Highlands Music Festival Stopped Time at Camp Walden

with TOPS, Fleece, Tia Wood, Wild Rivers, Bells Larsen, Elyssa Plaza, Charlie Houston

Photo: Elie Landesberg

BY Alisha MughalPublished Oct 5, 2023

Cell reception is lost about 10 kilometres before you need to turn off the two-lane highway curtained by thick wilderness — trees changing into autumn dress, ablaze under the flare of the setting sun — and onto the unpaved road lazily winding up to Camp Walden, home for the weekend to the second-annual Highlands Music Festival

Nestled deep within the Haliburton Highlands, Camp Walden sprawls across 750 acres of land, and since the '70s it's welcomed children every summer for camp. But from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, the beloved camp opened the doors of its 50 heavily-graffitied cabins, scrawled with the names of kids who spent pivotal moments of their childhood there, to welcome an exclusively over-19 crowd. 

Guided by the goal of re-enlivening the ethos of music festivals of yore, which were easy and nurturing hotbeds of politically-charged dialogue and action, Highlands Music Festival punctuated its indie-folk and folk-inspired musical acts over the course of the weekend with grounding and wellness activities such as morning yoga, writing workshops, contrast therapy, a book camp and a cannabis-focused bar — all to allow campers the space and stillness to integrate mind with body and facilitate meaningful and lasting connection with others and the land. 

The festival rather amazingly and seamlessly succeeded in imbuing the weekend with a feeling of togetherness and sense of equality as musicians, event instructors and festival-goers all commingled and came together over meals in the vaulted dining hall, passing along stories, experiences and ideas as though they were friendship bracelets. And so when musicians climbed up onto one of three stages scattered across the campgrounds to share their music, a sense of pride settled over the audience members, who beamed in the glow of the talents of the carefully selected acts; perhaps some learned of the stories behind a song or two; perhaps some shared a blanket at the many bonfires or danced together during the chicken finger rave. Perhaps one musician introduced you to another and another until you made friends to last you a lifetime.      

Everything ran smooth as butter over the course of the four days, so much so that it was a near surprise to learn that this was only the second iteration of the young festival. Bringing together musical acts big and small, and economically studding them throughout the days among the various activities, Highlands Music Festival was camp at its most electrifying and edifying best. Leaving the grounds on Sunday — after a breakfast of challah french toast and home fries, skin warm and the sun leaving us feeling sweet and sleepy as milk — our phones lit up a few kilometres away from Camp Walden, carrying stories we missed from a world whose chaos we were grateful to slip away from for a few days. 

If you missed out, make sure to grab a ticket for next year, and in the meantime, here's a recap of a few of the festival's best acts.

September 29


The Montreal-based indie rockers took the stage with an important announcement — their guitarist Jameson Daniel was missing. As lead vocalist and keyboardist Matt Rogers called for Daniel, asking him to come to the main stage, a voice could be heard from the near distance: "I'm coming!" He'd gone back to his cabin to get a sweater, for the sun had set and the day's above-20 temperature had taken a chilly turn. As soon as the guitarist climbed on stage, the band eased into a playfully popping, psychedelic set that got everyone in the audience moving their bodies. With Daniel's glittering guitar, Rogers's twinkling keyboard, co-guitarist and co-vocalist Megan Ennenberg's spitfire presence and drummer Ethan Soil's heart-beat-like grounding, the band delivered an enigmatic — not to mention impossibly cool — performance. Cheekily bantering with the crowd, each member seemed intuitively linked: each member's body responded with exuberant joy, their faces smiling wily smiles, to the effortless skill each of them so obviously possessed as they played. As Ennenberg shredded and sang, she skipped across the stage, her high ponytail bouncing to the beats of stellar tracks such as "Do You Wanna Party?," "Stereo Love" and even a funky cover of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." As the first act of the evening, Fleece delivered a galvanic set it was impossible not to bounce along to — they made it easy to forget the chill.

Tia Wood

After introducing herself and her brother in Cree first, followed by English, the Cree and Salish songwriter from Saddle Lake, Alberta made a blushing apology. "I had a cute outfit planned but it's so cold!" she said, wearing a fluffy coat. Before beginning the music, Wood, clutching a shaker, acknowledged National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. She share that both her parents are Residential School Survivors, she also spoke to the importance of awareness of history, of taking up space and of how proud she was of all the stages across North America that were becoming spaces for Indigenous talent to shine. Sprinkled throughout her set were songs Wood's father composed, which Wood sang in Cree, noting her desire to breathe her father's lyrics to life on a stage as big as the one she stood on. Her brother gently plucked at his guitar as Wood spoke between tracks, making her words, which conveyed her unbridled excitement about the tender community that the festival created, seem like a poem. And when she sang, it was impossible to not feel a current of electricity go through one's body — mighty is too small a word for Wood's voice. Skillfully honed and wielded like an indomitable weapon, Wood's voice rang through the campgrounds like something divine, her brother's guitar a delicate flourish. As she performed a cover of Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind," which she dedicated to her mother, a shooting star sliced through the night sky. When the crowd, which during each of her tracks was reverently silent, erupted into awed applause, it was a blessing, a perfect cover under which to surreptitiously wipe away the tears Wood wrung with her powerhouse performance. 

Wild Rivers

By the time Wild Rivers took the stage, the crowd had thickened and was humming with excited anticipation. Many confessed after the performance that they had made the trek to Camp Walden solely for the purpose of catching the Canadian folk band on the penultimate night of their tour. And boy did the band deliver on a good time. Oozing charisma and charm, lead vocalist and guitarist Khalid Yassein wooed the audience between tracks, as if performing aftercare in the face of their songs' aching heartbreak. Yassein noted it was a bit like the band were breaking up with us, or perhaps walking audience members through the traumatic act of breaking up. "If you're in a relationship tonight, consider it done," he said with a twinkle in his eyes, and everyone laughed. Indeed, it seemed as though the crowd was impossibly and irrevocably in love with the band, watching smitten as each member rollicked around stage singing of pain and needing tenderness, both delivering the blow of heartbreak and suffering it. As couples clung to each other and swayed along to the band's sweet melodies, vocalist Devan Glover, her hair glimmering a silvery-purple, twirled on stage — with arms spread out, she seemed a beam of light lilting across the stage, her voice a light and syrupy balm to Yassein's brutal twang. "No one ever sings along this much," Yassein noted. After their set, people hesitantly dispersed, still feeling Wild Rivers roaring through their limbs.

September 30

Bells Larsen

The Amphitheatre sits a few steps away from Hardwood Lake, right where the forest begins again. The stage is set among the trees, which cloister it like a secret. When Montreal-based Bells Larsen took to the stage early in the evening on Saturday, a sleepy silence fell over the crowd — many had spent the afternoon swimming. Larsen's voice was like a balm after the day's sunny buzz. He walked on stage with an acoustic guitar and a denim-on-denim outfit — the shirt, blue as the sky, was unbuttoned and hung on his frame like a dream. As Larsen traipsed into his set, many in the audience laid down, stretching themselves out on the cool grass. But though many closed their eyes, none fell asleep — Larsen, flanked by a bassist and drummer, breathed his pain so beautifully to life it would have been an injustice to not bear witness to it. With raw lyrics that painted sweet and sombre vignettes, Larsen's songs spoke to a poignantly and honestly lived life. With his voice a confessional hush, he shared lyrical meditations on loss, grief, sugary young love, the unruliness of nature and how small and ostensibly negligible moments and people hold enormous heft in our lives. It was impossible to not fall in love with him for the trust he showed, sharing his beautiful words like precious secrets he knew we would cherish. Leaving Larsen's set, one felt full with a renewed love for life and the nature that encircled us. 

Elyssa Plaza

Elyssa Plaza stood centre stage at the Amphitheatre, all alone, wearing all black and wielding an electric guitar like a scythe. After introducing herself with a shy voice, she embarked on a set that harvested torturous moments of love and loss, the soul-sucking prowess of mental illness, and delivered them in a jazzy, powerfully reclamatory dressing. With a voice that seemed to be harnessing the same mighty power Tia Wood's voice did the night before, Plaza delivered scathing lyrics of confounding heartbreak — the confusion and frustration felt in the face of the meanness of a person we once loved — in a tone that evidenced the strength of survival, of hopefulness. When she slipped into a cover of Cher's "Believe," audience members watched with mouths agape as she hit every note to perfection, her voice so impossibly big and wide and beautiful it seemed nearly miraculous, mystical that it was coming from a single person on stage. If Plaza's lyrics spoke to loss, then her set had the opposite effect, working to endear and ensure a new fanbase.  

Charlie Houston

Houston walked on stage with an easy, effortlessly cool air, like your big sister's popular friend who you want to impress. Wearing a sweater with "Yabba Dabba Doo" emblazoned across its front, she had audience members drinking up every bantering word and playfully earnest lyric. Houston sang sensuously of firsts: first loves, first kisses, first betrayals, first times and first discoveries about the self and others. "Does anyone like Justin Timberlake?" she asked about halfway through her set, and when the crowd roared, she joked in her lush monotone, "Cause he's here," and then went into a groovy cover of "What Goes Around... Comes Around." Her voice contained a syrupy body, and her consonants hung in the air so palpably it felt as though one could pluck them from the atmosphere. If it was anyone's first time listening to Charlie Houston, it would also not be their last — she ensured that she would remain with us for a while.


It was late by the time Montreal-based indie rockers TOPS got on stage, but it didn't matter, because the band met and then exceeded expectations. Jane Penny commanded attention as soon as she stepped to the fore. Dressed in all black, she seemed like a hypnotic lounge singer, perhaps a kind of sibyl. Her airy voice whispered syllables it was impossible to make out against the psychedelic patter of the drums and insistent drive of the guitar and keyboards. Everyone in the crowd seemed to be so beguiled by her, seemed to be beyond the point of understanding — and the feelings, the attention, intensified when she stepped away from the mic, grabbed a flute, and began a reedy serenade. Often, watching Penny, it was easy to forget that anyone or anything else existed — she fluttered about the stage with a slinky knowing, her eyebrows mischievously arched and her arms tracing delicate, tricksy figures in the air. When something made her laugh, the dazed crowd laughed too, even though many didn't know what inspired her twinkling laughter; we just laughed as though stumblingly trying to impress her. TOPS' colourful and dreamy set was a deliciously apt cap to a mystical and empowering weekend, and at the end of it, many walked away from the stage as though in a trance, still under Penny's spell.

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