Alain Simard is something of a legend in Montreal. After all, anyone who can bully the government into putting on free outdoor festivals must be a little bit special. But sitting next to me nursing a hangover and sipping a cup of take away soup, he seemed very unlegendary like.
Simard is Montreal’s equivalent of Harvey Goldsmith; a highly successful concert and music promoter who saw the financial potential and attraction of free outdoor events. “Back in the 70’s it was hard to convince the powers that be that putting on free shows would generate additional income for Montreal” he tells me “ but here we are today with over a billion dollars in new money for the city specifically from free festivals”
Simard now overlords three major events in Montreal’s annual outdoor calendar; the Jazz Festival with over a thousand musicians performing live on stages around the city, the FrancoFolies de Montréal, a 10 day celebration of French chanson and world music and Montreal’s newest fest, the Highlights Festival.
The Highlights grew out of Montrealers needing something to brighten up a bleak February. Apart from being numbingly cold, it used to be a month where, unusually for Montreal, nothing much was happening. People came into the city to work and then just went home again. The Highlights Festival gives them a reason to stay late in the city for ten days and experience all kinds of food, music and cultural events.
Last year’s festival included fifty top female chefs from five continents demonstrating their own particular brand of culinary delectation in selected restaurants and hotels throughout the city. With a chance to savour a kind of Brazilian/Asian fusion style courtesy of 21 year old Brazilian wonder chef Renata Vanzetto I took to the Beaver Hall Bistro for a taster. Four courses for $40 and a myriad of tastes later, including it has to be said, a rather delicious sautéed shrimp with coconut breaded banana cubes in a creamy yellow curry, I can pretty much say I’m a total fan. In fact The Beaver Hall, one of three top class eateries owned by the Europea group is an informal restaurant with a welcoming ambience and a delicious menu at very reasonable prices. However for a culinary experience that would rival Ramsey, The Europea itself is simply an outstanding example of how the very best food and impeccable service can deliver a memorable dining experience that will live long in the memory.
Throughout the festival there were many concert opportunities from the free live stage area to selected concerts in regular venues, and in the L’Astral venue downtown, Canadian singer songwriter NEeMA did a set taking much of her material from her new album, a collaboration with Leonard Cohen no less.
Much of the festival takes place in the historic old district of Montreal. It’s an area where you’ll regularly hear the sound of horse hooves on the cobbled streets from the horse drawn carriages that wind their way around through day and night. Old Montreal at night is transformed into an oasis of colour as the festival’s evening programme kicks in with plenty of free music on offer and of course many more opportunities to sample good food and drink.
The Highlights Festival is a celebration of music and arts that works on every level and it’s no surprise that Alain Simard already has plans afoot for some more festival fun in the years ahead.