MONTREAL – When bad weather forced the cancellation of a performance by Les Cowboys Fringants at the Festival d’été de Québec this summer, organizers added an extra day to the festival just to give the beloved folk-rock band an opportunity to take the stage.
Lead singer Karl Tremblay had disclosed his diagnosis with prostate cancer a year earlier and had undergone chemotherapy. He defied his illness for the rescheduled show, which drew 90,000 people to Quebec City’s famous Plains of Abraham.
That emotional July performance would become one of Les Cowboys Fringants’ most memorable. “It was something special,” music critic Philippe Rezzonico said in an interview. “Everybody knew that, of course, for him it was a great effort, physical effort to be there. So definitively it changed the perspective.”
Tremblay died on Wednesday at the age of 47.
For many Quebecers, Les Cowboys Fringants under Tremblay represented “the voice of their generation,” noted Rezzonico. He likened the singer to the late Gord Downie of Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip.
“During the shows, he is the one that had maybe the biggest connection with the fans,” Rezzonico said. “Because of his size, of his stature, of his presence on stage, I mean, he was really at (the) forefront for a lot of fans.”
Tremblay’s death has triggered what Quebec Premier François Legault described Thursday as an “immense wave of love and sadness” across the province. Fan gatherings to honour Tremblay were planned across Quebec on Thursday, including on the Plains of Abraham. Legault is offering Tremblay’s family a national funeral to commemorate the renowned singer. Other tributes are pouring in on social media.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered condolences to family and fans of Tremblay on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, referring to Tremblay as an icon and an inspiration. “Karl Tremblay’s impact on Quebec and its culture is unmatched,” he wrote.
Flags were at half-mast in several Quebec cities Thursday, including Montreal, Quebec City and Repentigny, where Les Cowboys Fringants formed after a basement jam session more than 28 years ago, according to a history on the band’s website. (“Fringant” translates roughly as “frisky” or “spry.”)
The group would go on to pick up three Juno Award nominations and win multiple prestigious Félix Awards in Quebec.
For Rezzonico, the close relationship between the members of Les Cowboys Fringants makes the loss of Tremblay all the more poignant. Tremblay was married to band member Marie-Annick Lépine and had been friends with guitarist Jean-François Pauzé since they met in a Repentigny hockey dressing room in the 1990s.
“I was lucky to spend time with an exceptional man,” Pauzé wrote on Facebook Thursday. “The privilege of having been your friend and holding your hand until your last breath. I feel a lot of pain today, but I am happy that your suffering is in the past.”
Rezzonico said the group “meant a lot to a lot of people. They were really a family in the true sense of the word.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.
— With files from Stéphane Blais and Mathieu Paquette in Montreal.
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