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28 June 2017

Rain, Mud, and Metal: Montebello Rockfest 2017

While festival-goers were donning their most water-resistant leathers and preparing to face the rain-drench grounds of Canada’s largest rock festival, the MusicPromoToday team was unpacking their ponchos and getting ready to do the same, temporarily safe from the elements thanks to Le Château Montebello’s media room.

Despite this comfortable lead-in to our first day at Rockfest, our trip was not without its misadventures. The time between departing our Montreal office and arriving at the festival grounds included a slight car mishap and misplaced press passes. Though the first incident required no outside help, the latter was gracefully handled by the Rockfest staff, who quickly found our names and granted us access to the already raging rock spectacle.  From then on, the excitement was non-stop.

After leaving the shelter of the Château’s media room, we boarded a private ferry that would shuttle us to and from the festival in the days to come. Following a few moments of silent calculation (and a quick Google search) we confirmed that we were sharing the ride with Paul Landers and Richard Kruspe of Rammstein. The band’s famed guitarists were dressed from head to toe in black, sporting sleek, black waistcoats and heavy leather boots. Although both were in a hurry after disembarking, Kruspe was gracious enough to pose for a photo with us.

The ferry dropped us off behind the Budweiser mainstage, and during that brief moment of relative quiet the entire space seemed to quake as if anticipating the headlining acts that would take to it later that night. Ready to kickstart our Rockfest experience, we followed our ears to the neighbouring stage, where Blind Witness had just begun their set. The Montreal deathcore band’s heavy, rhythmic breakdowns — along with lead vocalist Jonathan Cabana’s gripping stage antics — had us head banging in unison with the rest of Blind Witness’ electrified crowd. They were the perfect band to help ease us into the festival – aggressive and abrasive, but somehow more personable than the larger acts we’d see over the next 32 hours.

Next to follow was Wu-Tang Clan. As we navigated the backstage access area, we were fortunate enough to see them emerging from their tent in a great billow of smoke — posse and family on either side — and we took a moment to bask in their 25-year-strong rap ambience before making a b-line towards the front-stage photo pit.

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Ghostface Killah getting ready to rap alongside fellow Wu-Tang squad.

Thanks to Rockfest’s excellent sound engineering, we felt every beat of Wu-Tang Clan’s classic hip-hop anthems, especially crowd-favourites “Protect Ya Neck” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”. Ghostface Killah dominated their performance, taking centre stage time and time again to pummel the crowd with his rhymes, but GZA, RZA, and the rest of the crew also held their own, bringing their distinct vocal styles and rapping speeds to each track. Overall, their set delivered a powerful dose of nostalgia while also demonstrating the group’s enduring relevance.

The festival’s lighting and pyrotechnics were as high-caliber as its sound engineering. Most memorable was Bullet For My Valentine’s deft use of smoke machines and lighting cues, and the dramatic silhouettes they created when combined. Though we missed Rammstein’s legendary pyrotechnics and flamethrower stunt, the choreography implemented on the stages we did see was enough to compensate. Perhaps the only flaw we witnessed was some mic feedback during the opening moments of Good Charlotte’s set, but that — like our elusive press passes — was quickly resolved.

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Matthew Tuck delivering an outstanding vocal performance.

The festival’s token political rant took place during Dee Snider’s set. The Twisted Sister frontman took a moment to speak out about the “killing of innocent people who want to enjoy music and entertainment without worrying for their lives”, before launching into a slow tempo, ballad-like rendition of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. Halfway through the renowned song, the band kicked it into high-gear and the crowd roared wild, throwing up metal horns and bellowing “this is our life, this is our song!”.

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Dee Snider delivers a powerful message to a rapt and cheering crowd.

Though these larger acts were a sight to behold, our team was surprised to find that the smaller acts played a huge role in Rockfest’s success. Their performances were more manic, their crowds more energetic, and the overall experience more intimate than anything we experienced at performances from Megadeath or Alexisonfire.

Volumes, a five-piece djent band out of Los Angeles, put on one of the most impressive shows. Of the band’s two frontmen, Myke Terry was the more commanding presence, constantly travelling the stage and throwing himself into the audience — much to the dismay of the security guards who had to carry his weight. The band’s tech crew’s superb use of yet another smoke machine made their powerful, rhythm-heavy breakdowns all the more epic, and — thanks to the stage personnel that graciously let us photograph in their space — we were able to snap some shots that properly captured Volumes’ spirit.

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Volumes’ Myke Terry loved involving the crowd in the band’s set.

Of course, the venue and bands were only one part of our experience. Rockfest’s real heart came from the dedication of its attendees; their love of metal was more than enough reason to tough out the rain and vast pools of mud. One, especially massive pool in front of the Jägermeister stage became a popular site for mud-fights, which would begin with a friendly bout of wrestling, and end with an amicable hug. The high-spirits of the crowds were probably partly due to the ample food and drink supplied on-site; everything from fruit to smoked meat could be found on the festival grounds, with prices ranging from blessedly cheap (3 for $5 hotdogs) to pricey (artisanal vendors offering  smoked meats, burgers, and more). And it wasn’t just those within the festival who contributed to the positive atmosphere. Montebello locals volunteered their property to those visiting the festival from afar, giving up lawns, driveways, and residential roads so that campers could pitch their tents and park their RVs.

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Muddy joy!

Ultimately, the crowds’ good spirits paid off. The Saturday of the festival was a sun-drenched affair, complete with a rainbow that appeared mid-day. Though its beginning and end were difficult to find, from where we stood it was clear that Montebello Rockfest was the pot of gold.

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