Amnesia Rockfest 2013: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Ugly

There was confusion and pain and aggravation… and scandal and frustration and appalling grossness. But there was frenzied energy and sonic euphoria and bone rattling vibrations. It was beautiful, touching, stirring, inspiring and overwhelming. Yes, there were truly memorable moments amidst the mayhem. The Amnesia Rockfest that took place last weekend on the waterfront of the tiny nine hundred soul village of Montebello, in between Montreal and Ottawa, was all of those things and more, making it both a true gritty DIY punk music festival, and an aberration of entertainment organization at the same time.

So where to start? I crawled out of my tent early on the first day of the festival to find the whole village overrun by punkers, metal heads, and college kids; more than 100 000 thousand of them and, as is wont, many with a beer in hand at seven in the morning. Villagers all over town had opted to welcome tenants and had parcelled out their prime suburban land to maximize the number of tents and RVs they could accommodate all over their humble abodes. If it weren’t for the music blaring incessantly from cheap car stereos, the abundance of red haired girls in short shorts, and the sweet stench of beer permeating the air of the whole neighbourhood, one might have mistaken the scene for a refugee camp.

And in that image—the refugee camp—I had unknowingly found the visual metaphor that would define the festival grounds for the next 48 hours. My first hunch that something was off with the Rockfest logistics came early enough on that first day as I strolled leisurely through the backstage entrance, grateful for my press/photographer pass, and made my way to the front of the main stage where in less than an hour tens of thousands of revelers would pour in to catch Mad Caddies and Less Than Jake who had the thankless task of getting the show on the road. The gates opened on time at 11AM, but what should have been a tidal wave of screaming fans rushing in turned out to be a slow trickle of smiling (they were the lucky ones) rockers trotting towards the stage. By the time Mad Caddies’ ska beats descended on the muddy field, perhaps one or two thousand people had made it in. An hour and a half later, when Less Than Jake took the stage and ska-ed up the place some more, 80% of ticket holders were still waiting in line to exchange the ticket they bought months ago for a bracelet, an ordeal that lasted for most over two hours and a half, for many somewhere around four hours, and even longer for a few providence-deprived punks.

When it was the Dropkick Murphys turn to attack the main stage at 5PM, thank god there was an endless sea of grateful punkers in front of them, and it was with their rowdy and rollicking brand of Celtic punk and infectious stage energy that the festival really started moving. Classics ‘Shipping Up to Boston’ and ‘State of Massachusetts’ were heard, and ‘Rose Tattoo’ as well from their latest record. It was a memorable gig with not a dull moment. In all, there were a hundred and fifty bands spread over five different stages and the line-up for the main stage alone made the Rockfest a worthy rival to the best punk festivals in North America, so you’ll forgive me if I spare you the setlist of every single show I attended and focus on some of the highlights, as decided by me, which means I’ll not mention Marilyn Manson in this piece again. He was there is all I’ll say.

Soon after the Dropkick Murphys, Rancid took to the stage for a power-hour of their greatest hits, including ‘Radio,’ ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Maxwell Murders,’ and ‘Ruby Soho,’  mainly taken from their earlier opus ‘Let’s Go’ and ‘And Out Come the Wolves,’ delivered with all the gusto and rambunctiousness these guys are known for. I hadn’t enjoyed them live in fifteen years, and though Tim Armstrong seemed, naturally, a bit older, it certainly didn’t show through his wild demeanor and crazy antics on the stage, the way it did, somewhat, with Dexter and Noodle and the rest of The Offspring crew, who delivered right after The Deftones a professional if tame and subdued—granted I had great expectations—performance to bring the Friday night to a close.

It was around dusk, perhaps during Social Distortion’s superb set (talk about a band that belongs on a stage right?), that the festival grounds began metaphorically bursting at the seams, and from whence came the great dichotomy between the truly awe-inspiring acts on the stage and the grotesquely awful scenes on the ground. It was also then that a certain anthropological distinction appeared between two kinds of attendees, i.e. the ‘hardcore’ punks and metalheads who thrive on blood, sweat, mud, and piss, and who won’t need for trivial things like toilets, food, or, for that matter, drinking water, so long as they can mosh to the sound of aggressive music and smuggle beer inside the premises (these dudes were having a great fucking time), and the mellower ‘good music, good booze, good friends’ attendees, who, if you asked them, would prefer not to suffer from dehydration because of the total absence of drinking water on the site, would prefer not to have to walk through a swamp of urine to use a portable toilet overflowing with fecal matter (and maybe do without the e-coli, if possible), would prefer not to have to stand in line an hour and a half for a hot dog, and would prefer not to have to walk ten miles at three in the morning because the last shuttle buses for the campgrounds were full and not coming back for them. I believe this distinction is at the core of the wildly different accounts of the festival that appeared in print and social media the past couple of days.

