I am a music nerd. I saw my first concert when I was six—it was the Barenaked Ladies—and, thanks to my mom’s contact at the local radio station, I met the band beforehand. I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve snuck backstage, wormed my way into dressing rooms, waited outside tour buses and inside hotel lobbies and muscled my way through crowds to get a little closer to the band.
And that’s why I’ve never been a fan of music festivals. Thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands of people, all with the same goal: to get close to the stage and the band. Not to mention the terrible food, mud, weather and the dreaded porta-potties.
But today’s festivals are more sophisticated: the food is gourmet, the tickets are VIP and they have the best music rosters anyone could ask for.
So I decided it was time to tackle the music festival scene again. Last summer, I headed to Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest in Ottawa and Le Festival d’été de Québec to see what all the fuss is about, and I scoped out the best places to spot my favourite rock stars.
Grab your binoculars and your Sharpies and get ready to rock.
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
June 28-July 7
I arrive in Montreal at night and my hotel is throbbing from the festival’s bass lines. I have to see what is going on outside.
The 10-day jazz fest crams 2 million people within a square kilometre in Quartier des spectacles. It ranges from free outdoor shows of world music, hip hop and, of course, jazz, to big-name indoor shows at nearby venues.
In less than two hours, I watch Souad Massi, a songstress from Algeria; The Narcicyst, an Iraqi-Canadian MC; and Besh o DroM, a Hungarian group. All in one night, all outdoors, all free.
The next night, I get up close and personal. I’m in the sixth row at Liza Minnelli’s show at the Place des Arts. During her set, she sings, dances (on a broken ankle, no less), tells stories of “Uncle Frank”—a.k.a. Sinatra—and performs a monologue from the Broadway musical Chicago.
“C’est Liza avec un Z, pas Lisa avec un S, ” she sings, making all kinds of hissing and zzz-ing sounds before taking a dramatic breath during “Liza with a Z,” en français.
Then, a man near the front walks up to the stage and hands Minnelli flowers. Why didn’t I think of that? Note to self: always bring gifts.
It’s my last day at the festival and I’m waiting for a car that will take me to the airport when a man with a guitar case walks out. He is Mike Lindauer, Scottish singer Al Stewart’s bass player. We share a car and he tells me stories about how no one would buy Paul Simon’s catalogue of songs early in his career—“It probably saved him millions of dollars”—and how he knows Norah Jones.
“She has no ego, and that’s hard to find in this business,” he says.
We say our goodbyes at the airport and I’m off to see Ms. Jones in Ottawa.
Spotting the Stars
Hyatt Regency Montreal
Al Stewart’s band and many other musicians stayed here last year. Located in the heart of the festival, the hotel also hosts jams with festival artists.
InterContinental Montreal Hotel
It is rumoured that Liza Minnelli stayed here in 2012, in a suite with a 180-degree view of the city and butler service. Head to Osco! Restaurant or the absinthe bar to scope out celebs.
Members of Minnelli’s band visited this picturesque park during their stay in 2012. A Victorian fountain sits amidst a variety of colourful, ornate houses where artists, musicians and actors live.
Le Balmoral Bistro
Located downstairs from the fest’s pressroom at Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan; many artists stop in for a quick bite. Pick a table on the patio for live music and munch on a wild boar burger and fries.
2013 Festival Playlist
Aretha Franklin – Baby, I Love You”
Esperanza Spalding – “Black Gold”
Belle & Sebastian – “I’m a Cuckoo”
She & Him – “Black Hole”
Feist – “The Bad in Each Other”
RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest
When I arrive at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel, a downtown property where some of the Bluesfest artists stay, I head down to the gym. For a workout? Please. I’d heard a story about a guy who saw Jon Bon Jovi in his hotel gym, on the treadmill next to him. When Bon Jovi saw him looking he said, “Yeah, it’s me.”
I casually check out the pool and the gym, trying to picture Iron Maiden on the rowing machines. I’ll probably have better luck at the festival.
Located in LeBreton Flats Park, the 10-day Bluesfest surrounds the Canadian War Museum, which, incidentally, has washrooms (no porta-potties for me!). With that taken care of, I’m off to see Alice Cooper, the king of theatrical rock.
