Sting, Peter Gabriel headline Festival d’été de Québec, the country's biggest music festival

The Quebec City Summer Festival offers hundreds of concerts by night, the chance to tour the charming Old City by day

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      The Plains of Abraham is a place where history went down. It was here on the night of July 7, 2016 that Sting and Peter Gabriel performed together, covering each other’s tunes and sharing singing duties on their greatest hits to blow the minds of around 80,000 fans at the 49th annual Festival d’été de Québec.

      Of course, the grassy hills also were also where British troops defeated French soldiers in 1759, eventually allowing them to take control of Canada the following year. It’s a beautiful and historic place, the former battlefields making for an unforgettable setting to witness the musical legends rocking out on North America’s biggest self-supported stage next to the mighty St. Lawrence River.

      If the image you have in your head of Gabriel is his portrait on the So album cover, he’s nearly unrecognizable now; that jet black hair gone, the only hair on the 66-year-old’s head being the white of his goatee (while Sting could still grace People’s Sexiest Man Alive cover, even in leather pants at 64). Age hasn’t touched these two genius’s distinct voices, Gabriel’s still characteristically plaintive and Sting’s still… Sting’s.

      During a show that lasted two and a half hours, the two played everything from Shock the Monkey and Englishman in New York to In Your Eyes and Invisible Sun. Gabriel did a slowed-down, soulful rendition of If You Love Somebody (Set them free), while Sting soloed on Dancing With the Moonlight Knight. Enraptured audiences sang along to a stirring rendition of Don’t Give Up and a raucous Message in a Bottle, it all proving to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime shows people will never forget.

      With their Rock Paper Scissors tour (which hits Seattle on July 21), the legends kicked off the annual Quebec fest—the largest music festival in Canada with more than 300 shows over 11 days at outdoor and indoor venues all within walking distance of each other in historic Old Quebec.

      The event draws major star power: still to come this year are performances by Selena Gomez, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rammstein, Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn of Crowded house, Bryan Ferry,  Duran Duran, and more. Past acts have included The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, and Elton John.

      But it also showcases new and rising talent, like this year’s Charlotte Cardin, Boy & Bear, Peter Bjorn & John, and X Ambassador. Every genre is covered: folk, electropop, rap, traditional French song, hip-hop, reggae, heavy metal...

      Aside from the vast range of music on offer, what makes the Festival d’été de Québec remarkable is the price of admission: concert-goers need only put forth $90 for a pass that gets them into all the concerts they want during those 11 days. And the pass is transferable.

      How is this possible?

      Sheer volume explains part of it. The Plains of Abraham can hold 80,000 fans, and that’s just one venue that operates every single evening. Every year, the festival sells between 120,000 and 140,000 tickets (and creates close to 500 jobs).

      The Festival d’été de Québec is a non-profit organization with a total annual budget of about $25 million. It receives some federal and provincial government funding and also has heavy-hitting sponsors like Bell, Molson Canadian, Hydro Quebec, and Loto Quebec.

       “All the profits are reinvested into the festival--into programing, the lineup for next year, or new infrastructure or things we want to develop light special lighting or sound systems to improve the experience of the festival goer,” says Luci Tremblay, the fest’s communications director. “Quebec is a beautiful city, and the festival is taking place in the heart of this city, at the door of old Quebec, where all the action is, especially during the summertime. The venues are all walking distance, which is nice because you can start the evening at one place listen to music for half an hour walk for five minutes then watch another show. You can spend a whole night walking around watching different shows. It’s an urban festival and it becomes part of this city. The city is transformed by the festival.

      “Word of mouth has been very strong around the festival,” she adds. “Now we have agents and artists sometimes calling us in advance because they want to be part of the festival. Like the Rolling Stones-- last year they wanted to end their tour at the festival and they called and said ‘we would like to be part of the festival’. Same thing with Sting and Peter Gabriel. Last year, their agent was here during the festival and they later called us and said ‘please keep open the opening night [slot]’.  The people of Quebec are very proud of their festival, and so they’re happy to see tourists discovering it. They’re helpful and welcoming and sincere as well.”

      Sixty-four percent of festival visitors come from within the province of Quebec, while 10 percent travel from elsewhere in Canada, 10 percent are from the U.S., , and the remainder come from around the globe.

      With the weak loonie, this mega fest a worthy alternative to events like Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and South by Southwest Music Festival for Canadian music lovers who are willing to travel the continent to catch the world’s most interesting acts.

      With most concerts taking place in the evenings (save for pop-up shows and those at the Family Place, which is open all day), the fest allows visitors the chance stroll Quebec City by day and experience its old-world charm. The city provides a taste of France without the overseas flight, with its narrow cobblestone streets, stone buildings (some dating back to the 1600s), and so much rich history. In fact, Old Quebec is the only fortified city north of Mexico, making it a UNESCO world heritage site.

      Ninety five percent of its 700,000 residents are native French speakers. But if you don’t speak the language, don’t worry; if Peter Gabriel can get by in French, so can you. He brought with him to the show a clipboard with mid-song speeches translated into French, and though his pronunciation was a little rough, his efforts endeared him to the fans even more—especially when he referred to him and Sting as the “Tantric twins”: Sting introduced him to power yoga, you see, and after just three sessions, he joked, no one can tell the two of them apart, he joked.

      This year’s Festival d’eté de Québec runs until July 17.