Hillside Festival Guelph Lake Island, Guelph ON July 27 to 29

Though it’s no longer the well-kept secret it used to be, trying to explain the utopian experience of Guelph’s annual Hillside Festival to the uninitiated remains a bit complicated. The three-day event on bucolic Guelph Lake Island is the antithesis of most summer rock festivals, boasting an eclectic line-up of music and arts that’s volunteer-run, resolutely anti-corporate and environmentally conscious. Saturday afternoon kicked off with blues singer Ndidi Onukwulu giving lessons in sheer stage presence, her sultry voice framed by guitarist Madagascar Slim’s swampy licks. Buoyed by front-man Torquil Campbell’s delightfully profane banter and arch vocals, Memphis offered up a surprisingly muscular treatment of their dreamy pop tunes. Do Make Say Think ushered in the blissful cool of evening with their epic instrumental soundscapes coloured with washes of brass and Julie Penner’s sweet violin. The road-hardened Apostle of Hustle, stripped down to only three players, took Andrew Whiteman’s complex songs into new and interesting territory, while Emily Haines also scaled back in presenting her sombre solo material with only a grand piano, collaborator Todor Kobakov cueing beats on a sampler and Guy Maddin’s eerie film projections in the background. In contrast, the Dears closed out the night on the main stage as if they owned it, drawing the emotion out of their newer Gang of Losers material to (melo)dramatic effect under a blanket of stars. A blissful Sunday morning workshop saw members of Ohbijou, Immaculate Machine, Forest City Lovers, and Basia Bulat’s band putting their own twist on cover tunes — from Ohbijou’s chirpy take on Annie’s pop nugget "Heartbeat,” to Bulat’s full-throated turn on "Stand By Me.” Faced with a rabid hometown crowd that were on their feet even before Guelph/Oshawa upstarts the D’Urbervilles took the stage, visibly ill front-man John O’Regan led his quartet through a blistering set of spiky post-punk aided and abetted by snaky synths. The charming Bulat also took home "next big thing” honours, ably fronting a mini-orchestra (that included no fewer than four string players) and leaving the crowd wanting more of her warm voice and fable-like songs. Exhaustion set in by the time newest Arts & Crafts signees Los Campesinos! made their North American debut, but the Welsh septet not only charmed the pants off all in earshot and managed to fuel an all-out dance party in the process. "We’re so happy to be here, you have no idea,” genuinely awed front-man Gareth Campesinos declared. "This is an awesome festival.” Well said.