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'A unifier': Fans and band pay tribute to Les Cowboys Fringants singer Karl Tremblay

A photo and flowers are shown on the stage during an event paying tribute to the late Karl Tremblay, lead singer with Les Cowboys Fringants, in Montreal, Que., Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — There was an outpouring of sadness, tears and love at Montreal's Bell Centre on Tuesday as thousands of music fans joined the remaining members of beloved folk-rock band Les Cowboys Fringants in paying tribute to lead singer Karl Tremblay. 

Tremblay died earlier this month at age 47 after a long bout with prostate cancer, spurring a wave of grief and affection from across the province that led Premier François Legault to offer the singer a national funeral.

Tuesday's event featured music, as could be expected for a man whose voice was an ever-present mainstay of shows, festivals and radio airwaves for over 25 years. The crowd burst into a lengthy standing ovation when Tremblay's bandmates Marie-Annick Lépine, Jérôme Dupras and Jean-François Pauzé took the stage, delivering speeches and eventually leading the crowd in a version of the band's song "Sur mon épaule" (On my shoulder). 

It was a performance reminiscent of one the band's last appearances onstage this summer, when a visibly weak Tremblay, too tired to stand, struggled through the song with the help of a 90,000-person crowd at Quebec City’s Plains of Abraham. 

Pauzé, the band's main songwriter, described Tremblay on Tuesday as "my best friend, my alter ego, the one who embodied my lyrics, my songs, my melodies."

He said his friend was "eminently modest and humble" in real life, but transformed when entertaining crowds.

"He was our figurehead onstage in front of thousands of people, and at the same time a simple, warm and even discreet friend when we were backstage," he said.

The last months of his life, when he pushed himself to perform at a number of festivals despite his failing health, showed Tremblay's "generosity and self-sacrifice," Pauzé said. 

"I think he did it a lot for the rest of us, for his old friends, so that we could have one last lap. He also did it for the public, but I can tell you that it really wasn't easy," he said. 

Lépine, who was Tremblay's partner for more than 20 years and the mother of their two daughters, remembered him as a proud Quebecer, a caring father and a gifted artist who above all loved making people happy.

"Karl was a unifier," she said. "He loved more than anything to bring people together for pleasure and leisure. This is a bit why he created Les Cowboys Fringants with Jean-François in 1995, because the only goal of this crazy duo was to make their friends laugh."

In his last weeks, she said Tremblay suffered but remained a "rock" who never complained. She said his last lucid words were to tell her he would endure as much pain as he could to spend more time with their daughters. 

"I love you, Karl Tremblay," she said. "We love you, big guy."

Les Cowboys Fringants formed after a basement jam session more than 28 years ago, and would go on to pick up three Juno Award nominations and win multiple prestigious Félix Awards in Quebec.

The band’s onstage energy and ability to connect with fans made them favourites with multiple generations of Quebecers. They sang all in French, and many of their songs featured a modern take on traditional folk music, with lyrics that summed up the hopes, ambitions and anxiety of everyday Quebecers. 

Legault told reporters outside the Bell Centre on Tuesday that Tremblay's music united Quebecers, who recognized themselves in the band's songs.

He said the lead singer's death created an incredible "wave of love and sadness" from fans, many of whom felt like they'd lost a member of their own family.

"It’s the whole Quebec nation that sees itself in Karl and the Cowboys," he said. 

On Tuesday at the Bell Centre, a large black-and-white portrait of Tremblay sat onstage next to a bouquet of blue and white flowers and a large Quebec flag. Dupras told the crowd that Tremblay had left behind the gift of showing "how good Quebec is, how empathetic, supportive, sensitive our nation is," he said.

"And if we sometimes forget it, it is united."

At the end of his speech, he went through the motions of introducing Tremblay, as he had done at the end of so many shows. "Ladies and gentlemen, for the last time, make some noise for the only, unique, the eternal Karl Tremblay!" he said, and the crowd roared.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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