51 Years of Stellar Music

Story by Michelle McChristie, Photos by Darren McChristie

“I’ve been listening to Neil Young for forty years—he’s never played Québec…I’ll be happy if he plays even two or three of his hits.” The man standing beside me and his small group of friends arrived early to stake their claim in front of the soundboard at the Festival d’été de Québec. He struck up a conversation with me just before Kurt Vile walked on stage. I mentioned that the last time I’d seen Young he’d stuck to mostly new material and fans seemed a little disappointed. But, any true fan knows that Young isn’t one to travel in the middle of the road. One of the many hugely popular headlining acts at this festival, Young was closing out day two of eleven backed by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real who also opened the concert on the main stage earlier that evening.

The Festival d’été takes place at a series of outdoor stages in downtown Québec City, next to the walls of Old Québec. Headliners play the main stage on the Plains of Abraham and include an astounding and diverse array of acts, such as The Weeknd, Neil Young, Beck, The Chainsmokers, and Dave Matthews Band. With North America’s biggest self-supporting stage and two huge projection screens that provide close-up views of the musicians, there is no bad seat at this venue. Although the Plains of Abraham venue attracts upwards of 100,000 each night, it’s remarkably uncrowded and has a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. After 51 years, festival organizers have worked out all of the kinks.

July 6 – Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Neil Young

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Tonight’s openers — Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real — are the real deal. With a similar vocal sound to his father and country music icon, Willie, and an even more impressive range, Lukas sings and plays guitar with an infectious fervor. His brother, Jacob, plays guitar and steps up to lead vocals on some songs making Promise of the Real a family affair. Their set included songs from their eponymous 2017 album, including “Find Yourself” and “Carolina” and definitely created a buzz among festival-goers who hadn’t previously heard their music.

Kurt Vile and the Violators

As the middle act, Kurt Vile and The Violators had a tough spot between Nelson and Young. After walking on to the stage, cracking open a can of beer and then taking a generous swig, Vile kicked off his set of comfortably familiar, mellow lo-fi tunes. The opening riff of Vile’s most commercially-popular song, “Pretty Pimpin,” definitely captured the crowd’s attention. Vile is a brilliant songwriter and solid performer, though understated will his laid-back style that is, for the most part, hidden behind his wavy locks. “It’s a fucking honour to be here, with Lukas Nelson and Neil Young,” he said drawing a series of hoots and hollers from the crowd. Vile’s mellow interlude set the stage for the headliner perfectly.

Neil Young

Young not only delivered the goods his long-time fans, he also lived up to his nickname as the “Godfather of Grunge.” His set was peppered with classics, like “Cortez the Killer,” “Down by the River,” and “Hey Hey, My My.” Young jumped around the stage like a kid, no doubt energized by his youthful bandmates (Lukas Nelson is 29 while Young is 72). During one song, he broke five strings on his electric guitar and then wrapped it up by whacking the strings against the pickups and generating what some people thought was horrible feedback and others thought was pure joy. Young also showed his softer side with gorgeous renditions of “I am a Child” and “Harvest Moon.” And, to show his appreciation and affection for Promise of the Real, he handed the lead over to the Nelson boys who each sang a tune midway through Young’s set. When fans started herding towards the exits, I looked over at the long-time fan beside me. His smile said it all.

July 15 – Sturgill Simpson, John Butler Trio, Dave Matthews Band

Each night, the main stage of the Festival d’été features a different genre of music that creates a different vibe and attracts a different crowd. July 6 was alt-country/folk/rock night while July 15 was clearly jam band night featuring Sturgill Simpson, the John Butler Trio and the Dave Matthews Band. In between, the stage featured everything from pop to metal with some electronic acts and hip hop to round things out. A one-hundred-dollar pass provides access to 2,500 shows at 10 venues over 11 days (trust me, it’s a great deal!).

John Butler Trio

The jam band crowd trickled in slowly during Simpson’s set. With three solo albums under his belt, Simpson is best known for his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” which received a lot of play on mainstream radio stations. The Nirvana fans in the audience might have been relieved that it wasn’t part of his set, but they would have surely appreciated Simpson’s musicianship. His voice is powerful and he stole the show with his outlaw-style guitar-playing.

Sturgill Simpson

The John Butler Trio hails from Australia and have been rocking the festival circuit since the late 90s. The large projection screens enabled everyone to witness Butler’s intricate fingerpicking which truly is mesmerizing. Their set was a melting pot of blues, rock, jazz and reggae and the crowd loved every second of it—they wanted to see a little more of this band and Butler himself seemed to be unsatisfied when the end of his set drew near. He wrapped it up with an awe-inspiring solo song.

Dave Mathews

Saving the best for last, the Dave Matthews Band, a.k.a. DMB, closed the show and the festival. Their set started off with an explosive version of “Don’t Drink the Water.” Drummer Carter Beauford’s bass drum sounded like thunder and resonated throughout the venue. With the added effect of the flashing stage lights, it was as if the band was announcing their arrival to all of eastern Canada. Playing a mix of songs from their latest release, Come Tomorrow, and highlights from their earlier studio albums, DMB kept their fans guessing which song they’d play next. As a true jam band, they are known for improvising, mixing up their set lists and throwing out surprises to their fans. Their set included a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and some of their biggest hits, like “Crash into Me.” At one point, Matthews said that he was “pretty jealous” of our prime minister and that he and his family were thinking about moving to Canada, “if you’ll have us.” After the crowd’s cheering dissipated, he spoke more seriously about the politics south of the border, “there’s never a reason to tear a baby from his mother’s arms.” And then he ripped into another song. DMB’s set was perfect and the best part of it is that these guys genuinely look like they are loving every second of it and having as much fun now as they did in the 90s. Their fans left happily satiated.

For more information on the The Festival d’ete de Quebec, visit infofestival.com