Rockin’ in the Free World: Neil Young & the Festival d’Été de Québec
By William C. Triplett
Some music festivals are known primarily just for the music — think Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or Coachella in Southern California. Then there are festivals in magical destinations, like the Mozart Festival in Salzburg and the Primavera Sound in Barcelona. There’s also the Festival d’Été de Québec, or FEQ, as the locals call it in Québec City, host of the extraordinary event for the last 50 summers.
This fabled little city on the St. Lawrence River, home to barely more than a half-million people, exudes charm from every cobblestone and sidewalk cafe. I’d been wanting to visit for a while, particularly the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the early 1600s. When the chance arose to attend the 51st FEQ last July, I wasn’t going to let it slip past.
Possibly the most amazing thing I discovered about FEQ is that it is somehow both massive — more than 250 different shows on five different stages over the course of 11 days — and yet incredibly communal. Four of the five venues were outdoors and located near the stone walls of the Old City, and one (indoor) venue right was in the Old City heart. Everything and everyplace was easily walkable, making the festival feel like a neighborhood party.
There was no way to catch all 250 shows – many played simultaneously on the different stages. Amps and lights switched on around 5:00 every afternoon, and various bands/artists then rotated on and off the stages, playing sets usually an hour or two long, until just before midnight, when the music stopped until the next day.
Moreover, I was only there for the opening three days, but I still saw a lot, and at a leisurely pace. It was like picking from a poster-sized menu, selecting what you knew you liked and what sounded interesting. And one of the big draws for me was Neil Young, a Canadian boy himself, whose music I’ve loved and followed for a long time, but whose concerts, I’m almost embarrassed to say, I’d never caught.
A headliner, Young and his back-up band Promise of the Real played the main venue — Bell Stage — opening right on time at 9:30 on a Friday evening, right after Kurt Vile and the Violators wrapped up a rousing show. Young played a solid two hours and change, without a break — not bad for a guy in his early 70s. He left no doubt he’s still got it. In spades. From his unmistakable vocals — somewhere between nasally croon and angry growl, depending on the song — to his ripping guitar solos, his abiding power to alternately woo and rock a stadium-sized crowd was on full display.
His set list was a good mix of his big standards — “Down by the River,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Hey, Hey, My, My,” for instance — and deeper cuts such as “Cortez the Killer” and “Lotta Love.” Fourteen in total. Judging from the roar of happy fans at the end (myself included), they would’ve loved to hear 14 more.
I also made sure to catch another act I’d loved since high school days but never seen live — Jethro Tull. The band’s appearance at FEQ was part of a 50th anniversary tour, celebrating five decades of still being in the business. Ian Anderson, the founding father and animating spirit of Tull, is also in his early 70s, but again, you’d never know it. “A Song for Jeffrey,” “Bourée in E Minor,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “My God,” “Locomotive Breath” and more kept a packed lawn at the Loto-Québec Stage enthralled.
Classic rockers, though, were only part of a huge array of music on tap. Folk, pop, hip-hop, jazz, classical, world, techno/electronica, Indie, punk: It was all there. Among those I wish I could’ve stayed longer to see: Beck, Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews, Bullet for My Valentine, The War on Drugs, and Sebastian Bach. (Check out the full list of artists and bands that played.)
Since the majority of venues were outdoors, it was so nice to amble between shows, maybe stop at a café or restaurant for a bite to eat or a glass of wine, and maybe listen to whoever was playing nearby. The summer evenings were pleasant and comfortable with a nice breeze off the water, and for the time I was there, the rain clouds kept their distance.
Daytime I spent wandering the Old City and its narrow, cobblestone streets and sidewalks with cafes and alleys thronged with people. About every third shop was a souvenir boutique full of trinkets, clothing, and maple syrup. Artists had stands to sell their work, and people were lined up outside the ice cream shops and creperies. Add in the stone facades, and it really did feel like old Europe.
One afternoon, after strolling for an hour, I found an Irish pub near the bottom of Rue Saint Jean. Seemed a good place to catch Belgium take on Brazil in the quarterfinal round of the World Cup. The place was full of locals and tourists. I took a seat at the bar in front of one of the giant screens, ordered a pint of Harp, and raised my glass to the Belgian team (hey, I used to live in Brussels). A guy next to me did the same, telling me he was here on vacation — from Brussels. We laughed and cheered, and after Belgium had won, he told me he and his wife were planning to catch some of the festival shows that evening.
I moseyed along Rue Saint Jean to a cafe, where I stopped for an espresso. A magician was working the crowd at one of the street corners. Children ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every trick; parents volunteered money for the entertainment. An aroma of onion soup drifted by, and I turned to see the couple seated next to me digging into two crocks of the stuff.
On another afternoon, I went on a tour of Île d’Orléans, which lies in the St. Lawrence a few miles east of Québec City. It’s a beautiful island with a decidedly rural feel, dotted with farms and old homes. We stopped at a vineyard and sampled the local wines, and then hit a cider distillery for its wares. When we later saw a roadside stand selling fresh strawberries picked from the farm behind it, we couldn’t resist — and we were wise not to. Gorgeous red berries bursting with flavor, so sweet and plump.
That night, I was back in the Old City at the Théâtre Petit Champlain, the one indoor venue, down near the waterfront. The streets are even narrower there, and the descent so steep from the upper part of the city that many people use the funicular instead of walking down the old stone steps. I went to catch a jazz trio led by Shai Maestro, a gifted pianist from Israel. The space was intimate, with bistro tables and chairs arrayed across the floor. The trio’s improvisations swayed from impassioned to delicate, particular Maestro’s. After a couple nights of driving beats, crashing chords, and thumping raps, it was a perfect coda to a memorable experience.
William Triplett is the former DC bureau chief for Variety. Triplett has written about various destinations, from Scotland’s Inverness and Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the Beatles’ old haunts in Hamburg. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Baltimore Sun,and Capital Style.