Le Festif! Brought Rural Quebec to Life Yet Again in 2023

Featuring Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, Gabrielle Shonk, La Sécurité, TOPS, Magi Merlin, Backxwash, Bo Ningen and more

Photo: Samuel Gaudreault

BY Dave MacIntyrePublished Jul 24, 2023

I had almost no clue what to expect going into my first-ever experience at Le Festif! in Baie-Saint-Paul. Located an hour and change east of Quebec City in the Charlevoix region, this festival environment was not only the furthest east in the province I'd ever been (despite living in Montreal for the past 13 years and counting), it was also decidedly more francophone than I was used to. 

But after immersing myself in the festivities (festif-ities?) across three of the festival's four days (the last day doesn't have as much musical programming as the first three, save for a performance by Safia Nolin at the bonkers hour of 4:30 a.m.), none of that seemed to matter. Watching a 7,000-odd population town near the St. Lawrence River be overtaken by music, art, culture and a powerful sense of community was nothing short of heartwarming. The festival's unique concept — one where artists perform on 30+ stages across the town, including unorthodox environments like clothing stores, sand pits and actual flights of stairs — is one I'm very glad exists, and Le Festif!'s organizers truly seem to approach it as a labour of love. 

Though many festivalgoers who make the drive to the quaint, touristy-looking town of Baie-Saint-Paul go there to camp, I'm incredibly grateful I got to stay in a hotel right on the main strip, as the festival took a lot out of me for only three days (in the good kind of way). My feet hurt like hell, I felt equal amounts of fatigue and pure adrenaline throughout the festival, and it's not always a great time if you're claustrophobic — the main drag of Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste is often full of foot traffic. There was also campfire smoke that was sometimes difficult to trace the origin of — actual campfires, wildfire smoke, or both?

Having said that, every second I spent at Le Festif! was well worth it, and watching people of literally every age group invested and enjoying themselves during each show made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Here, you can see crowds gathering in a circle to watch an old man sing and play piano outside, and you can just as likely see a whole-ass jazz band perform an impromptu set in front of a sporting goods store with a couple hundred people surrounding them as if it's literally Mardi Gras. Other Canadian towns looking to bolster both their local economy and their involvement in the arts would do well to take notes from Le Festif!.

Here's a recap of everything Exclaim! saw during the festival, from beloved veteran Quebecois bands to Japanese noise-rockers to Ukrainian stoner folk.

July 20 

La Sécurité 

The first show I saw at the Garage du Curé Exclaim! stage (yeah I know, shameless plug) involved one of the most exciting bands to come from Montreal in the last year. Performing on a stage designed like an RV and located in a tiny parking lot, La Sécurité absolutely ripped through their early evening set — and looked damn cool while doing it, with three members sporting sunglasses (including one with a hefty pair of science lab goggles) and smoke machines blowing on stage throughout. With tunes in both official languages from their excellent debut album Stay Safe!, the five-piece made their groovy, almost minimalist style of garage punk (think Parquet Courts, Le Tigre, Wet Leg or the B-52s) sound even more impactful in a live setting. 

Frontperson Éliane Viens-Synnott brought no shortage of charisma with her, making her presence felt between her shouty singing style, her dance moves, her tambourine-shaking and even after switching instruments with drummer Kenneth David Smith. La Sécurité's fresh, danceable and bass-heavy take on tried-and-true post-punk left a serious impression on those in attendance — an "olé olé" chant started as soon as their set finished — and they're truly a band that deserves to transcend language barriers among music fans in this country.

Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul

The first international act I saw at Le Festif! this year came from Ghent, Belgium, and they fit an outdoor festival environment like a glove — even if it seemed like many of those who went to their free show didn't know who they were. Charlotte Adigéry's relatively soft but commanding voice meshes beautifully with Bolis Pupul's slinky, off-kilter dance beats, and they gave a masterclass in how to combine deceptively complex house/techno music (LCD Soundsystem and David Byrne seem like major reference points) with biting sociopolitical commentary like it's peanut butter and jelly.

More and more folks started dancing as the set wore on, and their hypnotic, infectious energy could make you almost forget the serious topics — racism, colonialism, sexism etc — Adigéry often sings about. Despite both of them being a bit sick ("We have a cold," Adigéry told the crowd en français), it didn't seem to put a damper on their spirits while performing, and you could tell they just love playing with one another. The duo can make catchy oddball dance tunes in English and French while sounding just as convincing in both languages, and they were undoubtedly one of the more unique, subversive and flat-out fun acts Le Festif! booked this year. Had it been completely dark outside, their set would've punched even harder.