The next morning, the whole place had an aura of brokenness and defeat. Getting in wasn’t a problem, but then there wasn’t any music playing as the main stage, pulsing with staffers, lay in a state of disrepair. There’s a certain oddness to a music festival when no music is playing, as you end up noticing things around you rather than what’s on stage: punks walking with crutches, headbangers with their arm in a sling, boyfriends massaging girlfriends’ ankles under the shade of a tree (the one and only tree inside the gates, of course), trashcans overflowing with plastic bottles and food scraps, with pyramidal heaps and mounds of garbage besides them. Without the infusion of music, the place had the look, smell, and feel of an open air dumping ground. None of it would have mattered if only they’d gotten a show going.

Lagwagon, slanted for a noon performance on the main stage, had been rescheduled at a different time on a different stage, to their great relief one might add, as it afforded them a few extra hours of shuteye (some of them had had a rough night). The same situation befell the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who ended up breaking the ice a bit later than planned on a different stage with a drive and vigor that was simply contagious. After the Bosstones’ day-salvaging performance, and once the Transplants finally manned the main stage and college girls could finally get their dose of Travis Barker, all was forgotten and in the mosh pits the atmosphere was absolutely berserk.

The intensity never let up from that moment on, and after Transplants finished their set, which included a couple of new songs from their upcoming album, Pennywise took the stage and it was nice to see Jim Lindberg in front singing ‘Fuck Authority’ like it was 2002. Of course you can always count on Fletcher and Jim to get the mosh pits riled up, and it was during Pennywise’s set that the momentum in the pits reached a crescendo of motion, swell, and pulse; very exciting stuff indeed! After that the main stage belonged to headbangers for a couple of hours with Anthrax and Lamb of God on the bill, so the punks moved in throngs towards one of the smaller stages for the much anticipated Lagwagon set. And what a set it was! ‘Island of Shame,’ ‘Violin,’ ‘Lazy,’ ‘Coffee and Cigarettes,’ all delivered fast and loud to an overflowing crowd of moshers who could scarcely contain their joy. The smaller stage had better, crisper sound than the main stage and the Lagwagon boys seemed perfectly at home on it. It was one of the better moments of the festival, especially touching when they got going on NUFAN’s ‘Exit’ as a tribute to late Tony Sly, and it’s a shame that many fans missed it on account of the confusion over the venue and time changes.

Though Rise Against was the official headlining band awaited by all festival-goers, the band most anticipated by other punk bands playing the festival was clearly Black Flag (with Keith Morris), playing late in the second day on the same stage as Lagwagon. During their frenetic performance which included mostly well-known tracks like ‘Six Pack’ and ‘Wasted’ both sides of the stage featured a who’s who of the current punk scene. Finally, Rise Against appeared front and center at 1h30AM and delivered a well-balanced set, mixing the old and the new in just measure, which resulted in quite an irreproachable hour and a half of music from the punk heavyweights. It was most definitely worth hanging around for.

Unfortunately this overview of the Rockfest would not be complete if I failed to mention the truly shameful ‘pay to play’ scheme that was reported in the press in the days leading to the festival. The short of it is that emergent bands had to sell fifty tickets or pay the remainder of the 5000$ it amounted to in order to be allowed to play on a shitty stage at the top of a hill right at the festival entrance, far away from the action of the big boys stages, their time slot determined by how many tickets over the required fifty they managed to push. The whole thing, including some statements made by festival organizer Alex Martel to the effect that local band development was none of their concern, reeked of mercantilism and bad taste. For what it’s worth, following the media backlash this piece of news prompted, Alex Martel issued a statement in which he made amends and declared that all bands would be compensated after all. Perhaps too little too late for the festival’s reputation, as the damage was done, but still we’re glad for the few bucks these struggling bands will be getting in the end.

In short, if you went there planning on getting thrashed and battered in every possible way while listening to a mix of mind-blowing punk and metal bands comprising the best line-up ever offered for 80 bucks, you got served and then some! If, however, you headed to the festival expecting a good neighborly time and to be able to hold on to the basic precepts that define us as a civilized and modern society (i.e. food, shelter, safety), you may have felt cheated. Word to the wise for next year: twice the staff, three times the portable toilets, and for god’s sake drinking water galore. With the same kind of once-in-a-lifetime line-up and these common-sense issues resolved, next year’s Rockfest could be (nay, WILL be) the biggest and baddest festival in the Northeast.

Check back often for photo galleries of the event and another piece featuring a very pleasant conversation with Joey Cape!

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