“The little festival that could” turns 50!

50 years FEQ.jpg
Photo: Peter Black

An exhibition in le Parc de l’Amérique-Française celebrates 50 years of FEQ.

The Festival d’Été de Québec (FEQ) is celebrating 50 years of bringing the best musical talent in the world to the Old City – with the notable absence to date of Bruce Springsteen – hint, hint.

One of the special attractions that FEQ organizers have arranged to celebrate the half-century milestone, is an exhibition of photographs and other mementoes from festivals over the years, set up in le Parc de l’Amérique-Française. It’s a real eye-opener for those familiar with today’s massive well-oiled machine that regularly hosts what has to be one of the biggest and best summer parties on the planet, in, dare we say, one of the best cities on the planet.

For example, the total budget for the first festival in 1968 was $113,000 in today’s dollars (2017 budget, $30 million).

That would barely cover the cost of massage therapists for the more geriatric performers for shows in recent years.

Back then FEQ was pretty much an artsy, folksy, franco event, with shows held in the courtyard of le Séminaire de Québec, a far cry from today’s gargantuan spectacles on the Plains of Abraham.

FEQ has come a long way, in size and content, in 50 years, from Félix Leclerc to Metallica. There’s no denying it’s a runaway success. You can’t argue with a complete sell-out of some 135,000 passes this year.

Since we’re in nostalgia mode, your scribe will share a random selection of some personal highlights from FEQs gone by.

Johnny Clegg (1993) – This was the South African’s second appearance at FEQ, after his 1988 debut. This show, with his band Savuka, was exceptionally emotionally charged, timed as it was with the recent release of Nelson Mandela and the upcoming free elections in South Africa.

ZZ Top (2005) – I have no idea how I managed to get myself wedged into the midst of a pack of cracked-out, booze-baked bikers driven to frenzy by the hirsute hillbilly rockers, but there I was, struggling to control panic and claustrophobia, while wriggling myself to safety.

Sarah McLachlan (2012) – Following the afternoon sound check, the awed superstar told a clutch of journalists she had not performed in the city since 1993. A reporter promptly produced a ticket from that show at Salle Albert-Rousseau at Cégep Ste-Foy. Later that night the ethereal songstress, clearly affected emotionally by the experience, entranced a rapt crowd in a thoroughly packed Plains bowl.

Metric/Half Moon Run (2012) – It’s one of the wonders of FEQ’s spinning wheel of talent that people’s favourite bands may end up on the same bill. This came to pass at the Parc de la Francophonie site on a magical night when both Metric and HMR were particularly on fire with new hit albums.

Johnny Hallyday (2014) – The veteran French rocker, now 74, is still touring, although battling lung cancer. He was in fine form a few years ago when he returned to Quebec City after an absence of 30 years. He took time out during his visit to ride a special motorcycle for the benefit of the Pat Burns cancer charity.

Billy Joel (2014) – Being a fan of the “Piano Man” for a long time, it was a treat to have him fetch up in front of the monster crowd on the Plains. He seemed blown away himself, declaring, “I’ve been doing this damn job for 50 years and never played Quebec. What the #[email protected]% took me so long!” (Or words to that effect). An amazing show, with a sea of fans singing a chorus or two of his signature tunes a capella.

The Rolling Stones (2015) – A particularly memorable moment, apart from general astonishment at Mick and Keith’s ageless agility, was when a normally sedate and serious local politician, in a state of ecstatic delirium, was heard declaring, “This is the greatest night of my life.” In the top half, for sure, eh?

We could go on and on, but to wrap this, let’s just say for kicks … Keith Urban (2015). Not only was he a most disarmingly humble country-rock deity in a pre-show interview, he totally delivered on what has probably become a bit of a slogan for FEQ performers and fans alike: Now, THAT was the best show EVER.

And so many of them were over the past 50 years. Thanks, FEQ.