Friday, 5 July 2013

Sights and Sounds of Rockfest - Day 1

Sights and Sounds of Rockfest  |  Day 1


The bright green trees fly by as the train to Vaudreuil takes me closer to the car in which I will be driven to this year’s Rockfest in Montebello. The ride reminds me of my days in Germany a few months back (proof that I don’t hop on the AMT trains very often, I guess). I’m slowly emerging from a drowsy lack-of-sleep mood, thanks to the two-dollar coffee I just downed.

After a few weeks of shameful weather, it feels good to finally see some blue sky. As the train slices through the West Island, I grin like an untroubled fool, eager to get my fill of dirty punk, hard rock, and heavy metal. First festival of the season, my head is clear, my mind is fresh. Let mayhem begin.

*  *  *

It is the father of a buddy and colleague of mine who drives me out to Petite-Nation. On the way, he turns on the CD player and introduces me to a bunch of songs written, composed, and performed by his three very talented children. He reminds me of my own dad, a hardworking guy who does not have an ounce of snobbery in him and who thoroughly enjoys music. It does not take us long to engage in a fun exchange, during which he tells me part of his story and I tell him part of mine. I feel like it’s the perfect prelude for what awaits me.

*  *  *

I’m sitting in the steps of the church in the heart of Montebello. The atmosphere is at once sunny, windy, and crazy within the small town, which evidently catches fire every year when Rockfest weekend comes around. Bare-chested men with spiky mohawks, leather-skirted girls with streaks of darkness in their bleached hair, and old gray-bearded bikers with big bellies are drinking beer from shiny cans on the main strip. Tents are pitched everywhere: on people’s front yards, in between houses and stores, on small patches of grass bordering parking lots, in the middle of wide fields that are full of swaying vegetation. The irresistible smell of deep fried goodness emanates from the numerous food wagons parked on the side of the road. I get a kick out of all the inked up skin on which I lay eyes, big colourful sleeves or neat little designs on forearms or thighs. I see pink hair and happy faces, ripped jeans and big grins. I hear English and French, I see eagerness in the way people walk and gesticulate, I smell ganja and blooming flowers. This is great.

Rancid's Tim Armstrong
As I’m waiting for some of my friends to get here, I feel the excitement building up. I hear the music in the distance, and it triggers memories of previous festivals I’ve been to, of rowdy mosh pits in the midst of which I felt as alive as can be.

The sun gradually becomes more powerful, and so I move from one side of the church steps to the other, seeking shade. About two seconds later, I’m chatting with joyful folks from Toronto, among whom Rose Plourde, a singer-songwriter who talks of busking with spirited passion. She’s wearing silver, golden, and red shiny beads on her wrists and neck, and big black combat boots on her feet. She tells me her skin is burning under all that sun, but she spurns my offer of sunscreen, saying, “I’m against sunscreen.”

I smile as two green-haired girls with black tank tops walk off holding a gigantic box of Pabst between the two of them. Gleeful.

*  *  *

After consulting a few well-established campers, we opt to pitch our tent on the front lawn of the church, only a few meters away from the entrance of the site. That means we are not paying a penny for camping, and that we can access our stuff only seconds after getting out of the concert area. “Why isn’t everyone doing this?” is the question that is posed by my merry little team at this point. To this day, it remains unanswered.

Helped by two neighbours, I set up my red and blue hammock in between the two trees at the foot of which we are camped. These two guys are big metal heads and they keep ranting about Lamb of God. We exchange a few laughs, talk about the fun that is to come, and give each other high fives before heading to the Killswitch Engage show.

We damn near miss it due to the never-ending and slow-moving nature of the queues at the ticket booths, but we manage to catch a little bit of the band’s high-energy set. Unfamiliar with this crew’s metalcore oeuvre, I am utterly impressed by guitarist Joel Michael Stroetzel’s deftness, and by Jesse Leach’s gravely melodic singing. The solos fly and wander through the cloudless sunshine, slithering slickly over Justin Foley’s very frantic drumming. Foley is truly spectacular. He punctuates his unbelievable streaks of fast-paced heavy hits with nifty little fills, displaying the sheer extent of his rhythmic dexterity.

I’m with my friend Amber, and we cannot help but notice a weird phenomenon: it sounds like the high and midrange frequencies get swept away by the heavy wind every few seconds. As a result of that, the overall sound appears to be crystal clear at times, and kind of muffled at others. I’m annoyed by this occurrence at first, but I end up enjoying it, somehow. I tell myself it sounds like the band is playing in a massive storm.

Shortly afterwards, we make our way to the Mitch Lucker stage, to catch a few songs from the Suhumans set. I am very excited by that moment. I must admit, in the hardcore realm of things, punk is truly my favourite aesthetic. Moreover, I tend to especially enjoy the frantic, youthful, mad-at-the-world stuff. Thus, the adrenaline-filled pieces of this UK heavyweight strike just the right chords. The efficient and filthy guitar riffs abound, as do the mean bass lines and the raucous vocals. Their set is performed in classic 80s punk fashion: quick, fast-paced, and dirty.

