nearly impassable so I give it a miss, substituting beer for food and swim out through the sea of people to get to Viva Brother’s set… which is over by the time I get there.  I am now hungry, cranky, musicless, and decide to swim back with the stream to find a decent spot in the crowd for Beirut’s set – which I am not only determined to not miss, I’m not going to watch from the back of the crowd either.  Tally-ho.

Waiting for Beirut I catch the rest of Malajube’s set and decide my earlier conclusion was correct – not much sets their songs apart from each other, let alone other poppy rock + an organ bands.  An older French dude I meet later while waiting for The Flaming Lips had the same take, so I feel less bad that it might have been a language thing… et bien.

Beirut relieve my previous disappointments and swing the crowd along on their jaunty gypsy tour of folk explorations, starting with “Nantes” off of  The Flying Club Cup, the first hesitant organs notes instantly recognized by the crowd.  The many-tendriled blend of horns, organ, strings, whimsy and warbling vibrato provided by Zach Condon plays beautifully in the summer heat – temporary technical difficulties with a ukulele notwithstanding – and Beirut is pleasantly charming in the sunny afternoon.  One of the beautiful things about this band is how they excel at creating scenery through their music, twisting in different musical styles like Balkan folk with melancholic accordions, evoking every European vagabond trip I’ve never taken. Looking forward to hearing their latest release The Rip Tide, out at the end of August…

Again, I abandon the crowds in another attempt to find food – not eating meat, I’m limited there – the crowd is a continent of sardine tin-packed people but I get through to the smaller stage area where I have the choice between White Lies and The Low Anthem – I choose the latter, if only for the opportunity to see if their machine will actually destroy solipsism. And how!

Incorporating stand-up bass, trumpets, the occasional clarinet along with a lead singer with a Bob Dylanesque nasally wail, they turn out moody bluesy-rock with the occasional political theme – “Hey All You Hippies” is the first I’ve heard Reagan’s name sung outside of a Dead Kennedys song.

I have somehow managed to live 31 years in Canada and not made it to a Tragically Hip concert – and have not had my citizenship revoked – but maybe I’m too late to have caught what is essentially Canada’s house band in their prime. I grew up liking their music but never really got around to getting my own copies – mostly borrowing albums from an older brother – but so many of their songs have bookmarked themselves in memories of my youth – “Little Bones,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Gift Shop,” “Grace, Too”… The Hip always seemed to be playing in the background on the radio, wherever.  They were even the band I told my parents I was going to see when I was 16 and headed to a Marilyn Manson show instead (Mom voice:  “Oh, The Tragically Hip? I’ve heard of them, they’re quite popular… Have fun dear.” I love you, mom.)

But maybe others who’ve seen them live can explain Gordon Downie’s pseudo-drunken karaoke of his own music to me? Does this usually happen? I know Downie’s voice, and the range he’s capable of – from tender rasp to full-throttle wail – but the dude onstage at Osheaga was screaming out the lyrics like it was some over-the-top breakup song at his sister’s wedding aimed at an unlucky ex in the crowd; it was just an uncontrolled, toneless yelling in between random ramblings.  I stuck around long enough to hear “Ahead by a Century” put through the meat grinder before taking my weeping childhood off to look for something vegetarian that wasn’t at the end of a twenty-minute line, a now-Quixotic quest as the veggie some-kind-of-schmeat stall had run out and closed down. Old Man Downie had finally lost it, and on top of that I was now starving.  Alright then.  Six dollars for small fries it is.

As the pit for Crystal Castles is closed to all photogs, I try to wade into the crowd as far as I can to get a good angle for this show – I’ve been promised gymnastic batshittery from singer Alice Glass by others, and I intend to get a good shot.  No dice on either count – though Glass does manage some crowdsurfing and later climbs the drum kit – but the show is amazing nonetheless.  With songs like “Baptism” and “Crimewave” they transcend their clubby trappings with a driving chaotic pulse – Glass’s vocals are too distorted to understand much, though, and become another electronic wail.

For the last show of the night I have to confess to being a Flaming Lips almost-virgin – beyond the one single from the early nineties, I just really never got into them, despite high praise from trusted sources, constant hype from various media, etc, etc… so tonight is full-immersion catch up time.  And what a time.  Egads.

I’ve no expectations – can’t let myself have any – but while all the concert shots I’ve seen bear honest witness to the acid-fuelled circus, they don’t, and can’t tell all the story – the band emerging through a wall of lights, the blizzards of confetti and streamers, costumed dancers on each side of the stage, Wayne Coyne hamster-balling it over the ecstatic crowd… it’s all there, everything is nuts. It’s such an elaborate production that the music duels with the spectacle for the crowd’s attention – it’s all such a glorious hyperactive mess of giant flickering eyes, Teletubbies and crashing cymbals, it’s almost too much. For their set, they play the entirety of their ninth album The Soft Bulletin; Coyne’s voice, an almost child-like squeak, makes an unlikely instrument, sounding more like a raspier version of Neil Young’s nasal pitch but it grows on me as the night goes on.  I begin to regret not listening to those converted earlier. Consider my days of heathenry over.

After performing an impromptu wedding for two tripped-out stage dancers – they were all dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, Dorothys, mostly – they closed the night with “Do You Realize?” off of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. It makes for a beautiful confetti-filled catharsis to end the festival – a half hour later the crowd is still singing along, travelling on the metro after midnight, singing along with buskers and generally carrying the vibe of the show along with them into the night like so much confetti sneakily stuck in your bra.

© Liz Keith, Music Vice

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