Fred Pellerin invites the Plaines d’Abraham to his hometown

Fred Pellerin invites the Plaines d’Abraham to his hometown

Fred Pellerin, Festival d’été de Québec, 14 juillet 2016, Scène Bell des plaines d’Abraham. Crédit photo: Philippe Ruel.

Storyteller extraordinaire Fred Pellerin had been given carte blanche by the Festival d’été organisers to put on the show he wanted to present the city from the Bell stage on the Plains of Abraham, and he wasn’t lacking for anticipation.

News had spread that the 39-year-old was planning to fill the stage with over 100 people, including an 80-voice choir from his hometown of Saint-Élie-de-Caxton. A loud rallying cry could be heard from backstage minutes before the show began, which was quickly echoed by the tens of thousands, young and old, who filled the Plains.

Dressed in a simple unbuttoned blue v-neck and jeans, Pellerin came on stage with a set of mellow airs accompanied by brass, strings, and drums, Pellerin himself strumming his guitar with his harmonica around his neck. Pellerin was incredibly comfortable before the enormous crowd. You’d have thought you’d been invited to a small family reunion around a campfire; the minimal background and lighting with themes of a starry night sky added to the effect.

Pellerin moved from mellow jazz-and-folk beats into a more rock-and-roll segment, jokingly starting the lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, saying “At first I was a Fred”. A tribute to his sense of delivery, the intentionally lame joke would have fallen flat said by anyone else, but Pellerin’s impeccable sense of humour drew a laugh from the crowd all the same.

The sense of proximity he emanates reached out to all corners of the Plains. He spoke to the audience, addressing them as “Abraham” to give them a personal name, with the well-loved voice of an old soul, as if a wise old woodsman had been lifted out of time and dropped in front of two giant screens to wrap the audience in a warm, itchy wool blanket on a chilly night. It’s hard to imagine how someone could have walked away without feeling touched.

The show was a tribute to Quebec’s French-language chansonnier style, each song building its own character and story. Pellerin made ample and creative use of his large crew, accenting his songs with percussion from chains and a drum corps of garbage cans (for what he called the “heavy metal” segment).

He gave a special word to the city of Nice, which suffered tragic terror-related deaths during its Bastille Day celebrations, mid-way through the show in solidarity with the people of France.

He told stories of his native Saint-Élie-de-Caxton, with colourful characters who sang, drank, danced, and lived simply in their village.

Pellerin’s stories point to slice-of-life living in his hometown, mixing modernity with tradition. In the most genuine and heartwarming moment of the show, he brought some of these people on stage as evidence to the truth – or at least, the inspired truth – of his tall tales.

The former mechanic who told him the story of a woman’s pickup, the deputy chief of the fire service, the mayor of the town, and many others joined him on stage to stand in the rafters installed behind Pellerin. Pellerin introduced each of them by name and spoke to their musical credentials to cheers from the crowd.

It wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if fully half the town’s leadership was on stage for Pellerin’s choir, in a moment reminiscent of La soirée canadienne, the sometimes-hokey old-timey TV show which featured the people of a different small town every week exhibiting their musical and social talents.

His hometown crew – young and old – would stay with him throughout the rest of the show and offer a beautiful backdrop – both visually and musically – to Pellerin’s voice and song.

In closing, he brought out the small box which once housed a harmonica his grandmother gave him as a boy. In a touching connection with the audience, he told the audience how his grandmother once told him the box housed silence, and that it was from silence that all music originated (he admitted this was probably a grandmotherly tactic to keep a chatty boy quiet), and then invited “Abraham” to listen to that quiet with him. He opened the box, and for a few precious seconds, the box’s quiet was louder than the thousands on the Plains.

There’s no doubt the Festival d’été took a risk giving Fred Pellerin a blank cheque with which he could fill the Plains with whatever he fancied.

It’s certainly a grand departure from the big-name shows and international crowd-drawing acts that have made the FEQ a roaring success in recent years. But somehow, Pellerin’s essentially small-town style was exactly what it took to satisfy the Plains last night, and for those who were there, this show will no doubt be one of the more memorable high points of this year’s FEQ.

Abraham would have approved.

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300 SHOWS – 10 STAGES – 11 DAYS OF MUSIC
July 7 to 17, 2016

For the complete festival schedule, visit www.infofestival.com

Categories: Arts & Culture

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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