“Every song that I’ve ever heard / Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd” The lyrics from Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” perfectly describe a festival-goer’s mindset in the aftermath of the countless concerts – both official and unannounced – presented during the 15th annual edition of the Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue that rocked Rouyn-Noranda (population: 42,000; location: 630 km. Northwest of Montréal) from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, 2017. But let’s start from the end, if you please. An end that’s also something of a beginning. You’ll see…
On the last day of the festival, the main closing event was a tribute to the region’s greatest and most renowned poet, Richard Desjardins. One by one, the majority of the artists featured on the album Desjardins took the stage, which was set up over the water at Kiwanis beach, to play his classics for 12,000 of his peers… and Desjardins himself, who transmogrified the already emotionally-charged event into a memorable happening by singing, unannounced, three of his songs at the tail end of the concert.
Talk about going out in a blaze of glory: a whole new generation of artists – Klô Pelgag, Les sœurs Boulay, Fred Fortin, Safia Nolin, Émile Bilodeau, Bernard Adamus, Stéphane Lafleur d’Avec pas d’casque, Yann Perreau, Philippe B, Saratoga et Matiu – celebrating the poet in his hometown, as he watched. The previous presentations of the concert “Desjardins, on l’aime-tu ? ” (“Desjardins, Do We Love Him?”, a nod to the title of one of his best-selling albums, Tu m’aimes-tu ? [Do You Love Me?]) at the FrancoFolies de Montréal and Festival d’été de Québec were merely rehearsals for the “real deal.” A big moment.
Hardly mentioned was the fact that the closing event of the 2017 FME echoed the one of the inaugural edition, back in 2003, when Desjardins – a famously unpredictable man – expressed his desire to play this newfangled “youth” festival. The FME was created by a handful of passionate people from the area, who wanted to present the best emerging talent from home and abroad to their neighbours, to all music lovers and to industry professionals. The beginning-like end.
Full circle. Festivalgoers – including the author of this story – with their bellies full of music, and exhausted by the FME’s notoriously short nights, could slowly drift back to reality, all those melodies mingling and looping in their minds, and their ears.
Just how did an event with such humble beginnings establish itself in such a brief period of time? How did it manage to become an epicentre of local, national and international musical discovery? One where not only do the music lovers from major urban areas converge, but where artists absolutely want to be a part of it every time the Labour Day weekend rolls around? Just ask someone like Antoine Corriveau, who played the festival for a third time, and whose show at the Agora des Arts was particularly intense, which he followed, at noon the next day, with a more intimate performance at the Parc Botanique À Fleur d’eau, a perfect bucolic setting for hung-over festival-goers…
Obviously, there’s also the warm welcome of the Abitibi people, the party atmosphere, the charm of a human-scale city, the late night romps at Bar des Chums, a most quaint and authentic watering hole, where beer is sold in king-size portions and karaoke is king. But above all, there’s a pervasive, positive energy that stems from the generous involvement of the area’s civil and business communities. Obviously, there are also major national sponsors, without whom many of the FME’s wildest ambitions would remain nice blue-sky ideas – SOCAN has contributed for many years now. But the difference lies in the sense of ownership of the whole community for an event that’s often been honoured – it has won the Félix Award for Event of the Year several times – and that promotes their corner of the world.
To wit, a Rouyn-Noranda-born singer-songwriter like Louis-Philippe Gingras not only plays his songs during the festival, but busies himself with power tools days ahead of it, making sure all the infrastructure is ready on time. This year, Gingras played one of the many Happy Hour sets that occur simultaneously all over town – his was at the local Knights of Columbus hall – but that same morning, he also played a set in a retirement home for elders who also wanted to take part in the FME. One can hardly get more community-oriented…
Unannounced shows are another one of the attractions, and they’re the cherry on top of a large programming sundae. Initially improvised on the spot, nowadays these surprise, pop-up gigs are greatly and excitedly anticipated by festival-goers, notified at the last minute through the FME mobile app.
Most of the time, these as-we-go performances in odd venues yield magical moments that sometimes surpass the official presentations in post-festival anecdotes. We’re betting that’ll be the case of the performance by Montréal-based duo Heartstreets, who play a mix of rap, electro-pop, soul and R&B. They were all smiles, as was their audience, as they played in the parking lot of Scène Paramount, where a rap concert featuring Alaclair Ensemble, Lary Kidd, Eman & Vlooper and local artist Mathew James had just ended. Here are the girls’ impressions immediately after their coup d’éclat:
The case of Heartstreets offers a perfect example of the FME’s ability to create a buzz for artists still largely unknown by the audience, the media, and industry professionals who attend in droves, accredited by a festival whose mission as a talent developer is at the core of its philosophy. Others who benefitted from the positive word-of-mouth include Montréal’s South Shore rock band Zen Bamboo, Le Bleu, the highly original Barry Paquin Roberge, and the finalists of the 2016 Francouvertes, Mon Doux Saigneur.
Amid such a sea of young talent, it’s even more surprising to spot an established veteran like Pierre Flynn programmed for a Happy Hour at Club Chimo, which is actually the mess hall of the Canadian Armed Forces 9th Combat Engineer Squadron! Then again, when one takes a closer look, there’s almost always a “veteran,” recognized for their artistic process, programmed during FME. For Flynn, who expressed his desire to play the FME this year, being “emerging” isn’t linked to the age of the artist, but rather the reflection of artists who are willing to go off the beaten path and re-invent themselves as a matter of principle. We interviewed him a few hours before his show:
If there’s one thing that can be said about this 15th edition, it’s that the venues and lodging options were saturated. One can hardly imagine how the FME could host more people – both artists and festival-goers – with 92 concerts, in 31 venues, and 37,000 admissions recorded this year! According to festival president and visionary co-founder Sandy Boutin, the next development phase for FME will occur on the creative side. He’s championing the idea of an artist-in-residence program that would give them carte blanche to present an original creation during the festival. We met him on the last day of the fest, and he took a look back at the past, and offered his own explanation for the FME’s success. He also looked forward, imagining the future of what everyone now calls Québec’s biggest small festival.
Watch the FME 2017 summary produced by the festival team: