Published Jul 26, 2011To really enjoy Hillside, one must check their inhibitions at the door. After 28 years, the three-day event, held adjacent to Guelph's manmade, eponymous lake, has become more than just a music festival -- it's a culture all its own. Free, refillable water stations, ample bathrooms, on-site camping, four spacious stages, great food, and free accommodations and food for all volunteers -- who both essentially run the festival and fill out a fifth of its audience -- are all wonderful things, but it's something less tangible that makes Hillside special. Nobody attends Hillside to be seen; they attend to be. And being, if you ask any of Hillside's 6,500 fans, volunteers and performers, is easiest to do to a good soundtrack.
Montreal's Karkwa were among the first bands to experience the thrill of playing to a Hillside crowd, as they took the stage late Friday night. Their tight, rousing set, culled almost entirely from their Polaris Music Prize-nabbing Les Chemins de verre, quickly whipped the Island Stage crowd into a mosh pit. The Midway State had a harder time of things, as the crowd seemed hesitant to fully engage with the band's melodramatic tunes, but by the end of their set, attendees were nodding to the Toronto quartet's sound. One Hundred Dollars capped the first night of the festival perfectly; singer Simone Schmidt's voice is perfectly wrought with equal parts honey and bile, and she spat both with conviction to an appreciative, swaying audience.
Saturday, the festival's first full day, began at the Lake Stage, where Toronto-born country crooner Doug Paisley easily tamed a tentful of Hillsiders with the help of folk duo Dala. Paisley's buttery baritone made for the perfect hangover cure (a Merle Travis cover didn't hurt); Dala's chipper numbers were charming, but their too-cute tunes occasionally grated at 11 a.m. A split set later on featuring Snailhouse and Callers saw both bands well-matched, as the former's countrified, acoustic sound fleshed out the latter's more sprawling, post-rock leanings.
Other artist collaborations included sets featuring Hooded Fang and Memphis (who, together with festivalgoer Gentleman Reg on vocals, banged out a cover of the Hidden Cameras' "Learning the Lines"), and Dan Mangan, Hannah Georgas and Mother Mother, who brought the most noise of the day yet with spry, full-bodied takes on each other's songs. Hillside makes full use of its performers, so One Hundred Dollars, Mangan and Hooded Fang all returned for headlining performances later Saturday. A stripped-down, sincere set on the Lake Stage by One Hundred Dollars bested Mangan's Main Stage appearance in terms of quality, but his set, judging by sheer crowd volume, was easily one of the festival's most anticipated.
Orchestral pop upstarts Lost in the Trees provided one of Hillside's pleasant surprises as they scooped up a Lake Stage's worth of new fans with songs from their Anti- debut, All Alone in an Empty House, but it was Saskatoon's bluesy classic rock quartet the Sheepdogs who won the most new fans with an absolutely electrifying set of throwback rock'n'roll, which gleefully checked the boxes beside every rock star cliché, in the best possible way (Sheep's wool vests, anyone?). Hollerado closed the night with an energetic serving of their fun-loving tunes, buoying the churning crowd with favourites like "Juliette" and "Americanarama," wide grins plastered across their faces.
Sunday played host to a another series of excellent sets, mostly by musical veterans. Niger, Africa's Etran Finatawa played an early and excellent collaborative workshop set with Seun Kuti's Egypt 80. Their complex rhythmic churn was complemented nicely by the funkier sounds of Kuti's band, and quickly had Hillsiders dancing once more -- no mean feat in the sweltering afternoon heat. A Pop Montreal showcase followed, where Pat Jordache played a compelling set of pop tunes carrying the influences of his departed bandmate Merrill Garbus (tUne-yArDs) but marked by his own sense of melody. Grimes played a stirring set of her hypnotic electro pop that had people moving once more, and Gobble Gobble, who closed the showcase, wowed the audience with a series of wacky and gimmicky stage antics that prioritized hitting plastic shovels together over adding musical flourish to their spastic set.
Kevin Drew played a pleasing set, thanks largely to the top-notch playing of his supporting musicians the Beauties, who, along with help from Broken Social Scene member Lisa Lobsinger, churned out a rousing rendition of Arcade Fire's "Empty Room." Highlight performers Braids wowed with a typically captivating set, one they've had time to master since their success following last year's Hillside appearance, and Shad followed up with an equally inspiring set, backed by a host of great musicians that brought tunes from TSOL and The Old Prince to dynamic life, especially on "We, Myself and I."
Closing the night were sets by Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 and Canadian indie favourites Sloan. On the Main Stage, Kuti and co. were given more room to include their dozen or so members, so that they could blast out full-band renditions of newer tunes and old favourites like Fela Kuti's "Shakara," while festival closers Sloan played a small set of tunes from their new LP before travelling back through their beloved catalogue and finally being cut short due to curfew.
That the remaining crowd clearly wanted more amply proved why Hillside is one of Ontario's best festivals: artist-fan connection on a level unheard of in major city festivals, despite boasting some of Canada's premier indie acts. Keeping hydrated is one thing, but maintaining the same boisterous energy for three straight days while going unshowered and sleeping on the ground? That's something special, and it happens every year at Hillside. You just have to show up and give in.
To see photo galleries of Hillside, please head here and here.