Once again, another wild – and in this year’s case, very wet – edition of Osheaga has made it into the history books. Despite inclement weather permeating the better part of day one, as well as being held at a temporary site due to the usual festival ground undergoing construction until 2019, the Montreal midsummer festival made the best of a bad situation and satisfied tens of thousands of keen festival-goers once again. Here are my top 10 performances from across the three-day event.
Kicking off my list is an early afternoon main stage set that, frankly, would’ve gone down just as nicely at night time, if not more so. New York electronic rock duo Phantogram didn’t play in front of the biggest crowd over the weekend, but it hardly seemed to faze them, as they went through their set with plenty of enthusiasm and a full band adding some oomph to their hip hop-edged sound. Singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel went full Geddy Lee by singing and playing the bass, and the black and white graphics in their onstage projections looked incredibly slick.
#9: Cage the Elephant
For a band with seven career number one singles on Billboard’s alternative charts, you’d expect Cage the Elephant to be pushed further toward the top of the bill. Nevertheless, despite a late afternoon set time and two members missing from the equation, the crowd ate it up like a mouth-watering steak. Performing with genuine liveliness and positive energy – topped off by frontman Matthew Shultz’s relentless shimmying that would’ve given Thom Yorke a pretty decent run for his money – they delivered a rollicking performance in front of a massive audience, showing how they’ve managed to become one of the most popular alt-rock bands of this decade.
Still riding high off his debut full-length Process – arguably one of the best albums of 2017 thus far – Sampha Sisay descended onto Osheaga on Friday with his trademark falsetto, skittering alt-R&B beats, and a band including two drummers (one on live drums, another on electronic) backing him up. Thankfully for us, the sky stayed relatively clear and dry as well. Even though his vocals were a bit quiet at times – mic issues seemed to be a problem basically throughout the entire festival – his music is stirring and utterly gorgeous (listen to songs like “Plastic 100°C” and “Timmy’s Prayer” if you need proof), and his performance matched its intensity and emotional rawness.
Considering how rainy the first day of this year’s festival was, Lorde coming onstage with a bright white umbrella to match the colour of both her dress and pair of sneakers was entirely fitting. Fashion choices aside, her headlining performance was executed beautifully. Cranking up the theatrics and production value compared to her first time playing Osheaga in 2014, the Kiwi songstress brought the hits (she opened with “Tennis Court” and saved “Royals”, “Team” and “Green Light” for the end), the super-long monologues between songs, and occasionally, the quirky dance moves – basically everything one would want and expect from a Lorde show.
#6: The Weeknd
Perhaps the most divisive headliner this year – partially because he’d just played the Bell Centre back in May – Abel Tesfaye (best known as the Weeknd) nonetheless returned to Montreal with a rapturous grand finale mostly showcasing his more polished and pop-friendly current sound rather than the hazy and drugged-up brand of alternative R&B he made his trademark back in 2011 (“Wicked Games” was the lone track he performed from that era). Regardless, Tesfaye undeniably capped off the Osheaga Weeknd (I know, groan) extremely well by delivering hit after hit while working the crowd with astonishing ease. The fireworks toward the end of “I Feel it Coming” were merely a cherry on top.
Regardless of whether or not you’re indifferent toward their newer material (or even to their heavily psychedelic and left-field 2010 sophomore album Congratulations), MGMT remain a force to be reckoned with as a live act. Even during elongated renditions of older songs, the oddball psych-rockers sounded as clean as a whistle. Songs like “Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel” and “Kids” – the tracks this crowd cheered loudest for – still sound just as fresh and exciting now as they did a decade ago, and they can still round up a huge festival crowd and leave them riding a wave of nostalgia and good vibes.
#4: Run the Jewels
It’s absolutely insane how well Run the Jewels’ uncompromising sound, incredibly smart lyrics and raucous energy on record translates into their live performances. It’s seamless. Despite some initial problems with their mics, Killer Mike and El-P tore up the Scène de la Rivière to hit the mid-day Osheaga crowd with hard-nosed rhymes, booming bass and mosh pits galore. They knew how to restore calm and order as well, with Killer Mike telling everyone to take two steps back when people in the front were getting crushed. The New York/Atlanta duo seldom disappoint in smaller indoor venues, and they showed on Sunday that they can just as easily rock crowds several times as big.
#3: Broken Social Scene
Mesmerizing. Few adjectives better sum up Broken Social Scene’s return to the Osheaga main stages. Kevin Drew and his gang of Canadian indie rock royalty gave a career-spanning spectacle, opening with “Cause = Time” from their landmark 2002 album You Forgot it in People, all the way to new material from their solid fourth LP Hug of Thunder. In addition to Drew’s monologues to the crowd calling for love and friendship, the band also brought out Metric’s Emily Haines to help sing newer songs (“Halfway Home”, “Protest Song”) and an old chestnut (“Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”). If they’re not one of the greatest Canadian bands of the last 25 years, I don’t know who would be.
Your best memories of Justice are likely through their debut LP Cross (†), a slap bass-heavy thrill ride of hard rock-tinged, ultra-cool electro house. A full decade later, their prowess as live performers is still as strong as ever. Smoothly mixing both newer and older material in an hour-long set with a huge white light show, the French duo reminded all in attendance just how much they’ve deserved their legacy over the years as modern EDM forefathers. Newer single “Safe and Sound” set the tone deliciously, while older classics like “Genesis”, “D.A.N.C.E.” and “Stress” feel very ahead of their time nowadays.
Before I unveil my top pick, here are a few honourable mentions:
– The Lemon Twigs (Shoutouts to their drummer, who looked like he’d just come back from an audition to join KISS)
– Majid Jordan (OVO’s lone representatives over the weekend)
– Liam Gallagher (Yes, he played “Wonderwall”)
#1: Alabama Shakes
Brittany Howard and co have earned a reputation for being absolute dynamite live, and their Osheaga set this year was no exception. The penultimate main stage show of this year’s festival would combine Howard’s effortless stage presence and commanding voice with a show full of soul, firepower and pure musicianship. Sadly, Howard’s mic would suddenly get cut off during “Over My Head,” bringing their otherwise stunning performance to an abrupt and extremely awkward end. Regardless, this should prove once and for all that they belong on big festival stages. If they keep their momentum going, you’d have to think a future Osheaga headline slot is theirs for the taking.
*Cover photo credit Tim Snow/ EVENKO