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Montreal's island festival Osheaga draws top music acts, big crowds

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MONTREAL - In retrospect, it seems like a no-brainer — bring together some of the world's top bands on an island in the middle of summer, to perform across the river from Montreal, with the city's skyline as a backdrop.

But it was only eight years ago that Nick Farkas organized the first Osheaga, a festival that's growing in popularity and has developed a reputation as a premiere music destination in North America.

"It wasn't so obvious in the first few years, when it wasn't doing well," Farkas said in an interview.

"Now it looks like a brilliant move."

The festival is held every August in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Ile Sainte-Helene, an island in the St. Lawrence River best known as the site of the La Ronde amusement park and, previously, the Expo 67 world fair. It's a short subway or bike ride from the city centre.

"We wanted to create a microcosm of Montrealness on the island with good food, art, music," Farkas said.

About 25,000 people attended the inaugural two-day event in 2006.

Now stretched over three days, the festival draws 45,000 each day and has sold out the past two years. It appears poised to do so again this summer.

This year, from Aug. 1-3, the headliners will include Jack White, hip-hop duo Outkast, English rockers Arctic Monkeys, dark and sombre singer-songwriter Nick Cave, and Swedish pop star Lykke Li.

The festival has been likened to a scaled-down version of Coachella, the massive party held annually in the California desert.

"It has the same sort of feeling, when you step on the ground," said Christopher Roberts, the director for Toronto's own popular music and arts festival, NXNE, who has attended Osheaga several times.

"It's on a field in a beautiful island in the middle of Montreal, which is just an amazing city."

While NXNE spans two weekends and features hundreds of events at clubs and theatres around the city, Roberts said Osheaga has a more intimate setting.

"Osheaga is a close-dated event that happens in one location, and it has this sort of really magical feel because you're all partaking in this singular event together, which really creates this sense of community."

The word 'osheaga,' the story goes, was used by the first European settlers to describe what would eventually become Montreal. It was originally a Mohawk word to describe the place "where they met the people of the shaking hands."

These days, it's where more than 100 bands are lined up to perform.

Local talent — such as Half-Moon Run, Mac DeMarco, and Le Trouble — will be featured alongside the big international acts.

Sets at Osheaga are short, which makes it easy to discover new bands.

Emerging artists play for 30 minutes, while headliners end each day with sets that stretch more than an hour and a half.

There are six stages this year, up from five in previous years, along with showcases for visual arts.

One of the reasons for the growth of the festival, which is run by entertainment promoter Evenko, is its accommodation packages.

They range from more affordable rooms at university residences in the city to deals at some of the city's higher-end hotels.

Farkas said part of Osheaga's appeal is it can be paired with a summer trip to Montreal.

A three-day pass for the event starts at $250 and goes up to $950 for those seeking VIP perks. Packages that include travel, accommodation along with tickets start at $424.

For more information, visit http://www.osheaga.com/

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