Backstage With Bands:
How Rockfest has managed to stay successful in the changing festival scene
As the pontoon boat I was on turned the river bend my eyes were granted the sight of what my ears had been wondering about since I entered Montebello. One of the aging death metal roadies onboard said, “Great idea Marv, my back was killing me.” He turned to the driver of the vessel and began to make a crack about getting old before remembering the Quebecois man could hardly string together a sentence in English.
We came up to Rockfest from the Ottawa River and were greeted by hundreds of thousands of people who had shaken the sleepy French Canadien village to its core with a weekend full of international fans of all walks of life, crowded campgrounds, globetrotting artists, porta-potties, ear plugs, mud, sex, hot dogs, extensive drug and alcohol usage, and rock ’n’ roll. To the untrained eye this festival of misfits in such a setting may look like anarchists’ celebrating a revolution, but for those of us on the boat and in the masses, this is the shit we live for.
2015 marks the tenth year that Alex Martel has been putting on Rockfest. (Check out my interview with him last year, here.) Martel has had a few logistical set backs, but for a kid from the outskirts of a Quebec he has done a pretty impressive job at continuing to grow the festival. But could Rockfest have peaked? We will not know until we see next year’s lineup.
In the increasingly competitive music festival business, we have seen many events fail to adapt and get lost in the wake of the bigger festivals, or attempt to change and lose their soul. Canada has seen the music festival scene diluted in recent years, just between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, some of the biggest names in the global music industry will be visiting this summer. 2015 sees the death of the Muskoka Sound festival, which could not keep up with the multi-million dollar Bonnaroo team producing the WayHome mega-fest nearby. As well as, St. Catherine’s S.C.E.N.E. Music Festival, which boldly attempted a change of face in 2014, shifting the intimate, heartfelt, city-street style, into a more cookie-cutter, mainstream format. The change was not received well.
For the meantime, however, Rockfest has managed to stay on top of the dog pile and continue to grow. One thing the festival has going for it is a very strong support system. The whole town embraces the annual Bohemian takeover; many businesses even in the towns near by will make their full year’s profits in one weekend. The mayor has even come out publically supporting Martel and his festival. Some of the biggest acts in the world and Martel’s grandmother put my media bracelet on for me. This year they spread the festival out from Thursday to Sunday, with the concentration of bands playing Friday and Saturday. For a full review of the Friday performances, read here. Most people agreed Saturday was better, weather-wise and tune-wise.
Thrice rocked the Jagermiester stage, with a tight stage presence and just wicked sounding guitars. They were praised by a sea of orange foam heavy metal Rockfest horns. Snoop Dogg was definitely one of the most anticipated performances of the weekend. Before he played there was a huge Prevost tour bus idling backstage that smelt like it was just exhaling bong tokes. Apparently Snoop, and the other four headliners following him on the main stage, all asked for the backstage area to be blocked off during their performances. Understandable, but it did make navigating from stage to stage very difficult for some of us media folk who are granted the same access as people willing to spend the extra money on a VIP wrist band. But Snoop absolutely lit up the festival. Dressed clad in a black and white patterned suit, the pioneer of rap got the predominantly white crowd grooving and left them hanging on every one of his words. He smoke a couple blunts on stage and encouraged the crowd to do the same so they abided willingly. Along with his classics, Snoop did a tribute to Biggie and one to Tupac, playing their songs back to back. Crowd favourites were also “California Girls” and a cover of “I love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Snoop ended his set perfectly. Announcing to the crowd, “I want my last words to be…. Smoke Weed Every Day!” cue Bob Marley’s “Jammin’” and the musical mastermind slowly grooved off stage.
Next, I headed back to the Jager Stage to check out Refused. What can I say about Refused that hasn’t already been said before? Their crazy punk rock performance in suits is a perfect fit for their sound. The sound was a bit muddled but no one seemed to care. They seemed to really connect with their fans. As I moved from stage to stage I was bombarded with people I recognized, both from the media and in the crowd. Rockfest has become a tradition for many people; they plan on going every year and are almost guaranteed to come back no matter who is playing. Those kinds of fans are great for festivals and especially for the remote Rockfest where people have to commit to going and usually staying the weekend.
Rob Zombie put on a great show. Not many bands can pull off dramatic stage effects but Zombie does it beautifully. He has a natural charisma that gets amplified by zombie makeup. The set was really a spectacle and I would recommend checking the band out if they are ever playing near you and the tickets are affordable. I cannot help but compare them to last year’s closing act Motley Crue, who shat all over the main stage. At 50-years-old, Zombie impressively jumped across the stage and danced for most of the set. Looking like an undead Jack Sparrow, Zombie said he talked to Snoop before their set and everyone cheered.
One of the things about Rockfest that I have come to love and hate is the mad dash and crowding in the backstage areas as the often world-renown artists make their way around. People adorned with green “All Access” wristbands clamor for autographs and pictures on their phones. One such moment happened this year as I was standing around minding my own business when Kyle Gas of the D strode by on his cellphone, as I was trying to catch his eye, his partner in crime, Jack Black followed.
The two waded through the small gaggle of fans to their tent behind the Jager Stage. After a quick photo-op with Martel I noticed Gas slip out for a smoke. I always hate being “that guy” but I just had to. I walked right up to him, apologized for interrupting his smoke and shook his hand. He was reserved but seemed delighted to be there.
Tenacious D left the crowd moist, and wanting. I had been looking to catch them play a live show for quite a while and I was not disappointed. They came out to epic music being played and an anxious crowd. The set started out with “Tribute” and toured through some of their other fan favourites like “Pick of Destiny,” “The Metal,” “Kickapoo.” The whole band, the duo plus a guitar player, bassist and drummer, appeared to be enjoying themselves thoroughly on stage. They did a musical introduction where after naming a person, they would riff and solo a bit. KG opened it up and after playing through the band, JB introduced himself everyone quieted down and Black did a bluesy “Sound of Silence” vocal solo, then they crashed back into a great jam, it was awesome. At one point they broke off into a “Simply Jazz” tangent and what they called the “new sound” of the D. KG picked up a recorder and JB scatted. All the while, the drummer from Rob Zombie stood in front of the stage, between the barriers, in an area where no one else but security was allowed. The melodramatic duo was hilarious to watch. Playing out one of their most infamous scenes, they pointed at their guitarist wearing a “Hail Sagan” t-shirt and said he had been possessed by the devil, seguing into “Beelzeboss.” Tenacious D finished their set with “Fuck Her Gently” but as they were playing Slayer started up on the main stage and the metal prevailed. JB then started replacing song lyrics with “Slayer!” to the overall amusement of everyone paying attention.
Slayer was loud, fast and heavy. The old school thrash metal band sounded as badass as they looked. If their stature was not commanding the attention of everyone in the town of Montebello than their beards were. Guitarist Gary Holt was wearing his notorious “Kill The Kardashians” shirt. Tom Arya set the mood between songs with his dark poetry. The men in Slayer do a great job of looking their parts as rock gods.
In a change of pace, next I hit up the Pixies. They started out with a really good groove and the whole band really has a great sense of how their instruments work together. The songs they played were very dynamic and kept the pace of the set going. As they played fireworks sporadically erupted from somewhere North of the festival grounds.
After the photographers got kicked out of the photo pit I followed my partner Andrej out to go have a seat before System of a Down went on. I sat as he (a Montreal native) and two other French Canadian reporters talked about the festival, quickly switching back and forth between French and English. There was a controversy; as usual with festivals some acts only allow mainstream media photographers into the pit. It seemed as though one of the PR people had suddenly acquired the ability to grant access and was handing passes out willy-nilly. Rockfest proved to be a fan’s paradise once again. They do a great job of catering to the needs of the ticketholders but some logistical areas are rough and disorganized. The feel I got from the day (similar to last year) was that the fans were much more impressed than the artists and media.
Finally the act so many people had been waiting months to see, System of a Down. Overall their set was powerful, instrumentally and nostalgically. However it was a bit lackluster and at times and they had a very slow start. The band looked right at home on the main stage of a major festival, but it was easy to imagine them playing to a smaller dingy metal bar of a hundred or less, pouring their hearts out on stage. Vocalist Serj Tankian sounds like an opera trained singer and he would wave his hand in the air like he was conducting the crowd. The backup vox added another great dimension to the live performance.
Rockfest has banked its success on the parameters with which Martel defines “rock.” The festival is guaranteed to have more than one act your familiar with as a fan of “rock” music. Whether in 2014 it was Joan Jett, Motley Crue, Blink 182, Taking Back Sunday or Brand New. Or this year where they had Deftones, Thrice, Snoop, Tenacious D and System of a Down, there is something for the whole, head banging family. That, along with the reasons I have outlined throughout the article, is why Rockfest 2016 can be bigger than the 10-year anniversary this year, or it could prove to be the deathblow for Montebello music lovers, it all depends on whom he can book.
Most of the way through System of a Down’s set my buddy Andrej and I decided it was best to attempt to beat the mad dash out of town. We navigated behind the main stage to a small lapse in the fencing where a security guard let us through to the dock area. We boarded the water taxi in the dark with a few other journalists and the beautifully dissonant sound of drunken shouts mingling with metal riffs grew quieter.
About Griffin Elliot
I enjoy dogs and long walks on the beach. My interests include Lord of the Rings and black coffee. I recently completed a double major in Journalism and Greek and Roman Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. I plan on spending my life writing, playing music with my friends and experiencing the world, one tune at a time.