Osheaga 2023 Brought Out the Heavy Hitters

With Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, Japanese Breakfast, the National, Magdalena Bay, Lil Yachty

Photo: Kamara Morozuk

BY Courtney Baird-LewPublished Aug 8, 2023

Born from the heyday of Montreal's mid-aughts indie rock scene, Osheaga has, over the past sixteen years, transformed into a genre-spanning entity powered by enormous brands and three-day wristbands offering various levels of exclusivity — with the experience of buying one not dissimilar to booking a plane ticket in economy versus business class. 

But with massive artists like Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar headlining the 2023 edition on Saturday and Sunday respectively, Canadians and international visitors flocked to the fest, located on Île Saint-Hélène, in record numbers — Osheaga reported 155,000 attendees from August 4 to 6 (its biggest crowd yet). 

Filled with celebratory and high-energy performances from the likes of British producer Fred again.., prop-loving Osheaga veterans the Flaming Lips, Canadian pop darling Carly Rae Jepson, the legendary Nelly Furtado (during special guest appearances with Lido Pimienta and Bomba Estéreo), the Friday-headlining Australian trio Rüfüs Du Sol and a select handful of Quebecois artists who infused the weekend with local talent, the 16th edition was a testament to just how far the festival has come.

Here are just a few of the acts that we saw over the extensive, whirlwind weekend:

August 4

Magdalena Bay

Tasked with kicking off the festival at 2:00 p.m. sharp, the psychedelic synth-pop duo took to the stage in all their glorious Y2K-meets-TikTok irreverence, opening with the glitchy and undeniably catchy "You Lose!" with the demonic purple Pokémon-esque "pet" from the track's music video looming on the screen behind vocalist Mica Tenenbaum as she danced with abandon — the long, flowy sleeves of her spandex bodysuit slicing through the air. 

Moving into "Secrets" from 2021's Mercurial World — and after wishing the crowd a light-hearted "good morning" as the early afternoon sun began to break through the clouds — Tenenbaum and her musical partner Matthew Lewin were full of buoyant energy, their frenetic visuals showcasing their commitment to the aesthetic. There was a pixelated early '90s computer, complete with a floppy disk port, dancing in pink flames; there was a nostalgic cameo from the Microsoft Office Assistant, Clippy; there were large, adorable clip art dogs barking during "Top Dog," the sultry track off their latest release, mini mix vol. 3. It was a visual assault, and it felt oddly right.

Making intermittent use of her bright white Casio keytar, Tenenbaum's sterling vocals never faltered, with crowd favourites like "Chaerie" and "Killshot" soaring into the humid summer sky as Osheaga's Ferris wheel spun slowly in the background. Donning a DIY bunny-eared face mask during "Follow the Leader," the duo ended their joyful set with "The Beginning," Tennenbaum singing, "So if you feel low / Sit back, enjoy the show." As a technicolour butterfly fluttered on the screen behind them, it was clear that Magdalena Bay had set the tone for the day, and the rest of the festival to come. 

Soccer Mommy

Soccer Mommy's Sophie Allison is an artist at the top of her game. Riding high on a wave of well-deserved accolades for 2022's Oneohtrix Point Never-produced Sometimes, Forever, Allison took to the River Stage armed with her custom-made purple Novo Serus J guitar — the words "Gemini Bitch" etched across the fretboard.

Bringing a bit of soul-churning, '90s-leaning grunge to the afternoon stage, Allison and her band launched into "Circle the Drain" off 2020's equally celebrated color theory followed shortly by the soaring "Bones," complete with a very festival-worthy, gut-wrenching guitar breakdown. Staring out at the crowd from beneath dark eyeshadow, Allison moved seamlessly through the crowd-favourite "Shotgun,"  (while proclaiming that Osheaga was "a very nice festival" in her soft and calming voice) and into the hard-hitting "Cool" from 2018's Clean.

Balancing out the incisive angst of the Soccer Mommy set with a breezy cover of Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun," Allison and co. ended with the sharp, vulnerable "Your Dog." And while most artists with best-of-list-gracing albums would revel in the final cheers from a massive festival audience, Allison turned around, picked up one of the guitar stands, and left the stage abruptly in a move that felt incredibly on brand.

