For the second consecutive year, it has been my pleasure to attend the Hillside Festival (@HillsideFest) on behalf of your favourite online community, Canada Arts Connect (@CANArtsConnect). One of the most ahead-of-the-curve, yet best kept secrets on the North American festival circuit, this Guelph (@cityofguelph) tradition has managed to turn a largely niche experience into a rising force as we approach its thirtieth year of existence.
Seldom will you find an event of this stature functioning entirely due to the efforts of a countless number of volunteers, and thriving within an environment completely devoid of obnoxious corporate sponsorship. Despite continual growth and expansion, the Hillside Festival maintains a grassroots sensibility that annually draws in concert goers arriving from all over parts of Canada and the United States – as well as a smattering of Europeans who make the trek across the pond.
For those of you who may have read my review from last year, I decided that rather than detailing the weekend on a day-by-day basis, I would tailor each section to highlight a specific aspect of the festival that makes Hillside so unique. As is usually the case, the musicians always serve as the selling point when it comes to fests such as this one. Yet, there are many vital, and often, unsung components that comprise and contribute to the beauty of that which equates to the greater whole. All cylinders were firing this time around, with 2012 looking to have marked its biggest sell out crowd to date.
With the Hillside Festival acting as an extension of the city of Guelph, it is only natural that an emphasis would be placed upon minimizing its environmental impact throughout the weekend. In 2005, the organizers began accepting donations for their “Green Fund”, the purpose of which lies in developing and furthering green initiatives on the Guelph Lake Island site. The festival matches every contribution to the fund on a dollar-for-dollar basis, with the first major project resulting in the Living Green Roof perched atop the permanent main stage. The Green Roof doubles as a vegetable garden, adds oxygen to the atmosphere, and improves surrounding air quality. It also reduces water drainage and reclaims the green space lost during the construction of the stage. This year, the Green Fund has made it possible for the Hillside Festival to partner with the Grand River Conservation Authority in order to install solar-powered showers across the island. The positives of these initiatives benefit not only the guests of Hillside, but the long-term outlook of the park itself.
Hillside is largely featured across four major stages: the Main Stage, Island Stage, Lake Stage and Sun Stage. The latter earned its namesake by showcasing solar technologies which promote the use of sustainable energy alternatives. One of the most intimate settings of the weekend, and the only one to boast of a fully solar-powered stage, the Canadian Solar Industries Association was on site to discuss renewable resources among acoustic, spoken word and the occasional hip hop performance.
Perhaps the most admirable trait of the festival lies in its commitment to reducing the amount of waste accumulated throughout the course of the weekend. Bins are placed throughout the island and are grouped according to recyclables, compost, dishes and general waste. This system of self-sorting substantially reduces the amount of garbage destined for the off site landfill. As well, all food vendors serve using reusable plates and cutlery, and beer is only distributed to those carrying their own reusable mugs. After use, all dishware can be placed into the aforementioned dish bins, where the Hillside “dish ninjas”, as they’re known amongst the regulars, trudge through 16 (!) hour days to ensure the hungry stay fed.
Finally, while certain shoe-sponsored punk festivals were congratulating themselves this summer for reducing the cost of bottled water to $3/per, the Hillside Festival was safety-testing and distributing free water on site for the fourth consecutive year. A water tanker was parked next to the main stage for the duration of the weekend, ensuring all patrons stayed safe and hydrated while the sun sweltered. Once again, waste reduction was at front and center, as the only requirement for quenching your thirst was a reusable mug!
Anyone who has ever attended Hillside understands how vital the volunteer force is to its success. These behind-the-scenes workers operate with little motivation aside from the sense of satisfaction they gain from bolstering their own community.
Little have we heard of the likes of Hillside Coordinator and Transportation crew chief, Cindy Collins, who oversees the complimentary bus service that runs the attendees to and from the island, nor are many aware of Dave Hatch, the Hillside Coordinator and Stage crew chief who is responsible for directing the set-up and tear down of the main stage.
Austin Gibson, a talented self-taught photographer whose work graces this very article (c/o Austin Gibson Photography), is quickly gaining a reputation as one of Guelph’s freshest and most sought-after cameramen. Despite the fact that he earns a respectable income through his work, and the growing increase in demand for his time, he chose to volunteer his efforts this year for what he regards as the peak on the local calendar.
Another key volunteer area that celebrates the greener aspects of Hillside revolves around transport. Several people are deployed throughout the early parts of the day on bicycles with large storage compartments attached to them. Known as the “Live & Love” crew, they ensure that items are brought to and from the island safely and free of emissions. On a hot day with a long walk to the island from the causeway, these guys are a literal godsend. The fact that they do so without the now-standard golf cart is a wonderful thing.
