10 things we learned at FME
- By Hazel Sheffield -
- Sep 06, 2012
It's become harder to find soul (the non-musical kind) at festivals, among the corporate sponsors and the over-capacity venues and the pricey beers. Which is why, when you come across it, it's tempting to avoid telling anyone.
Last weekend, in a small mining town in northwestern Quebec, a whole township came together to host the 10th Festivale de Musique Emergente, a four-day venue hopping festival that premieres predominately Francophone artists. There were bigger names than usual this year to celebrate the anniversary - Feist, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor - but Rouyn Noranda, where the festival is held, is so remote and close-knit that the bigger names adapted to the festival rather than the other way round. Artists, spectators and organisers alike howled with Feist under the full moon, stumbled drunk round kitsch diners in small hours, lay by lakes under the huge Canadian skies, and remembered how to appreciate art, and community, and the vastness of nature in days that do not normally afford us the chance.
10. Feist knows how to howl
Booking Feist was a coup for FME founder Sandy Boutin and his art director of ten years Karine Berthiaume, one they pulled off with help from sponsorship from radio station Sirius FM. She is by far the biggest act to make the trek in the festival's ten years. But even after the huge success of last album 'Metals', the Feist that played on Friday was clearly humbled by the crowd. "Now I've discovered how well you can sing I'm going to make you my elementary school choir for the whole of the set!" she said after enlisting the help of the crowd on one chorus refrain. Sing we did, to old favourites like 'My Moon My Man' as well as lots of 'Metals', and howl too, at the full moon that hovered right in front of the stage.
9. Chef DJs exist
One of the more bizarre travelling acts to play FME, Le Mix Des Chefs are a troop of DJs and chefs that appeared from behind giant screens on three floors of scaffolding at the entrance to the main stage (in a carpark between two stores on the main strip). As the music played the chefs took turns to cook mini meals packed into tiny Chinese cartons that were delivered to the crowd on moving washing lines. Masked and boiler-suited performers later distributed vials of red liquid and portions of carpaccio from supermarket trolleys to those in the back. It was weird. And obviously delicious.
8. Be sober before attempting to sit through two hours of Godspeed in a church
After the weirdness of the Le Mix Des Chefs, 400 lucky raffle ticket holders holed up in the pitch black belly of the local church to see Godspeed perform a two-hour set of such mind-melting intensity that punters could be seen stumbling meekly towards the exit after the first song (to be fair, it was twenty minutes long). Transcendental stuff.
7. Every country has a crooner
Rare too, as an English speaker, to feel like a cultural alien at a show, but the small gang of us not brought up with Quebec's musical peculiars felt like we'd been transported to Mars during Jean-Pierre Ferland headline set on a floating stage. Hoards of families arrived for the free show with their picnics and camping chairs, to hear the 80-year-old chanteur deliver a set of endearing schmaltz. The Americans said he must be a Quebecois Neil Diamond. The Brits, Cliff Richard. Apparently every country has one.
6. All nights must end in poutine
All nights in Rouyn Noranda end in a place called Morasse, a 24-hour poutine joint so famous that it has its own merch. By 1 the peeling baby blue interior was crammed with hungry, half drunk locals and visitors waiting for their orders, which are called bingo-like, by ticket. In the back, aproned staff worked great levers to cut potatoes into chips, others strained vats of 'sauce brune' through sieves to get out the lumps, and then layered the mixture with melty white cheese curds in styrofoam trays.
5. The best festivals have a 24-hour soundtrack
The staff of FME is entirely voluntary - even the founders don't take a cut. But that doesn't stop the town pulling together for some wonderful feats of organisation. That includes FME radio, an FM station that runs for the duration of the long weekend and plays bands on the lineup and recaps yesterday's goings-on. It blares from every taxi stereo as people shuttle between venues in the town.
4. Big not always better
FME is still growing, ten years in, but founder Sandy Boutin recognises that there are limits. It was started partly to keep the town's young people, who work lucrative jobs in the local copper mine, from leaving town, as few bands take the eight-hour detour from Montreal to play Rouyn Noranda. And while acts like Feist draw the attention of an international crowd, the festival's strengths lie elsewhere. "We don't have to get bigger," Sandy said, "but what we can do is provide unique moments, like Godspeed playing to 400 people in a church, that you might not find elsewhere."
3. Even nice ladies serve lethal drinks
FME has a signature drink, mixed by the local ladies manning the bars, that consists of blue curacao, amaretto and lemonade, and looks like liquid Smurf. A couple of those and you'll find yourself queuing for pulled pork and ribs at of the festival's many open barbeques to try and stave off the inevitable sugar crash.
2. Happy hour works in every language
'Cinq a sept' is what we Brits know better as happy hour, and at FME it was the time to catch low-key shows in local bars while supping on cheap beer. In between venues we saw men with microphones attached to the bottom of gas masks playing blues to punters sat on sofas in the sun. Inside a local bar, the back doors flung wide, Quebec's answer to Ellie Goulding, Fanny Bloom, toasted her crowd during a laid-back set. "I'd like to drink to you," she told them. "It is 5 a 7 after all!"
1. Sometimes music and politics do mix
Tuesday 4th was election day, and boy could you tell! Even in a small town like Rouyn, placards enveloped every lamp-post, candidates handed out fliers in coffee shops, and speeches punctuated the musical acts. Some of the bands even gave a shout out to those who planned to vote. "It's because things aren't going the way we want them to in Quebec," a friend told me. "We know we have to vote to change that." What resonated, to an outsider, was the sense of participation, or duty, but in its most natural, engaged sense. FME wasn't just a festival, it was a mining town of 40,000 people coming together to share food and drink, dance in the streets, decorate the town, and support Quebecois music, much of which will never cross over to the English-speaking record-buying republic. As they would say in Quebec, tant mieux - or all the better for it.
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