Peter Black: Evolving FEQ fêtes 50 years

Peter Black: Evolving FEQ fêtes 50 years

This column first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Evolving FEQ fêtes 50 years

By Peter Black

We’ll never know whether it was somebody’s idea of a subtle political statement or just a bizarre coincidence, but one of the acts booked for the 1991 edition of the Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ) was The Meech Boys.

The boys in this band were not Brian Mulroney, Clyde Wells, Robert Bourassa and Elijah Harper – look it up if you don’t remember who’s who and how they’re connected –but some good ol’ country combo from Texas.

Still, “Meech,” as in Meech Lake, the name given to the failed constitutional deal designed to make Québec feel more at home in Canada, was very much on people’s minds that summer. That was also the summer my family and I moved to Québec City.

The Meech Boys were one of only a handful of non-francophone performers in the FEQ lineup in 1991. In retrospect, your average anglophone would be hard-pressed to identify the so-called big names from the collection of artists on offer that summer. Take your pick between Richard Desjardins, Laurence Jalbert, Vaya con Dios and Liane Foly.

I didn’t take much notice of the FEQ that summer. A month earlier, though, another event on the Plains of Abraham left an indelible memory. The St-Jean-Baptiste bash, fuelled by booze, drugs and nationalist fervour, but mostly booze and drugs, degenerated into mob violence, with a man burned to death in the huge bonfire.

Over the next several years, the level of violence after each Fête Nationale party escalated. In 1996, rioters even managed to break into the National Assembly and burn books in the library. It took authorities years to tame the destructive annual post-Plains rampage. Perhaps their efforts have been too successful; for the last several years, the party has been downright dull.

Meanwhile, the event that traditionally took place on the Plains a few weeks after the St-Jean madness, once all the smashed beer bottles were cleaned up, has gone in a completely different direction. What began as basically a showcase for francophone artists, set up to enliven the doldrums of the Québec City summer, has evolved into one of the biggest and most popular musical extravaganzas in the world.

It’s hard to say precisely when things began to change. The political climate cooled down after the 1995 sovereignty referendum; in the meantime, a new generation of Quebecers emerged, more open to the wider world. But 2008 was definitely a turning point. That year the city staged a spectacular year-long parade of celebrations to mark its 400th birthday.

The events were such a financial success that there was enough money left in the kitty to entice Sir Paul McCartney to the city for a free concert on the Plains. That show attracted more than 200,000 fans. In a delicious bit of irony, McCartney, who must have been playing hooky when this came up in history class in Liverpool, assumed the French army had won the battle on the Plains, since everyone in the former colony still spoke la langue de Molière.

Sir Paul’s performance spread the word that Québec City, with its stunning natural concert bowl on the Plains, was an amazing place to play, and that opened the floodgates for appearances at FEQ by most of the top acts on the planet, from the Rolling Stones to Lady Gaga to Stevie Wonder to Metallica.

And probably without exception, artists performing at FEQ are blown away by the size and enthusiasm of the massive crowds. Take country superstar Keith Urban, for example, the first big country artist to headline in Québec.

Here’s what he told the Montreal Gazette recently about his 2015 date on the Plains: “It was one of the greatest gigs that I’ve ever done. Hands down. I’m serious. I’ve done thousands of shows in my life and that was one of the most magical shows ever.”

He’s coming back, by the way, August 13, at the Centre Vidéotron.

Purists may grumble that FEQ is not as franco as it should be. On the other hand, were it not for the smashing success of the festival in drawing such a vast variety of musical talent from around the world, in multiple languages, chances are homegrown French-language artists would not enjoy the same exposure to massively large audiences.

Isabelle Boulay and Les Cowboys Fringants, both of whom are headliners on the giant Bell stage on the Plains this summer, are the embodiment of the dream the founders of FEQ had 50 years ago, a dream of sharing Québec culture with the world.
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About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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