Neil Young finally finds Quebec in an under-the-radar mega-festival

by Nicolas PRATVIEL
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Canadian rock legend Neil Young at this year's Festival d'�t� de Qu�bec

It took him 72 years but Neil Young finally made it to Quebec City.

The rock legend, who after the death of Leonard Cohen is perhaps Canada's most emblematic musician, on Friday night played a high-powered, two-hour set before tens of thousands on the vast and historic Plains of Abraham park that extends westward from Quebec City.

Young -- who was born just an eight-hour drive away in Toronto -- headed to the French-speaking province for Quebec City's summer festival, the Festival d'ete de Quebec, a rare public concert with low-priced tickets and a community feel.

"It's my first time here! I can't believe it, or I can't remember," Young exclaimed at the end of his set with his energetic back-up band, the Promise of the Real, which features Willie Nelson's rocker son Lukas.

A day after the festival opened with another major Canadian star, The Weeknd, amid an unusually brutal heat wave, temperatures plunged sharply for Young, who took the stage in his trademark Stetson hat with a black T-shirt under a thick plaid shirt.

He kicked off with his 1982 song "Like an Inca," with 10 minutes' worth of crackling guitars setting the tone for the evening.

He ramped up the energy further on "Fuckin' Up," a track off his hard-charging 1990 album "Ragged Glory" that turned the onetime folk rocker into a godfather of the nascent grunge scene.

Young didn't wait long before ripping into his possibly best-known song, "Rockin' in the Free World," which the left-leaning transplant to the United States released in 1989 as a critique of then president George H.W. Bush.

Battling his guitar strings nearly to the point of breaking them, the former Buffalo Springfield rocker offered a grandiose take on "Down by the River" before a climax on "Hey Hey, My My." He returned for an encore before the open-air sea of people, playing the exquisite "Harvest Moon" before ending on "Roll Another Number (For the Road)."

- Historic battleground -

The Festival d'ete de Quebec, in its 51st season, is drawing a slew of major acts including Foo Fighters, Lorde, Beck, Future, Camila Cabello and the Dave Matthews Band.

The organizers said it took some work to bring Young.

"It was difficult to persuade him. We had to tell him about the Plains of Abraham, our philosophy, our economic model and, finally, I succeeded," Louis Bellavance, the programming director, said with a smile.

The Plains of Abraham was the scene of the 1759 battle in which Britain decisively defeated France for domination of Canada. For the festival, the historic site becomes one of the largest stages in North America, able to accommodate crowds of nearly 100,000.

For a festival with its lineup, tickets are incredibly inexpensive. A pass that costs 100 Canadian dollars (US$76) gives access to all 250 shows, big and small, around the city.

- A 'far-fetched' success -

And, unlike big festivals such as Coachella where security guards rigorously check wristband passes to avoid resale, the Quebec festival not only allows but encourages fans to share their tickets.

Drink sales help recoup costs as does support from the Quebec government, which sees the festival as a way to encourage tourism.

"It's a system that's far-fetched because we eat ourselves alive when it comes to revenue," Bellavance said. "But it works marvelously if we sell 120,000 passes."

Launched initially as a neighborhood block party, the festival has grown to draw mega-stars including the Rolling Stones, The Who and Metallica. But Bellavance acknowledged that the festival is still not well-known internationally -- or even in western Canada.

"For many, we're classified as 'the most extraordinary festival that you've never heard of,'" he said.

Canadian rock legend Neil Young at this year's Festival d'�t� de Qu�bec

The crowd at Quebec's Festival d'ete de Quebec watching rocker Kurt Vile on the huge stage in the Plains of Abraham park

Lukas Nelson, son of famed country singer Willie Nelson, playing with his band Promise of the Real at the summer music festival in Quebec