I initially hadn't planned on seeing this Ukrainian folk four-piece – whose Wikipedia page classifies their music rather aptly as "ethno-chaos" — when they took to the Exclaim! stage on Thursday night, but I was in for a treat when I arrived roughly a half hour after their set began. Sporting traditional garb (those hats!) and performing alongside projections of footage related to the ongoing Russian invasion of their homeland (they even had "RUSSIA IS A TERRORIST STATE" written on the screen in all caps), DakhaBrakha take traditional Ukrainian sounds and toss them into a salad of various contemporary genres — traces of hip hop, sludgy stoner rock and experimental music can be heard. However you categorize their music, it's distinctive and highly enjoyable.

Their mixing old and new sounds tastefully and captivatingly while promoting a vastly important political message — not to mention doing it with instruments like the accordion, cello, harmonica and djembes — would elicit a progressively louder reception from those watching. The fan waving a Quebec flag with "I STAND WITH UKRAINE" emblazoned on the horizontal white line was an especially stirring moment, and watching DakhaBrakha felt almost like a religious experience by the end.

Magi Merlin

Despite a bit of a late start for her set over at the SiriusXM Stage, Montreal's Magi Merlin showed Le Festif! why she's become a hot topic in her hometown's scene. Flipping back and forth between English and French (Choice quote: "La prochaine chanson s'appelle 'Pissed Black Girl,' and I'm not saying that in French!"), she performed with only a bassist and a drummer backing her, while making up for the empty space with her swagger, confidence and loose demeanour onstage.

Though her mic levels were often too low she sounded solid, with her drummer going absolutely ham on the skins at times. She can dance up a storm onstage, too – so much so that her earring fell off mid-song ("Y'all made me move like that," she said upon realizing). Magi might not have the most explosive vocal range, but she works really well with what she's got. She was smiling from ear to ear and brought great charisma and firepower — my only regret is that it wasn't longer.

July 21

Gab Bouchard

One of the most outwardly francophone artists I saw all festival was this singer-songwriter from Saint-Prime, a 2,700-population town toward the north of Quebec. Though I went into his set completely cold, I was impressed by his style of indie rock that sounds equally indebted to blues, Americana, folk (especially Bob Dylan), country rock, modern indie rock, and the '60s British Invasion. 

Playing to a packed crowd as rain sprinkled, and with a white tank top, cow print pants and an exquisite handlebar moustache to boot, he and his band — one with a heavy use of piano, KORG synths, tambourine, and backing vocal harmonies — gave a set that felt perfectly appropriate for a late-afternoon show. Certain songs can feel hard to distinguish from one another at times, but his tunes are charming nonetheless and it's easy to see why the people dig him.


I got to this Montreal rappeuse's set in a clothing store way later than I wanted to, as I got completely lost trying to find the stage. Once I finally got to the correct venue as the rain started sprinkling harder, it turned out to be… an actual clothing store. Oh my GOD, that's a brilliant idea.

Though the store was packed enough that I couldn't get a good view of her, Calamine — a self-described queer, feminist and anti-capitalist rapper who proudly reps her neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve — did a good job bringing her AutoTune-heavy, 808-driven sound to life. Although I would've like to hear her spit without autotune from time to time, her strong flow and onstage swagger were hard to ignore. Tunes like "Lesbienne woke sur l'autotune" got an especially big reception from fans, who fed off her energy the whole show.


What can one say about Ashanti Mutinta's live show that hasn't already been said? At first, it seemed like plenty, since it took some time for the crowd to warm up to her. But Backxwash is nothing if not skilled at hijacking one's attention — from the loud bass piercing through the speakers before she came onstage, to the smoke machine that smothers your face in fumes before she arrives, to the actual set itself. Opening with "Terror Packets" and the title track to 2021's I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses (with tons of flashing white strobe lights) is one hell of a way to set the tone.

In actuality, it's when she played "Devil in a Moshpit" (the first of two instances, the latter being the set-closer) where the crowd started to truly embrace her, as actual mosh pits would soon follow. Sampling everything from Zulu chants to right-wing evangelical preacher sermons, Backxwash showed a small town in rural Quebec how much of a tour de force she is as a live performer, giving them the demonic, head-banging spectacle she's known for.

Bo Ningen

As if Backxwash couldn't be topped, Bo Ningen came through at 1:30 in the morning and kicked down the walls of my soul. Though this London-based Japanese quartet — their name means "stick man" — are described as a noise rock band, I only really hear them as a psychedelic experimental rock band in a live setting. Vocalist/bassist Taigen Kawabe goes from loud, echoing vocals to suddenly rapping in English at one point, even putting on a hoodie with the hood all the way up.

This band clearly isn't afraid to take risks. Better yet, they're air-tight when performing live. There was tons of excellent musicianship here, including Kawabe's groovy bass lines comfortably nestling into your skull when heard in person. Their songs were soaked in reverb and bleepy-bloopy synthesizers (and occasional furious hi-hat hitting from drummer Monchan Monna), and they knew how to build atmospheric, space-like soundscapes. In other words, they crushed it.

July 22

Gabrielle Shonk

Performing at easily the most adorable stage I saw all festival (one made primarily of tree branches), Gabrielle Shonk's set on Saturday afternoon was a perfectly appropriate soundtrack for a day where the sprinkling rain came back with a vengeance. With fuchsia hair and a suit and tie channelling boygenius, her pleasant brand of indie/folk rock — with an R&B edge not unlike fellow Québécoise Charlotte Cardin — felt perfectly appropriate for an all-seated show in the woods, with tree branches and nature surrounding you.

Her music isn't necessarily reinventing the wheel, but she's a talented singer and can go on mesermizing runs. One track, "People Pleaser," started off as a very bare-bones folk song before mutating into a Snail Mail-esque indie rocker with some '70s-style guitars in the mix. Shonk is a likeable and compelling performer, and you could sense the crowd feeding off that during her set.


It feels like TOPS have been a mainstay in Montreal's indie rock landscape since forever, but my first-ever taste of them as a live act didn't come until Saturday. They opened with the hazy, floating "Janet Planet," which set things up nicely for what was to come. Frontperson Jane Penny's presence onstage stood out big time during their late-afternoon Le Festif! set — and that's not even including when she started playing flute from time to time.

Penny and the rest of TOPS delivered a gorgeous, '80s-indebted soundtrack that proved to be a genius booking as the sun started to set and the rain stopped. Though Penny's mic levels were uneven at times, their sophisticated take on indie pop was on full display here — from the sprightly "I Feel Alive" to inciting a singalong during "Way to Be Loved" to closing with "Petals" and then an encore with "Anything." A major highlight.

Vulgaires Machins

Although this politically-charged punk band from Granby is considered rock royalty within Quebec, this was my first introduction to Vulgaires Machins. Going from a sad piano intro as a walk-on song to opening with a full-on punk rager is a definite way to make a good first impression. Though they tend to stay in their lane musically, this four-piece specializes in freewheeling, high-energy punk tunes that sound just as influenced by the Replacements and Pixies as they are by NOFX or Fugazi.

While their songs may not necessarily be mind-blowing, they sound tight and can definitely rip. When you have big mosh pits going and shirtless punks with blue hair crowd surfing to your songs, you're doing something right. I do wish I had a fuller verbal understanding of French to better understand frontman Guillaume Beauregard's lyrical statements, but they played no-frills, hard-hitting, melodic punk rock regardless of your French proficiency level.

Amyl and the Sniffers

Closing out the Scène Desjardins was arguably the biggest get for this year's Le Festif!, period. Aussie pub rockers Amyl and the Sniffers put on an absolute howitzer of a show, with driving, aggressive, distortion-heavy punk as their bread and butter. Frontwoman Amy Taylor absolutely commanded the stage with an iron fist, sweated charisma and had the crowd in the palm of her hand by the time the set was over (regrettably, without an encore).

Her singing style is more just primal yelling than actual singing, but it works amazingly when paired with the rest of the band, whose instrumentation is equally as gritty and vigorous as her voice. Between hilarious stage banter ("I love the animals here! I saw a beaver without a tail, and I'm not talking about a pussy!") and plenty of songs that, while short, were a pure can of whoop-ass, Le Festif! couldn't have booked a more thrilling band to close things out with.

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