For 51 out of 52 weekends, Montebello is an idyllic small town with tonnes of charm located between Montreal and Ottawa. For one weekend, it is run over by punks and drunks, partygoers and headbangers, rockers and gawkers for a weekend of debauchery known as Rockfest. The brainchild of native son Alex Martel, the festival has grown from a small three band affair to a full on three day extravaganza, one of the biggest rock festivals in North America.
This was Rockfest’s year to shine with Heavy Montreal on hiatus.
The party started on Thursday night with a St-Jean-Baptiste party. A highlight was francophone performance by local ska legends The Planet Smashers. The party was delayed by heavy showers, but most patrons partied in the rain until headliners Les Cowboys Fringants came in to cap off Quebec’s signature holiday.
The festival kicked into full gear Friday, for a day that saw “mudfest” trending on social media. The wet conditions didn’t stop the crowd and certainly didn’t stop the bands. The day kicked off hard and heavy with metal veterans Kataklysm and Soulfly making the crowd stomp in the mud.
The yearly hip hop act has become a popular addition to the fest. This year’s edition promised hip hop legends and hipster clothing moguls the Wu-Tang Clan. That billing deserves an asterisk, while it’s been unfortunately standard for them over the last few years, it’s still disappointing when they show up without Method Man, it’s like an Oilers alumni game without Wayne Gretzky. Despite the absence of the Ticallion Stallion, the crowd still bounced along to every beat.
Killswitch Engage provided some levity by decorating the stage like a tiki bar and performing in Hawaiian clothing.
There were a lot of veteran acts that came out and delivered like clockwork. Bad Religion, Bullet For My Valentine, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake all brought sets had the weight of decades of on stage experience. Nostalgia is a huge part of what has made Rockfest such a success. The Offspring were no exception to that. The crowd went insane for every classic they delivered.
No festival promoter is as front and center as Alex Martel. He’s very proud of the beast he has created, as well he should be. But this year, Martel stepped it up a notch by reuniting his band Deadly Apples. This move might have drawn curiosity had it remained a side stage act, but instead took the ostentatious act of leaving the main stages empty for a full hour, right before the headliner, while the band played, drawing the ire of the crowd. There were posters promoting throughout the site as if it were a Led Zeppelin reunion. To be fair, 95% of attendees had no clue who Deadly Apples were before this fest.
But good things do come to those who wait. A countdown appeared on screen ending with fireworks, announcing the arrival of the fire hazard which is Rammstein. What followed was an hour and half blitzkrieg of sound, lights and precision. It was an onslaught. Every one of your senses was bombarded, from the vibrations, the music, the smell of propane to the intense lights. Okay, you couldn’t taste it, but I imagine it tasted like Beck’s and sauerkraut. The set ended with Engel and the band’s trademark fire breathing angel wings. By the energy in the crowd, you couldn’t tell many had been there since 11am. The Germans sent the crowd back to their camps on a high.
The final day promised a break from the mud and rain. The sun was shining as Anti-Flag delivered a high octane set to get people limbered up.
One of the dark horse sets that made the weekend great happened shortly after on the side stages. Vancouver’s The Dreadnoughts packed the back area and got the crowd whipped into a frenzy with their unique brand of polka gypsy punk. They’re jesters on stage, enticing everyone to have fun with them and you know they’re succeeding when even the security are laughing. There were cirlce pits and wall of death that separated and left a guy in a Pikachu suit in the middle. As vocalist Uncle Touchy screamed “kill the Pikachu!’ the wall collapsed on him.
Coming back to nostalgia, some of the great memories from these festivals comes from seeing bands you’d long forgotten about and you’d never go see on their own. You never thought you would, but there you are singing along with P.O.D. as they chant “Boom” and “Youth of the Nation.” There you are, skanking with The Specials as they deliver “A Message to You Rudy.” You’re swaying with the crowd as 311 croons “Amber.”
One name that stuck out as soon as the lineup was announced was Dee Snider. After last year’s edition, his band Twisted Sister made a huge fuss about the deplorable conditions in which they were treated, their rant going viral. Well, it apparently wasn’t so bad for Snider to return the very next year. He addressed the issue, saying he was being treated much better, then treated the crowd to a surprisingly good cover of Soundgarden’s “Outshined” in honour of the late Chris Cornell.
The set of the weekend has to go to the bipolar beast known as Alexisonfire, who probably should’ve headlined this day and closed out the festival. The crowd sang to every word from Dallas Green and screamed along to every word from George Pettit and Wade MacNeil. They drew from their entire catalog but leaned heavily on their iconic 2006 release Crisis. Their frenetic performance was a juggernaut.
Headlining duties on this night were handled by Queens of the Stone Age. They offered a solid set of radio hits that was low on frills. Vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme didn’t move around much, just stood and delivered. Perhaps the crowd just didn’t have much left.
A special treat awaited those who weren’t done partying. The weekend closed out with Iggy Pop performing as only the legend can. 70 years old, dancing shirtless on stage until 1:30am on a cold night, Iggy reminded us all why he might be immortal.
The true star of this weekend though is the town of Montebello, who once a year allow revellers to take over their quiet town and throw a massive party. They let them sleep on their lawns and drink in their streets and party along with them. And for that, we thank you.
Review – Richard Brunette
Photos – Kieron Yates