And if you have seen a concert in southern Ontario over the course of the past few years, chances are high that you have been privy to the work of up-and-coming sound technician, Chase Robbs. Maniacally bouncing between stages, the Guelph native is but one of a countless number of seasoned professionals donating their time and experience to add their own contribution to an important Canadian hallmark.
While the music may serve as the starring attraction, those in the know understand what the International Food Bazaar adds to the Hillside experience. For a festival environment, the variety is simply unmatched, with cuisine ranging from the standard North American fare, to those of the Middle Eastern and vegan persuasions.
Old favourites such as the Sausage Brothers and Bread Heads (@heybreadheads) could be found back in their usual locales, and legendary Guelph hot spots such as the Bollywood Bistro (@BollywoodGuelph)and Salsateria were establishing their presence loud and clear.
In particular, one newcomer seemed to be making a lot of noise this year and that was the Joint Café (@TheJointCafe), no doubt in large part to their head chef, Zac Tenwesteneid (@zactenwest). Combining great food, humble service and a vocal social media presence, word has it that their Twitter account helped to reunite at least one frantic owner with a lost wallet.
Feng’s Dumplings was another welcomed returnee at the bazaar. This year, they brought along a new cook by the name of Fred Ford and he embodies everything that makes the weekend so fantastic. A long time Guelphite making his first descent upon the island, he arrived to the festival by his lonesome, armed only with his tent. By the end of the weekend, he met many friendly new faces, reunited with several old ones and was marvelling at how easy it was to fall into harmony with the rest of the community.
As usual, the island housed several arts and crafts vendors on site, each of which are independently owned and operated. Products and services within the Artisan Market ranged from clothing, jewellery, pottery, body art, to handcrafted instruments and beyond. In keeping with festival spirit, a large portion of these businesses are using 100% recycled, re-used and/or organic materials. One vendor that seemed to leave behind a profound imprint was Green Cocoon, brainchild of the talented Julia Masci, who appeared to have half of Hillside outfitted in her one-of-a-kind tie-dyed creations.
Something Hillside seems to have an uncanny knack for is featuring on-the-cusp artists who are on the brink of seeping into the mainstream consciousness. We have seen this countless times before with the likes of Arcade Fire (@arcadefire), Broken Social Scene (@bssmusic), and Metric (@Metric), just to name a few.
Kathleen Edwards (@kittythefool) drew a large crowd at the main stage on Friday evening, one that seemed entranced by her brooding pop sensibilities. When the artist line-up was initially revealed back in February, Edwards was one of the standout names on the marquee and her set did little to disappoint those eagerly anticipating her arrival. She also served as a beautiful transition into the bombastic sounds of the Arkells (@arkellsmusic), who closed out the main stage with effortless gusto. Bouncing between radio favourites and deeper album cuts, the band ploughed through their catalogue like a well-oiled machine, even throwing in a rousing rendition of the Hall and Oates classic, “You Make My Dreams Come True”.
But all on the island were clearly salivating for the Hillside debut of Walk Off the Earth (@WalkOffTheEarth), the Burlington, ON YouTube sensations whose journey thus far has taken them through high profile destinations such as the Ellen DeGeneres Show (@TheEllenShow). The centerpiece of the set came in the form of their wildly popular rendition of Gotye’s (@gotye) “Somebody that I Used to Know”, but a major part of the performance aspect had to do with the ever-changing assortment of instruments thrown on and off stage between musicians and stage hands. The seamlessness of it all was truly an impressive spectacle to behold. However, many were restricted to sound without sight, as the Island stage was packed to the brims, with the high energy set list resulting in a tented environment at least ten degrees warmer than that of the external temperature.
On Saturday, Guelph locals Esther Grey led off the Island stage with a fun and lighthearted batch of summer songs that oozed nostalgia. Talented and quirky, these guys brought a sense of charisma that seemed to win them more than a few new fans. Over at the Sun stage, Missing LinX acted as one of the only hip hop acts to bless this latest incarnation of Hillside. Extremely engaging and possessing an ability to coax crowd participation with ease, this Ottawa foursome of MCs represent a new generation of Canadian rap music, acting in the ’90s tradition of acts such as the Pharcyde.
Meanwhile, Adam Cohen (@ThisIsAdamCohen) was hypnotizing the main stage with a beautifully sombre set of folk-rock. His minimalist trio underscored a terrific personality which kept the crowd alive with some very clever and extremely witty in-between song banter. Gone are the days of the young man who feared encapsulation via the shadow of his father. This latest career phase works largely in favour of the audience, as guests were treated to a highlight sing-along rendition of the senior Cohen anthem, “So Long, Marianne”.
The main stage was shut down on Saturday night courtesy of the Mickey Hart Band (@mickeyhart), the namesake of whom belongs to the living legend and former percussionist of the Grateful Dead. There are three aspects to Mickey and his band that ensured he would be a sure-fire hit amongst the crowd: a heavy emphasis upon polyrhythmic drumming, deep excursions into the art of improvisation and an architect who unquestionably descends from the exclusive lineage of distinguished hippie royalty.
