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A crowd at Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival responds to one of 120 performances. More than 135,000 people attended this year. Photo courtesy of Osheaga/Tim Snow

Beyond the music

Immersive, multi-day festivals have become a modern rite of passage

By Kevin Spurgaitis


It’s midday by the time tens of thousands of festival-goers stream onto Montreal’s Île Sainte-Hélène. Some wear straw cowboy hats or floral headbands, tie-dyed shirts or paisley-patterned dresses as they drift over sunburned patches of grass. Others already dot the hillside, sprawled out or cross-legged. The banner mantra, “Catching Feelings,” intertwined with greenery, is raised against the unblemished sky. This, as cigarette, cannabis and fruit-flavoured smoke wafts through the summer air. 

The live music at the annual three-day Osheaga Music and Arts Festival is never-ending on the aptly named stages: “River,” “Mountain,” “Green,” “Trees,” “Valley” and “Zone Picnik Electronik.” If it’s not reverberating, it’s pulsating. And if it’s not twangy, it’s utterly electronic. The performers have names like The Lumineers, The Arcs, Half Moon Run and Future. Halfway through his set, singer-songwriter Kurt Vile proclaims, perhaps facetiously but not mockingly, “This one is for Jesus.”

Outdoor music festivals have long been popular in Europe and South America, drawing crowds of more than 200,000 to the United Kingdom’s Glastonbury and Brazil’s Rock in Rio, among others. But in the past decade, these big multi-day productions have expanded rapidly in North America, too. Establishing itself as the biggest event of its kind in Canada, Osheaga — which just marked its 11th anniversary — now attracts 120 bands and more than 135,000 people.

One in five millennials attend at least one festival each year, according to a 2015 Eventbrite study. Their popularity may have something to do with the connections made and the momentary escapism. And with fewer North Americans identifying themselves as religious or attending regular services than members of any other living generation, outdoor music festivals seem to be filling a spiritual void, too. Whether they’re religiously affiliated or not, revellers say that they’re a part of something truly beyond themselves.

Attending Osheaga has become almost a rite of passage for millennials like Justin Zoras, who attended his first Osheaga in 2013. The 28-year-old admits that attending music festivals is an affordable way to witness countless artists in just a few days. But in the midst of this “exotic world,” Zoras also feels “surrounded by so much positivity,” he finds himself forgetting about his issues or problems.”

Perhaps, that’s because there’s “something almost tribal about it all,” Zoras adds, pointing out the totems and theme costumes, as well as the shirts and hats emblazoned with the word, “Osheaga,” worn by attendees.

Nancy Cholette, 31, has attended Osheaga four times. Says Cholette: “Even though I’m a late millennial, myself, I find our generation is connecting to (music festivals) much more than the previous ones. . . . And they unite people no matter what your social situation is.”

She continues: “It’s also the chillness of it all. You are on a hill, sitting on a patch of grass, drinking a beer. There’s no stress at all. It’s just music and the sun. It’s a change from the festivals I attended as a teen.”


This year marked the 11th annual Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal. Photo courtesy of Osheaga/Tim Snow


In a 2010 study looking into the influence of music festival attendance on social well-being, researchers Jan Packer and Julie Ballantyne of the University of Queensland in Australia discovered that people “experience senses of engagement and connection” at multi-day events. Simply put, outdoor music festivals allow for close proximity and communal bonding. Not only is there interaction with other attendees, but also with artists themselves. Packer and Ballantyne note that young people attend festivals for so-called separation experiences — moments of “reflection on daily activities, experiences and oneself by feeling disconnected from everyday life.”

Of course, all of these sprawling multi-day festivals originate with the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the almost mythological gathering held on a 240-hectare dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., in August 1969. Woodstock attracted 32 performers, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix — and 400,000 attendees. Renowned for the abundance of pot smoking, free love and an electrifying sense of social cohesion, Woodstock was called the most peaceful human-made event in history by Time magazine. Reflecting on the festival, Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang told the Daily Express in August 2009: “We were hoping it would be a seminal event for our generation . . . but we had no idea it would be seminal for other people as well.” The hippie ideals of “peace and love” didn’t last through the jaundiced decade that followed. Still, Lang said that Woodstock’s message remains relevant in the 21st century.

Perhaps most akin to Woodstock today is Burning Man. Dubbed by its organizers as an “experiment in community and art,” the annual gathering in Black Rock City, Nev., attracts an estimated 66,000 during the last week of August. The desert festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, began on San Francisco’s Baker Beach as a bonfire ritual during the summer solstice. The event, over time, took its name from its burning of a 40-foot, neon-lit, wooden effigy: “The Man.” Meanwhile, revellers — known as “Burners” — dance on the desert basin as electronic music is played by live, celebrated DJs. Some attendees can be found in spacesuits, head-to-toe bird outfits or just glow-in-the-dark body paint.

“This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening,” Lee Gilmore, author of the 2010 book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, told Religion Dispatches in June 2010. “. . . Intriguing is the incredible array of art and ritual contributed by [Burning Man] participants that often creatively appropriates symbols and motifs from the infinite well of humanity’s cultural and historical experiences: temples, labyrinths, demons, angels, gods, goddesses, priests . . .  almost anything imaginable . . ."

Interestingly, religion and spirituality do play a part in Burning Man, according to the festival’s own 2015 census. Although more than 70 percent of attendees report that they don’t belong to a religious denomination, more than half have some sort of belief system. Of these, about 45 percent are “spiritual but not religious.”

“I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious ‘more,’” said Gilmore, who is also a professor of religious studies and anthropology at California State University. “. . .  Burning Man provides a venue in which to seek transformation for both the self and beyond. I also think it is symptomatic of America’s puritanical heritage to attempt to strip away the festal or carnivalesque elements of religion from what some might consider to be ‘authentic’ piety. But historically and cross-culturally, opportunities for celebration are often part of the ‘package deal’ that religions offer.”

By 2018, Osheaga organizers plan to accommodate as many as 65,000 people daily. They say that they aspire to stay true to their vision and purpose while appealing to an even wider audience. Of course, “the Age of Aquarius” may not be dawning again. But like Woodstock before them, these outdoor music festivals have the potential to shape what participants call the “default world” outside of places like Île Sainte-Hélène and Black Rock City.

As this year’s festival-goers converge one last time at Osheaga’s “River Stage,” the soaring sounds are in perfect sync with the rock-concert lighting — in hues of blue, red and green. Attendees’ arms are outstretched toward the popular, existential rockers, Radiohead. Here, the British band’s psychedelic and orchestral pop is at once mystifying and elevating. Lead singer Thom Yorke’s crooning is choir-like — even resembling Gregorian chants. Toward the end of the two-and-a-half-hour set, the band plays one of the last of its many encores, Paranoid Android. And its final lines linger as a kind of spiritual affirmation: “God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!”


British rock group Radiohead closes this year's Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal. Photo courtesy of Osheaga/Claude Dufresne

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