In-between songs, lead singer Dick Lucas rambles about politics and social issues with a delightfully rebellious tone. I cannot help but have a thought for my roommate, who jokingly puts on an over-the-top British accent and starts talking crazy whenever he’s had a few too many. I swear they sound very alike. I giggle at this thought.

We then rush back to the two main stages to be prepared for the arrival of Boston’s very own Dropkick Murphys. On stage, two gigantic piles of amps stand strong. On the face of both of them, Irish coat of arms are painted in white, which is as predictable a detail as it is a fun one. As most punk heads know, this unit offers a blend of traditional Irish folk music and ferocious punk rock. As well as the classic power trio composed of a bass, an electric guitar, and a set of drums, these joyful bards are armed with a banjo, a bagpipe, and an accordion. Equipped with such a diverse array of tools, they frantically rock it out, as the dust soars from under moshers’ feet.

Dropkick Murphys' Ken Casey & Jeff DaRosa
Often, they play a deliciously melodious folk bit before launching a ridiculously fast phase of sheer punk-rockness. They also chat abundantly in between songs, sometimes with heavyhearted words (like when they offer their respects to the family of the victims of the Boston marathon attack), sometimes with foolish ones (like when they talk s**t about the Bruins having made it to the NHL finals). Predictably, their rendition of I’m Shipping Up to Boston is received with great enthusiasm, enough for the mosh pit to explode in a mixture of dirt, sweat, and sunshine.

Moments later, my faction and I are sitting in the dirt against a metal fence, light-headed from the booze and exhausted from the pit. At the junk food trucks, the queues of hungry show goers snake around the puddle of thick dry mud (no matter how gorgeous the day ends up being, mud is just a reality of festivals, it seems). As we are waiting for a subsequent show to start on the bigger of the two main stages, I catch a glimpse of Capitaine Révolte on the other one. I notice that this local band’s ska-oriented punk has gotten a slightly heavier than in the past, or perhaps it seems that way because its merry members are now playing live before my eyes. Anyhow, as I’m drinking one of many five-dollar beers, I get a kick out of the nostalgia they trigger in me.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy such a feeling, because the arrival of legendary act Rancid is sure as hell not going to help ease it. It’s about 7 PM at this point, the late afternoon sun in shining full blast, the moment is absolutely perfect for a set of Californian street punk. Here we are, getting raunchy, nonchalant, satirical verses thrown at us, along with distortion-filled melodic guitar riffs, all that in the atmospheric perfectness of a warm summer evening. How can it possibly get any better than this?

Not surprisingly, songs like Roots Radical, Time Bomb, Fall Back Down, Olympia WA, and Ruby Soho end up in loud and cheerful sing-alongs. Everyone is smiling with blissful joy, my little team being no exception. The band even tries a new song on us, one that requires the audience’s participation: we are asked by the three vocalists (yes, all frontmen of this band sing, a detail I have not noticed before now) to yell “F**K YOU!” at the end of every line of the chorus. Heaps of fun, I tell you.

*  *  *

Apparently, the dude from the ticket booths who handed us our bracelets forgot to give us a printed version of the schedule. I was naïve enough to believe that copies of this invaluable document were going to be all over the place, but they truly are not. After a quick stop at our camp (oh the joys of being camped right across from the concert site!) involving a few cans of beer and a bit of food, we make our way back to the stages in the lingering dusk. I’m thrilled. I always get a rush of excitement from the first night falling on any festival. I feel like in such a context, darkness gives everything a sort of mystical quality. I don’t know why, I just dig it.

After passing the main entrance, we realize that the Deftones might have already started their set (lacking an impossible-to-find schedule, we can’t know for sure). Our premonition ends up being right: we arrive in the midst of the crowd just in time for what we are told is their third song. What strikes me about their set is their tremendous sense of momentum: they use slow, heavy build-ups to induce a sense of anticipation in the public, and then shamelessly unleash their humungous-sounding metal-flavoured riffs out in the open air. It proves fruitful. The shoving around becomes intense, helped by the crowd’s mounting drunkenness, as well as the blooming night.

The Sacaremento-based band also draws a few fast-paced pieces from its impressively diverse repertoire, thus giving the mosh pit an extra shot of adrenaline (as if it needed it…), and does not shy away from playing the tracks in which lead vocalist Chino Moreno becomes an MC. Speaking of him, something has be said about how utterly into-it he is throughout the set. He runs around the stage, throws his fists into the air, head bangs like crazy, and preps the audience non-stop. Moreover, every time he sings an especially intense line, his whole body swings back to gather the required energy, and then snaps back towards the firmly held microphone as his screaming voice is liberated into the wild night. Quite a sense of purpose, let me tell you that.

After the set is in the books, we remain in the crowd of the bigger main stage, wanting to be ready for the next act that is scheduled to perform there. As we chill in the midst of the animated crowd, local band Groovy Aardvark is delivering its badass rock to an eager public on the other stage. A few songs into its set, as it plays its hardcore cover of Félix Leclerc’s classic Le p’tit bonheur, something marvellous happens: the people surrounding my group of friends in front of the empty big stage start moshing to the music of the smaller scene. ‘That’s the festival spirit!’ I tell myself internally before shoving someone back into what could be described as a ‘second-hand pit’ (you heard it here first!).