It’s still daylight as Vincent Price’s spoken-word intro to “The Black Widow” begins and the crowd—many sporting the rocker’s signature black eye make-up —buzzes with excitement. The curtain drops and Cooper is atop a staircase wearing spider legs.
“The horror that he brings, the horror of his stings, the unholiest of kings, the black widow,” sings Cooper.
I have butterflies in my stomach, so I can’t imagine how the band is feeling. But when I ask Cooper later about stage fright, he just scoffs.
“Oh no! Are you kidding? That’s the easiest thing for me. I wish I could get nervous,” he says. “When you have confidence in what you’re doing, then there’s really no stress.”
The next night, I’m back on the festival grounds for Norah Jones’s performance. Her stage production is more subdued than Cooper’s, so I go stand next to the sound crew. There’s a reason they are situated where they are: this is supposed to be the best place for sound quality.
“Don’t know why I didn’t call … ” every syllable and every note of the piano comes through crystal clear.
Spotting the stars
All hell’s breakin’ loose. In 2009, KISS bassist Gene Simmons and now wife Shannon Tweed toured Parliament Hill, the Senate and the library before Simmons took to the stage.
The Lord Elgin
This downtown hotel has a long history of dealing with celebs. The concierge won’t give out names, so instead, check out the restaurant, Grill 41, and the cozy lobby.
Rivermead Golf Club
Alice Cooper played nine holes here (and shot a 39) before performing at last year’s fest. You might find Sam Roberts, Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo or Bob Dylan on the greens.
Head to this stall in ByWard Market and you might spot past performer Bryan Adams or members of the Barenaked Ladies. International artists also love these Canadian pastries.
2013 Festival Playlist
B.B. King – “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”
The Specials – “A Message to You, Rudy”
Great Big Sea – “Love Me Tonight”
Matthew Good – “Zero Orchestra”
Solange – “Don’t Let Me Down”
Le Festival d’été de Québec
Of the three festivals I visit, I know the least about the Festival d’été in Quebec City. Founded in 1968, it primarily featured Francophone artists until the 1980s. Now, it brings superstars and almost a million people to the plaines d’Abraham.
My first show at the fest is Bon Jovi. The band wraps up their set with “Bad Medicine” and Jon Bon Jovi heads down the stairs, right up to the crowd. A woman wraps her white scarf around his neck and plants a kiss square on his lips.
“Canadian girls!” he exclaims. “They’re wild! Canadians girls! I love ya!”
She certainly got her money’s worth.
This turns out to be a theme at the 10-day festival. The next night, I head to L’Impérial de Québec to check out Sarah Slean’s seduction tactics.
“If you’re playing your own headlining show, the audience is usually very familiar with you, they know all the words,” says Slean. “Festivals are often different, especially in Quebec. There is a bit of seduction that has to go on. You have to sort of say, ‘Hey, look at me, listen to me!’”
Slean is charming, telling stories at the piano in French. The crowd loves her.
It’s my last day of the trip. I have my sights set on meeting Aerosmith and I have a good idea where they’re staying. I walk through the city’s antiques district on my way there. Seems appropriate.
Finally, I head to the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. There’s no throng of people outside like I expected, so I enter the lobby. Here, too, all seems normal. I show myself around, but to no avail. I leave without spotting Aerosmith and convinced the halls of the hotel are straight out of The Shining.
Later that night, Steven Tyler struts down the catwalk, the long scarves on his microphone billowing in the wind, mere feet away from me, gyrating to “Sweet Emotion.” I didn’t get to meet him but, I decide, this is close enough.
Spotting the Stars
Le Café du Monde
Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, might have mistaken this bistro for his native Paris when he dined here last year. Try the duck confit, beef tartare and crème brûlée.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Sting, Metallica and Sir Paul McCartney have all stayed here when playing the festival.
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and ZZ Top are fishing enthusiasts (who knew?). Drop a line in Rivière Jacques-Cartier, 30 minutes from the city, for speckled trout.
Sting indulged in six courses—including lobster flambé, salmon carpaccio and rum cake—here in 2009. Ask your server which table McCartney dined at in 2008.
2013 Festival Playlist
Bruno Mars – “Treasure”
Rush – “Caravan”
The Joy Formidable – “This Ladder is Ours”
Ellie Goulding – “Anything Could Happen”
Def Leppard – “Pour Some Sugar on Me”