However, as is usually the case, the Saturday night dance parties were largely taking place upon the sub-stages. Rich Aucoin (@richaucoin) put on a show-stopping performance in what arguably could have been the peak of the weekend. With a manic sense of enthusiasm, Aucoin is someone to watch for in the near future. Sing-alongs, confetti drops and bouncing beach balls peppered his extremely danceable set, maintaining the high spirits of the crowd and eventually sending them through the roof. The man is an entertainer in the truest sense of the word and deserves to be acknowledged as this year’s Hillside breakout.
The Bright Light Social Hour (@tblsh) were keeping the energy up over at the Lake stage, bringing a bit of Lone-Star state swagger along with them. A true amalgamation of styles, without any of their forays ever feeling too daring or pretentious, these Texan art-rockers could bounce between the most delicate elements of soul and roar straight into some of the filthiest rock-and-roll imaginable. With a keen understanding of dynamics, they even managed to put it all together whilst demonstrating some genuine techno sensibilities.
Directly following was one of the most daring acts of the weekend, Canadian artist Airick Woodhead, otherwise known as Doldrums (@Doldrum5). His bizarrely frenetic soundscapes consist of a range of obscure samples which are then haunted by Woodhead’s often eerie vocal melodies. There were whispers of an impromptu Doldrums jam which took place at some point within the Volly Village (the fabled volunteer camping area), and it would have been interesting to see this fiercely original project translate within an acoustic environment.
Closing out the Lake stage on this evening were the Irish-born, Canadian transplants, Nightbox (@nightboxmusic). After moving to Toronto in 2010, and earning the co-signs of MSTRKRFT’s (@MSTRKRFTmusic) Al-P and DFA1979’s (@officialDFA1979) Sebastien Grainger, these guys played with the confidence of a group of rock stars in the making. As synth-heavy as they are guitar driven, Nightbox blends a youthful sex appeal with a disco-inspired feel that would compel Don Cornelius to dive into the two-step.
Arguably the most anticipated act of the weekend, and by far the youngest and hippest draw of the festival, BADBADNOTGOOD (@badbadnotgood) eased their way onto the Island stage at 3PM, Sunday. These Toronto natives are barely into their 20s, but have already earned praise from sources as varied as rap weirdos Odd Future (@ofwgkta) and jazz legend Roy Ayers (@TheRealRoyAyers). They even served as the house band at the most recent instalment of Coachella (@coachella). Blending the experimentation of free jazz with the occasional intersperse of hip hop inspired grooves and sampling, perhaps the most exciting aspect of this trio is knowing that they have yet to reach their musical peak. The talent between these three is bursting and in my opinion, the greatest thing they have achieved thus far is making jazz seem cool again to a new generation of youth, something many may have long deemed to be impossible. Immense kudos goes to these up-and-coming gents.
Back on the main stage, Great Lake Swimmers (@GreatLakeSwim) showed why they have come to be regarded as one of the more recent underground favourites we have seen Canada produce. Despite a lack of mainstream press, word-of-mouth has pushed the group into the iTunes and Billboard charts and has made fans out of pop icons such as Robert Plant and Lance Armstrong (@lancearmstrong), to name a few. With a large ensemble featuring the likes of an upright bass, banjo and violin, their laidback vibes kept the audience swaying in sync with the feel-good themes of their increasingly diversified repertoire.
After having to back out of two workshops scheduled earlier in the weekend due to a bout with laryngitis, the Joel Plaskett Emergency (@jplaskett) hit the main stage to great fanfare and deafening applause. One of the most prolific songwriters in Canada, and one who always seems to be on the road, Plaskett kept the crowd singing and dancing as he dipped into all eras of his catalogue. With an understated sincerity, the Emergency toyed with the folky in order to set up some of the catchiest and most buzz-saw riffs of the weekend. Plaskett took the crowd on an emotional rollercoaster and it served as the perfect nightcap to a beautiful weekend.
Finally, over on the Lake stage, the Hillside Festival was ending in storybook fashion, with Bry Webb & the Providers providing the grand finale. The hometown Guelph native, best known as the frontman of the Constantines (@theconstantines), provided the antithesis of his previous band, lulling the crowd with some delicate numbers that integrated lap steels, pedal steels and upright bass. After the hyperactivity of the weekend, the good old local boy showed his appreciation for the city that birthed his career, seeming genuinely appreciative for those who stuck around to see him pay tribute.
After a long three days filled with drinks, food, great people and celebration, the Hillside Festival closed the books on another successful year. For those of you who have yet to attend, I urge you to experience a fest like no other at least once in your life. To those of you who were smiling along with the familiarity of each paragraph here, I look forward to seeing you again next year!