Neil Young is surely one of Canada’s most famous singer/songwriters and his popularity since the 70’s has not waned.
So it was no surprise that 80,000 fans showed up for his concert at the Quebec city summer festival, or Festival d’été de Québec as it is known in French, in July. Quebec, you see, is French-Canadian. Everyone speaks French first!
Every year for the last 51 years, the Festival has brought an eclectic, soul searing, energy pumping, thoughtful mix of styles to the historic Plains of Abraham battlefield in downtown Old Quebec. The main stage, along with 9 other venues, showcases an astonishing 2,500 shows over 11 days for the stunning price of just $100 Canadian dollars (today’s exchange makes that just over $75 US) for more than 350,000 attendees.
Incredibly, this was Young’s first appearance at the reknowned festival that features new talent as well as international superstars who play rock, folk, hip-hop, electro, French song, jazz, world music and much more.
Over the years, the Festival has seen big-name stars and emerging artists alike play its main venue, the Bell Stage. The site boasts North America's biggest self-supporting stage and has room for 80,000 spectators. The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Keith Urban, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Tiësto, Bon Jovi, The Black Keys, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Sting, Charles Aznavour, Rammstein, Elton John and a host of top names have all played before the enamored crowds.
The Bell Stage is the main performing space but make no mistake, there is a lot of performing happening all around the downtown area. Beautiful cafes are filled with outdoor diners surrounded by lush baskets of flowers while wine flows. All of the music venues area located in downtown Quebec City and within an easy walking distance, the Festival venues are where the action is.
Wacky street performers take over the winding streets of Old Québec, and kids find plenty of cool activities to keep them busy at Place de la Famille. World music fans can dance all day and into the night to the festive rhythms at Place D’Youville. If you’re into blues, Le Petit Impérial is the place to discover local talent, while the electro and after-hour shows at Le Cercle keep night owls up till dawn. If you’re looking for the trendiest up-and-coming bands, join the crowd inside the historic Impérial concert hall or go to Parc de la Francophonie for music under the stars. And for huge gatherings and world-class stars, the stage on the Plains of Abraham will blow you away!
The 72-year-old Canadian rock legend brought along his backing band, Promise of the Real, comprised of two sons of Willie Nelson, Lukas and Micah Nelson.
Festival d’été de Québec a roaring success
“It’s my first time here. I can’t believe it,” he said, quickly adding a bit of humor. “Either that, or I can’t remember (because) I’m too old,” Young told the crowd. Then it was all business as he plowed through “Like an Inca,” “F___’in’ Up,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “I am a Child,” “Lotta Love,” “Down By the River,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Angry World,” “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black),” “Harvest Moon” and “Roll Another Number (For the Road).”
“This amazing adventure began in 1968 with a group of businessmen and a bunch of young, talented artists (Diane Lavoie, Constance Paré, Bernard Pelchat, Louis Ricard, Hélène Savoie, Hélène Trépanier, Michel Viel) taking over the city’s public areas with their music. First showcasing Québec's local artists and street performers, the Festival broadened its horizons by adding major international musicians to its program in the early 80s,” said Samantha McKinley, director of communications for the Festival.
It is hard to believe that a pass to every single concert over the entire 10 days is less than $75 (US). But the non profit organization uses the ticket proceeds to pay for the talent and corporate sponsors pick up the rest.
“Ticket prices have evolved over the years. Prices went up about 12 years ago when we started welcoming international headliners. Over the years, we have always strived to keep tickets costs at their lowest – (last year, went up $5 - because of evolving production costs and booking costs, but we try to keep it at a minimum). Our ticket sales cover roughly the cost of talent on the line-up ($14 million this year); we then work to figure out alternative ways to finance all of our operations (global budget around $30 miilion) – through other sales and partnerships. We are a non profit; we receive help from about 20 partners, public and private. We are on the top short list of events, country-wide, who invest such an important amount on our line-up. Even our opening acts are big: Sturgill Simpson opened for Dave Matthews this year. Cyndi Lauper opened for Lorde,” McKinley said.
Quebec is the perfect city for the 10-venue festival as everything is close, nestled against the banks of the beautiful St. Lawrence River. The old town has founatins, cobblestone streets, gas lamps, flowers, and more charm than almost any city in North America.
“One thing that also makes us different from most festivals is our schedule. Shows never start before 6 pm. So days are yours; you can visit the town, do an activity, have dinner at a great restaurant, and then head to your show. I would also say the length of our festival is something else to consider – 11 days,” she said, adding one stunning feature of the festival:
“Tickets are transferable (but resale in forbidden). A family member can go see one show, and then a friend or member of the family can go see another with the same ticket (wristband),” she said.
“We don’t know yet who next year’s artist will be. Our programming team, led by Louis Bellavance, create our stellar line-up every year. The one thing we are known for is being a multi-genre music festival. We always have all types of music. We like to reflect world trends – some years there might be a bit more pop (like this year), some years more rock, etc.,” McKinley said.
Not only do the tens of thousands of attendees love the fesitval, the musical performers do too. McKinley says the entire team works very hard to make it a seamless and standout place to perform.
“Feedback from the teams are always along the lines of : Why haven’t we played here before? What was that? They usually can’t get over the crowd sizes and how well we are organized. We work our butts off making their stay here memorable, to make sure we get a good word to mouth going between the industry types and the artists. And it is working, she said.
“Some comments collected during the Festival that reflects the artists’ satisfaction with their FEQ experience: ‘It was such a great day and we all loved it. You’re definitely in the top three festivals I’ve ever worked at. Well done,’ said Andrew Thornton, production director for Shawn Mendes; ‘A big thank you to you and all of your teams for everything. It was a pleasure! Hope to work with you again,’ said Mark Andrew Powell, The Chainsmokers team; ‘Great show and experience,’ said Abbe Rosenfeld, Cyndi Lauper’s team; ‘Top notch organization you have there,’ said John Dubuque, Cyndi Lauper’s team; and ‘It was a real pleasure. Thank you for all your help with Lorde and all the last minute ( oh by the way) requests. Excellent job and thank you all,’ said Rodney Johnson, production manager, Lorde.
Neil Young played for two hours. He has written some of the most memorable songs in music history and been inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a solo artist in 1995 and then again in 1997 as member of Buffalo Springfield. Many of his fans came to know him as an original member of Crosby, Stills Nash and Young.The other night, Young joked he was too old to remember if he had been there before or not. But watching him play was also watching the years slip away. He was strong, determined and focused. And 80,000 people were singing right along with him.
The 52nd Festival d’été de Québec is slated for July 4-14, 2019. The line-up will be announced mid-March and the tickets go on sale immeidately. For more information, visit infofestival.com/en.
Photos by Cynthia Calvert