Then, my early high school days begin passing before my eyes: it’s time for the Offspring. I have heard many things about how this Orange County unit went from the underground to the mainstream a bit too quickly for some bitter music lovers’ tastes, but I have long ago grown out of these petty considerations. The ultra-famous band’s set is stuffed with classics, most of them from its well-known album Americana, among which The Kids Aren’t Alright, Feelings, Why Don’t You Get a Job?, and, of course, the tongue-in-cheek radio hit Pretty Fly (For a White Guy). At this point, the night has established itself solidly, and it allows the set to be full of colourful lighting and very enjoyable visual elements, all of which dance around the big fiery skull logo at the back of the stage.

About an hour into the set, the mosh pit gets very rowdy, while never losing its ritualistic altruism. Indeed, everyone keeps helping the fallen ones to get back on their feet, and everyone is always willing to help an avid body surfer to get to the top of the crowd. But, as Have You Ever rolls around, the community of moshers faces a tumultuous challenge: a big chunk of the public, I’d say about 60 people, all fall on one side at once. It looks like a big fat wave crashing down on the ground. The agile ones who manage to struggle their way out of this human lake bubble up every few meters, and immediately attempt to help their neighbours up. The process clearly does not look like a walk in park, but the grins remain, and even develop into fairly hysterical laughter. Indeed, once the fear that comes with having fallen in the middle of the pit vanishes, the pretty hilarious nature of what just happened appears to be grasped by the relieved moshers that were involved in it. Laughing and hugging each other, they direct their attention back to the Offspring, who not long afterwards plays two new songs, both of which are very solid, while also being very recognizably theirs. Fun times.

Then, we make our way back to our tents with exhilarated moods. The spirits are high, we just had a blast, we have a few beers in us, and it is now time for the late-night shenanigans. We sit around for a little while sharing our impressions and our fine herbs, we get out of our steel caps and muddy shirts and slip into cozy clothes. People whose tents are pitched nearby come to us stumbling and they join our circle for ephemeral discussions about various idle matters. Everyone is cracking up, we take turns in the hammock, we write down the best quotes from whoever is taking part in our enthusiastic deliberations. Then, we decide that we must wander through the restless night. We stash our stuff in the tent and head off, without forgetting to take the bottle of whiskey with us.

We aim for campground number two, because a friend of mine told me she is residing there for the weekend. As we stroll forward on the main strip (don’t forget, we’re in the middle of a town, not in the woods), we see all kinds of characters, all of whom are part of the wonderfully eclectic cast that populates festivals. That is one of the main reasons I love such events. In the context of a sleepover music festival, it seems like everyone is taking a break from reality, or at least from the habitual somewhat constipated social norms. Festivalgoers are often eager to meet other people, to share moments with them, to give them a beer, to hang out with them for a little while. Most of them are relaxed, they’re happy to be there, enough for some to feel the urge to add a touch of colourful and eccentric to their looks. Some even bear these unorthodox styles on a permanent basis, in their everyday life, which reassures me about the state of the world. I kid you not, seeing dreadlocks and mohawks, messy tattoos and big leather boots, t-shirts full of holes and jackets covered in patches, witnessing all that limitless devotion to music and the cultural gatherings in which it thrives, yes, laying eyes on all that tangible living poetry gives me faith in humanity. I find it an inspiring sight, and I feel lucky to be a part of it. It kind of feels like an honour. I hope that makes sense.

Rockfest Dwellers
As we go along, we meet all kinds of cool people, but my favourite encounter has to be the boys from the cemetery. As we walk towards our destination, we come across this Christian ‘patch of grass of the dead’, and we see a faint light somewhere in the row of tall pine trees that borders it. We initially think it’s a bonfire, which gets us really excited, but as we get closer to it, we realize it is a small lantern. Around it, a group of five or six guys from Saguenay are sitting in camping chairs, cheerfully talking about their day. My friend Geneva tries guessing every single boy’s name. She gets Jean-François’s in three attempts.

We sit down with them as the peace pipe goes around, and we truly start bonding with these guys. Amber, the one person in my group of friends who has a bit of trouble understanding French, gets her ears tested by these heart-of-Quebeckers’ thick accents, and we have a few laughs over some of the funny expressions that they use. They are ridiculously courteous, willingly giving away their spots on chairs, and insisting that we take them. As the dialogue unfolds, we feel blessed by spontaneity for this sweet random rendezvous, we give several swigs of scotch to our new buddies, we make plans to hang out with them tomorrow. Then, we shake hands with them warmly prior to heading back to our camp.

Before going to bed, we sit on the steps of the church in the middle of small crowd and pass the bottle of whiskey around, while listening to a dude with a sky-high mohawk play old Cowboys Fringants songs. The night sky is already flirting with tomorrow. It’s time for a nap.

*Special thanks to Jason Duchene from Raw Cut Media for the photos.

Read more about Rockfest in Sights & Sounds of Rockfest  |  Day 2
back to top