Hillside's 40th Anniversary Edition Was a Testament to the Festival's Staying Power

Featuring DEBBY FRIDAY, Zoon, Bibi Club, Nico Paulo, Witch Prophet, U.S. Girls, Golden Feather, Luna Li, Balaklava Blues, Ibeyi and Begonia

Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

BY Allie Gregory, Kaelen Bell and Sydney BrasilPublished Jul 31, 2023

Hillside Music Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary at Guelph Lake Conservation Area in 2023, and with this edition came another year's worth of performances, artist collaborations, values-driven workshops and dance parties — with enough time for a cheeky dip in the lake (or two) in between. 

Running from July 28 to 30, Hillside showcased local and international talent spanning multiple genres and stages. From shoegaze to roots and Afrobeats to "folk noir," there was something for everyone. And with basically every age group in attendance represented, that meant vastly different vibes from set to set. 

But with 40 years of experience to draw on, organizers managed to expertly curate a weekend of creativity and art for a greater purpose — whether that's support for Ukraine or the environment. 

July 28


Photo: Matt Forsythe

DEBBY FRIDAY didn't actually need a crowd. Seconds into her Friday night performance at the Island Stage, she was already spinning across the platform and lunging toward its edge, so full of energy and commitment and self-assurance that the throng of already-sweaty Hillsiders before her almost felt superfluous. Of course, they eventually managed to (nearly) match her energy, and the give-and-take ratcheted into one of the festival's most thrilling performances. Songs like "I GOT IT" and the menacing "HOT LOVE" had people bouncing and chanting with a fervour, and FRIDAY — decked in leather and chains and thigh-high silver boots, every bit the shit-kicking rock star — devoured their devotion and turned it into pure fuel. With FRIDAY on the stage, Hillside started with a definitive bang; whispers could wait. 


Photo: Matt Forsythe

Flanked by a band comprising Sunnsetter's Andrew McLeod, Bad Waitress's Nicole Cain and electric cellist Michael Peter Olsen, Zoon's Daniel Monkman took to the Lake Stage (during an unfortunate overlap with DEBBY FRIDAY's Island Stage set), playing through their latest, the Polaris long-listed Bekka Ma'iingan. McLeod's propulsive percussion anchored Monkman's whammy-heavy performance, while Olsen provided a delightful undercurrent of airy backup vocals.  

Bibi Club 

Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

Hillside's most star-making performance came early in the festivities, with Montreal's Bibi Club somehow managing to follow up DEBBY FRIDAY's vengeful ecstasy without shrinking into nothingness. Singer-keyboardist (and absolute cymbal beast) Adèle Trottier-Rivard and guitarist Nicolas Basque make what they call "living room party music." Their closing performance on Friday night felt much bigger and more brain-frying than that humble description would have you believe, taking the twee-pop-meets-dance-banger textures of this year's Le soleil et la mer to heavier, sweatier places.

Locking eyes and smiling to each other throughout the show, the duo were locked in a white-hot bubble of symbiosis that eventually enveloped the whole crowd. It was a radiant, joyful performance, and the exact kind of show that you come to a festival like Hillside for — chants of "encore!" were met with big, goofy smiles from the duo, and they undoubtedly left the fest with an army of devoted new fans. 

July 29

Nico Paulo

Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

Nico Paulo's stately Saturday afternoon performance at Lake Stage was a spell — the Portugese/Canadian songwriter spun her art rock-flecked folk into gentle mandalas, assisted by a second guitarist and a keyboardist/accordionist/flute player who added subtle strokes of texture to her understated songs. Paulo was light-hearted and engaging throughout, injecting another layer of levity into her sun-dappled music; the heart-sick ultimatums of "Now or Never" felt like playful banter in her hands, and she sent the crowd (still slightly damp from a healthy mix of rain and sweat) out into the approaching evening on a wave of light. 

Witch Prophet

Photo: Matt Forsythe

Before her Lake Stage set late Saturday, Witch Prophet's Ayo Leilani made sure Hillside knew her name; that's Witch Prophet, not Witch Project, as an announcer erroneously introduced her during her Sun Stage session with Owen Pallet and Tarta Relena — get it right! As she would have it, no one in attendance at her solo slot would soon forget her name, as she and wife/producer SUN SUN (in their coordinated outfits) and their band delivered a set that was both rapturous and heavy-hitting. It began with an a cappella loop track, repeating the question, "What if I told you who I was?" and saw the songwriter delivering Gateway Experience cuts "Bird's Eye View" and "Energy Vampire," ending with a Rage Against the Machine cover that got both muscle men and children alike to their feet shouting, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

U.S. Girls

Photo: Matt Forsythe

A star in the truest sense — individual, unpredictable, combustible and eerily cool — Meg Remy swept across the main stage with an immovable sense of total embodiment. A spat of set-delaying technical difficulties ("Bless This Mess, right?" Remy quipped) couldn't dampen the deep-blue embers that Remy and her band conjured, and even a second flare of tech mishaps with Edwin de Goeij's keys felt strangely appropriate during "Future's Bet," as Remy and Geordie Gordon harmonized, with knowing smiles, that "Nothing is wrong / Everything is fine / This is just life."