Rina Sawayama

Sawayama brought the high drama, mama. Dressed in an all-white Renaissance-inspired corset (the first of four outfit changes during her one-hour set), the British-Japanese popstar launched into "Hold the Girl," the eponymous track from her genre-hopping 2022 album. Crawling across the stage, Sawayama and her two dancers upped the theatrics — pulling off her skirt to reveal a pair of white bloomers, her face and bleached eyebrows evoking a multitude of emotions while her powerful voice silenced the crowd. 

Disappearing for a moment and letting her dancers take the spotlight, Sawayama emerged in a black tank top and jeans to perform her more aggressive, nu-metal-leaning hits. Launching into "Dynasty" and the title track of 2020's SAWAYAMA, she then moved into "Frankenstein" and the explosive, rage-filled "STFU!" consisting of some serious head-banging and middle-finger waving. Changing into a white oversized button-down for the Charli XCX track "Beg for You" (a crowd favourite), "Bad Friend," and the tender "LUCID" — which she called an ode to masturbation — the tone began to shift, with "Comme des Garcons" incorporating some tongue-in-cheek newspaper choreography and boy band-esque dance moves.

And then there was the final, fabulous act involving a red leather bodysuit — which had been peeking out from beneath each outfit throughout her late afternoon set — a whip and a riding crop, with Sawayama glaring like a dominatrix at the now-frenzied crowd. Cue the glamourous "XS" and a delightfully camp, all-red cowgirl outfit (including a cowboy hat with rhinestone fringe) for final track, "This Hell." The crowd was living. They were laughing. They were loving. 


Amid the pungent smell day-one festival mud and chants of "Peggy," rapper and producer extraordinaire JPEGMAFIA took to the Valley Stage equipped with a new album's worth of tracks and enough energy to power a small city. Opening with "Lean Beef Patty" from this year's Danny Brown collab SCARING THE HOES, JPEG bounded across the very front of the (awkwardly high) stage from left to right and back again, giving the audience of casual listeners and diehard fans the show that they'd been waiting for. 

With a simple, solo setup that included little more than a table with a laptop, JPEG launched into "Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot," followed by crowd-favourites "1539 N. Calvert" and "BALD!" which he dedicated to all the fellow bald folk in the audience. The energy was high, the crowd pulsating. So, when JPEG announced that it was time to "scare the hoes," that's exactly what he did. Cue the track "SCARING THE HOES," followed by a crowd surge, a mosh pit, and crowd surfing (all "forbidden" during the festival), with some women scrambling over barriers to escape the crush. But, like the master orchestrator that he is, he brought it back to stable ground with a surprising acapella rending of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" that had the entire crowd singing along.

Closing the kinetic set with "Kingdom Hearts Key," featuring an appearance by the track's featured rapper, Redveil, along with the tracks "NEMO!" and "Rainbow Six" off 2016's Veteran, JPEG proved exactly why he's so beloved.

August 5

Lido Pimienta

"Welcome to the Lido Pimienta Experience," proclaimed the charismatic Colombian-Canadian singer-songwriter "making the penis dingle and the vagina wet." The crowd, filled with people of all ages, creeds, and colours let out a laugh, the tone for Pimienta's "hora Latina" being set. 

With a wholehearted "¡vamos!" Pimienta, along with percussionist Brandon Valdivia, launched into "Pelo Cucu" off 2020's Miss Colombia, the crowd swaying along with the beat as Pimienta danced across the stage, her colourful dress swinging. Paired with background visuals of Barranquilla, Colombia, including a shot of the imposing statue of Joe Arroyo, Pimienta bounded through each joyous and searing song with gusto — reminding the audience, at one point, that, "The po-po don't take care of me / The police don't take care of me" to cheers from the audience.

With a shout out to her two teenage kids in the crowd — and to women in music, Latinas, mothers, trans women, and gay people everywhere — Pimiento reminded the audience, their feet planted firmly on a region known to some as Tiohtià:ke, to take care of anyone who has ever been othered or cast aside by society. With a special guest appearance by the one-and-only Nelly Furtado for a special rendition of "Nada," Pimienata ended her gorgeous set with "Eso Que Tu Haces" — her voice filling the valley.

Lil Yachty

Miles Parks McCollum, aka Lil Yachty, wants to be taken seriously. The release of this year's genre-bending album Let's Start Here. serving as a testament to that seriousness. But while the soaring psych-rock-inflected stylings of a brilliantly produced album should have been a perfect match for a summer festival setting, the result was a disjointed set — the bombast of Yachty's older tracks, played exclusively in the latter half of his hour-long slot, greatly overshadowed the former.

Opening with "the BLACK seminole." Yachty looked like the featured artist in his own band — each musician, from his shredding guitarists to his incredible backup singers, outshined the mumble rapper-turned-global-superstar. Apologizing twice for his throat "being shot," Yachty nonetheless powered through "Minnesota," "Yacht Club," "Strike (Holster)" and the joyous DRAM track, "Broccoli," demonstrating that a cold and sore throat couldn't stop him from getting the crowd hyped-up accordingly.

An unfortunate but still fun experiment in old versus new, Lil Yachty showed what happens when an artist pivots and his diehard fans don't fully follow. 

The National

The elder statesmen of indie rock took to the River Stage looking as sharp as ever — albeit slightly grayer and more subdued, with frontman Matt Berninger having switched his trademark glass (and sometimes bottle) of wine for a cup of water. Equipped with a new album's worth of songs and an acclaimed repertoire spanning two decades, the National were primed for a great — if not excellent — festival set. The only problem was much of the crowd didn't seem to know who they were. 

With Billie Eilish performing almost immediately afterward, much of the National's audience seemed uncommitted to the band, having been born sometime between the release of their first and fourth albums. But that didn't stop them from putting on a show. Beginning with "Tropic Morning News" and "Eucalyptus" off this year's First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the Dessners and Devendorfs then launched into fan favourites "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "I Need My Girl," "Conversation 16," and the heart-wrenching "England;" Berninger, sauntering down Billie Eilish's designated catwalk, sing-yelled: "Afraid of the house, stay the night with the sinners / Afraid of the house, 'cause they're desperate to entertain!"

Ending their one-hour-and-10-minute set with "Graceless," "Fake Empire," "Mr. November" and "Terrible Love" with Berninger jumping into the crowd, corded mic in hand, and navigating through a multitude of bodies and metal barriers with abandon, it seemed that Eilish's audience sort of, maybe, possibly began to understand why the band were given such a coveted slot.

Baby Keem

Serving as the antithesis to Lil Yachty's fragmented set, Baby Keem's performance felt undeniably focused. Taking inspiration from his cousin, Kendrick (and dozens of seasoned rappers before him), Hykeem Carter Jr. took to the stage solo, dressed in all black and shrouded in smoke of various hues — a tactic aimed at honing in on his voice and his alone. 

Beginning with tracks from his 2021 debut The Melodic Blue, Keem moved through "hooligans," "scapegoats," "booman," "lost soul" and the tender "16" before infusing his set with "HONEST" and "ORANGE SODA" off 2019's DIE FOR MY BITCH. With a surprise inclusion of "Praise God," the Keem-featuring, TikTok-trending Kanye West song from Donda, Keem ended his solid set with the triumphant "families ties." 

And while the crowd anxiously awaited a Kendrick appearance that never came, it was a move that further proved that Baby Keem could, indeed, stand on his own.  

Billie Eilish

This was the moment that the many thousands of attendees had been anxiously waiting for. Bounding up through a trapdoor dressed in a long-sleeved motocross jersey, Jordan basketball shorts and green and white Nikes to match her green wristbands, the shape-shifting pop star smiled wholeheartedly at the crowd before launching into "Bury a Friend," the lights pulsating red — a monster straight outta the Stranger Things universe baring its fangs on the screen behind. 

Switching between crowd-shaking pop anthems ("my strange addiction," "you should see me in a crown") and tender ballads with FINNEAS on guitar ("i love you," "TV" and "What Was I Made For?" from the Barbie soundtrack), Eilish came off as incredibly approachable, like a best friend who just happened to be a global superstar. Reaching out to the crowd, encouraging sing-alongs and beckoning everyone to give their neighbour a hug, Billie even let out a surprise cough — and subsequent laugh — during the first lines of "when the party's over," showing that she, too, can fumble and laugh it off. 

With a surprise appearance by Armani White for a performance of his viral track "BILLIE EILISH" — during which Eilish proclaimed that it was the first time the two had ever met — Eilish and her band ended the expansive, inviting (and at-times delightfully eerie) set with the hits "bad guy," (complete with confetti canon) and the anthemic "Happier Than Ever," with the crowd screaming "I'd never treat me this shitty / You made me hate this city" as fireworks exploded triumphantly overhead.

August 6

Japanese Breakfast

Faced with the unfortunate reality of being scheduled between Fred Again.. and Kendrick Lamar — and on the complete opposite side of the island from where they were both performing, Michelle Zauner and the rest of the talented Japanese Breakfast touring band deserved a giant festival crowd but were treated instead to a modest, albeit fervent, audience of existing Jbrekkie converts. Nevertheless, the band took to the Green Stage and filled the valley with gorgeous orchestrations and pastel-hued visuals, demonstrating why they're so loved.

Opening with "Paprika" from 2021's breakthrough Jubilee, Zauner, dressed in a delightful pink satin two-piece GANNI ensemble with a pink flower in her hair, sang "How's it feel to be at the centre of magic / To linger in tones and words?" while banging a large gong. Moving into the jubilant "Be Sweet" and the tender "Kokomo, IN" — with pink and blue clouds in the background matching Zauner's outfit and eyeshadow — the band then switched modes, performing "The Body Is a Blade," off 2017's Soft Sounds from Another Planet with intimate, animated collages of Zauner's family photos playing in the background.

Continuing with "Savage Good Boy" and stirring crowd-pleaser "Posing in Bondage," the band ended with a joyous and triumphant rendition of "Everybody Wants to Love You," with Zauner beaming at the crowd.

Kendrick Lamar

The artist formerly known as K-Dot did not come to play. Choosing modest and poignant staging over gigantic, glittering setups typical of a festival-headlining slot, the revered Compton rapper performed a hit-heavy evening set filled with methodical intent — fire and fireworks being substituted for minimalist lighting and large backdrops of Henry Taylor paintings depicting Black life in its many facets.

Taking to the stage wearing a pgLang hat and black shades covering much of his face, Lamar (legal surname: Duckworth, unofficial surname: The Greatest of All Time) launched into "N95," his boxy black jacket and pink pants framing each incisive gesture as he moved across the stage. And then, the first of many pregnant pauses. Standing in silence at centre stage and staring out at the thousands of festivalgoers, Lamar basked in the noise of the fervent mass before moving into "ELEMENT." off the Pulitzer-prize-winning DAMN., followed shortly by "King Kunta" and "Worldwide Steppers" as dancers in denim aprons wearing identical fake heads emerged from beneath the first of many backdrops.

Cue his verse from Pusha T's "Nosetalgia" followed by Good Kid, M.A.A.D City hits "Backseat Freestyle," "Swimming Pools (Drank)," and "Money Trees," during which his dancers (appearing one by one for a total of seven by show's end) were seen skateboarding, miming playing dice and mopping the stage. The result, paired with long pauses after "Alright" and "Die Hard," was that of a theatre play rather than a hip-hop show — highlighting Lamar's purpose-driven creative direction and sheer command of his career-spanning performance. 

Moving into the riotous "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," followed shortly by "LOVE." and "LOYALTY.," Lamar ended quietly with "Savior" before autographing his setlists and handing them out to a handful of diehard fans in the crowd he deemed "a representation of the city." Ending over 10 minutes early, much to the disappointment of hyped-up fans, it was a reminder that Kendrick Lamar, global superstar, "is not your saviour" — that he gave us everything, and owes us nothing in return.

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