Historically, Quebec City held the key to the conquest of North America. The city is situated on a bluff overlooking the narrowest point of the St. Lawrence River, and ships could not pass through its strait unless the cannons above held their fire.
Musically, Quebec City is a place from which the conquest of North America can still take place. Instead of cannons, it's talent that fires from the hills here now, and it happens every year during the Quebec City Summer Festival. Céline Dion and Cirque de Soleil are only two of the acts that were discovered here in years past. But acts need not conquer the world, they need only conquer your heart, and there are hundreds of them here at the festival that could easily do just that.
The festival takes place during a 10-day period that runs, this year, from July 5 through July 15. This 34th annual edition features a wildly diverse program of world music, acts that run the gamut from The John Pizzarelli Trio performing their jazz rendition of The Great American Songbook to the Quebecois pop star cellist Jorane singing only sounds, not words, in a haunting multi-media show (she's scheduled to play New York's Winter Garden Theater on September 27). In between, one can find blues, rock, Celtic, classical and gypsy music. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Quebec City's festival has a great deal to offer the adventurous cabaretgoer. In addition to booking Pizzarelli this year, the festival increased its indoor, cabaret-style offerings. We've stopped in at the Pub Saint Alexandre every night that we've been here to see some of the most extravagantly talented people in the world. Guitarist/singer Bob Brozman is sensational; we've caught his act every year (this is our fifth trip to the festival), and he never fails to astonish us. Another favorite here is René Lacaille, an accordion player with a band that offers a unique island sound. Among our new discoveries at the pub have been guitarist Anders Osborne singing the blues and playing with a band that includes a tuba, sax and drums. We also found blue guitarist Corey Harris and two flamenco guitarists from Germany who call themselves Tierra Negra. These folks and others played at both the Pub Saint Alexandre and in much larger, outdoor venues. At the pub, the cost was a mere $3.00 cover charge--that's about $2.00 in U.S. money--and there's no minimum! The pub's atmosphere is warm and casual. It was packed to the rafters every night we were there, and it stayed that way long past 3am.
John Pizzarelli played a larger cabaret club, Le Cabaret Du Capitole (it seats 536 people). Speaking occasionally in broken French, he was as winning up here as he is back in New York, and he received a standing ovation at the end of his act. Pizzarelli has performed in Quebec City before, but not during the festival. When we spoke with him the day after his first of two shows, he said he was so charmed by the festival atmosphere that, maybe next year, he'd like to bring his family and stay on longer. At the same venue we also caught a French trumpet player named Erik Truffaz, who muddied his act with the distractions of a rapper and unnecessary electronics. His trumpet playing was clean and bright; all he really needed was a bass player and drummer. Sometimes, performers simply try too hard to be different.
Speaking of music that's different: At another indoor club, Medusa, we went to a 1:30am show by a Finnish performer named Wimme. His specialty is a strange sort of traditional à capella throat music called Yoik, but that constituted only a small portion of his show; the rest was an adaptation of yoiking set to electronic music with a live three-piece band. The sound was a cross between musical gargling and something that might have worked as the soundtrack for a satanic ritual. But, hey, this is exactly what music festivals are all about: discovering acts you would otherwise never, ever see.
As for the outdoor venues tucked in and around the hills of Quebec, one need only buy an $8.00 badge (about $5.50 U.S.) to gain access to everything. For example, one could attend Angelique Ionatos' open-air concert inside the walls of an ancient seminary. Ionatos, who's been called "The Greek Piaf," thrilled a crowd of over 1,000 people who braved a night of thunderstorms to see her show. On hand at another outdoor venue--this one near a gate to the old city--was an all-star show given by Celtic performers who entertained a crowd of several thousand delighted souls. In a field directly behind the Quebec Parliament, we experienced Lagbaja, a Nigerian saxophone player backed by a wide variety of drums; the Lone Ranger of world music, he wears an elaborate mask (actually, two masks) as a political statement about the faceless peoples of Africa. In the Fields of Abraham (Quebec City's Central Park), local rock legend Bruno Pelletier played his hit songs to an audience estimated at 40,000!
There is something for everyone at this eclectic festival. And if you don't like what you're hearing in one location, you can pick yourself up and walk to the next act, which is never more than five minutes away by foot.