The band's set felt cruelly short, but Remy and co. used every second to their advantage — the love was palpable, as Remy tucked a fan-gifted bouquet of wildflowers into her collar and reached out into the crowd, clasping hands and sending twirling tykes into fits of giggles with her focused attention. As the band grooved through a selection of songs, mainly from this year's elastic wonderland Bless This Mess, it was hard not to feel that you were witnessing someone undeniably in their element. There were more energetic performances this weekend, shows that were louder, shows that were more surprising — but no one commanded the stage, felt the pulse, quite like Remy. 

Golden Feather

Photo: Matt Forsythe

It's as if the Lake Stage's full-day incense smoulder was only in anticipation of its Saturday night closer. After some pre-show hugs, Golden Feather launched right into a jammy southern rock flirtation with funk. It was all on the nose — eccentric garb, short solos introducing each of their six members, and an unwavering, immensely tight groove — lending more than just saxophone to their jazz-fusion touch.

The Hamilton act's danceability transcended their calling back, levelling them up past pastiche. My friend's dad remarked, "All the dads are loving this," to which another dad countered, "Absolutely!" To be clear, it's a high compliment to have such reach — and a tent full of swaying suggested as much.

Luna Li

Photo: Matt Forsythe

Closing the night out with a lush set of jammy dream pop, Luna Li and her band remained stoic through sound issues, with the bandleader switching between guitar and violin gracefully. The heat from the day before had fully subsided, and the brimming Island Stage audience and their spirited swaying subsequently warmed the late-night performance. The artist born Hannah Bussiere Kim played through Duality cuts like last year's "Cherry Pit," as well as extended jams from her various EPs. An alien-esque figure in her own right, Kim's overhead was dappled with an orange glow and an inflatable green, glowing UFO, whose delicate shell was protected by a nurtured, charmed crowd.

July 30

Balaklava Blues

Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

Formed by Mark and Marichka Marczyk and Os Kar of Toronto's Lemon Bucket Orkestra, "folk noir" trio Balaklava Blues' blend of Ukrainian traditional music, EDM and trap is best summarized by Hillside's own description: "Think Dakha Brakha remixed by A Tribe Called Red and then played live by Thom Yorke fronting Portishead." With each sat upon their own kick drum (Mark using his hand-adorned violin as a makeshift drumstick on a couple occasions), donning matching jackets and — you guessed it — balaclavas, the band ripped through their allotted 45 minutes on Sunday afternoon, bringing the audience to their feet within the first few seconds of their opening song. An impassioned speech about ways to support war-torn Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian conflict toward the end of the set reminded the crowd that Hillside is as much a music festival as it is a vessel for activism. 


Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

A somewhat sleepy and content Sunday evening crowd was more than ready to be lifted up by Ibeyi's sharp and bubbly call-to-action pop, becoming noticeably more engaged as the French sister duo swung their hair and pounded their drums. The duo — twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz — drew in the crowd with a giddy ease, a beacon of light as dark clouds rolled over the main stage's living roof. Luckily, the rain never broke, though you got the sense the crowd would have stuck around anyway; "You're so good!" Naomi beamed as the audience sang along to the stuttering "Exhibit Diaz," prompting the sisters to lead the crowd in an extended sing-along outro. The feeling was clearly mutual. 


Photo: Matt Forsythe

"We played here four or five years ago but this is our first time on the main stage, so that's cooooool," Begonia sang in a goofy operatic voice as she warmed up the crowd before her glittery, rambunctious Sunday night set. Her voice, as elastic and impressive as always, lit up the steadily darkening air as she and her band swung through songs like "Cold Night" and "Married by Elvis" with a breezy lightness. However, it was her sombre, beautiful performance of "Butterfly," (which was preceded by a rambling meditation on the Church, bisexuality, Coldplay and shame that was never anything less than entertaining) that truly shaped the show — and, I kid you not, a butterfly flew over the bustling crowd just before the track began. Sometimes magic is in the little things. 

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage