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A Punk Rock Pilgrimage: Amnesia Rockfest 2016

By Kenny Fowler (@buttonmasherken) 

Toronto is home to so many music festivals. However, for those who like their music a little loud, the options get sparse very quickly. Heavy T.O. only survived for a couple of years before disappearing, and Riot Fest’s future remains uncertain (they may be back for 2017, but no official word has been given). What do you do when you need a festival that is loud, intense and relentlessly energetic?

You do as I did, and take a Punk Rock Pilgrimage to Montebello, Quebec, to experience
Amnesia Rockfest.

For the last 11 years, Rockfest has brought thousands of rockers, punk kids and metalheads - just shy of 200,000 this year - from all over the world to the tiny town with a population of less than 1,000. On the six hour bus trip from Toronto, I met a woman who said she flew in from Alberta, and later a man who was making the trip from Kelowna, B.C. When I asked them both why they chose to make the long trip, their response was simple: the lineup was too good to miss.

There were over 130 bands playing across three nights and two days. The music was spread across five stages: two small stages dedicated to the late punk frontman Tony Sly, two medium sized stages, one of which was used exclusively showcase the best Quebec-based bands, and one huge stage for many of the biggest acts. The jam packed schedule was meticulously curated so that there would always be at least two bands playing, giving the festival crowd at best an endless array of options, and at worst a really tough decision to make, all the while ensuring each act was placed on the festival grounds far enough away from the others to avoid an impromptu battle of the bands.

That’s a lot of bands.

[Image Source: amnesiarockfest.com] 

On both main days, I found myself struggling to find time to grab food, or keep myself hydrated between the endless barrage of talented acts from around the world and our own country. And hydration was important; the weekend was blisteringly hot and dry, so much so that each new mosh pit conjured by the crowds kicked up giant dust clouds into the air. By Saturday morning many pit warriors had equipped themselves with bandanas and face masks. Alex Martel, the man who started the festival, was seen himself using hoses to spray people down and keep them cool during sets. 

[Source: Spotted Amnesia Rockfest Facebook Page]

In total, I was able to experience 20 acts, all of which were phenomenal. The Creepshow made solid use of their very small time slot to give a tight and energetic set. Against Me! brought fist pumping protest punk back to the forefront with a focus on current issues such as trans* rights and the struggles of queer youth. A plethora of legendary metal acts from all over the world kept the crowd moving hard and fast, from England’s Cradle of Filth, to the folk, polka, and metal fusion of Korpiklaani. And Quebec represented their notorious metal scene well with bands like Beneath the Massacre, Despised Icon and Voivod, the veterans with 35 years behind them. And of course, big Canadian names like Sum 41 and Billy Talent came out to play – check out their full concert reviews on the Radio Humber website.

Crowd Tubing during Lamb of God.

[Source: Spotted Amnesia Rockfest Facebook Page]

However, the best part about Rockfest is the sense of community it encourages. The entire town of Montebello stops in its tracks to welcome thousands of people into its streets, homes, and lives. Families rent out their yards for extra camping space and sell hot dogs and drinks for cheap out of their homes. The local grocery store, employed by three high school girls and the owners, worked tirelessly day and night to ensure all the campers had everything they needed. Travelling musicians played on the streets to keep the good spirits going. Taking five minutes to lend a hand to another festival goer gave you a friend for the weekend, or in some cases, for life. People got engaged. And a sense of family was born.

The greatness of Amnesia Rockfest can’t be described by each individual element. The experience is greater than the sum of its parts, and any fan of music that gets a little loud owes it to themselves to make the trek to Montebello to see what it’s like for themselves.