Annual winter music festival brings indie, hip-hop, and chamber pop to Guelph
The winter edition of the world-renowned Hillside Festival, and its seventh installation overall, hosted some of Canada’s best musical acts in various venues in downtown Guelph between Feb. 6 and 8. With concerts at St. George’s Church, the River Run Centre, and a handful of downtown’s staple clubs and cafes, the city was warmed up for the weekend by amazing performances and a sense of overall cheer in the downtown core.
After 24 years of its celebrated summer festival, Hillside Inside was founded in 2008 as a winter festival sharing the same values of community, happiness, and altruism that the July weekend holds dear. When we don’t have the summer’s warm embrace, we still have a vibrant community to keep us warm, and Hillside Inside certainly highlighted this in another successful year.
Between Oliver Mtukudzi’s vibrant Zimbabwean fusion, BadBadNotGood’s intense jazz/hip-hop instrumentalism, The New Pornographers’ varied, literate catalogue of songs, and various other acts including Kalle Mattson, Folly and the Hunter, and Jeremy Fisher, Hillside Inside 2015 offered up something for all tastes and inclinations.
Oliver Mtukudzi and Alex Cuba
For anyone that ever thought that a sit down show might bore them, an evening with Alex Cuba and Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi at the River Run Centre would quickly allay those fears. As the kick-off event for this year’s Hillside Inside, held on Friday, Feb. 6, the festival organizers could not have selected a better opening act. Roaring and soulful, Cuba was the first to take the stage, entering with an acoustic guitar and hair that earned him the tagline “Go with the Fro.” The set consisted of soulful singer-songwriter tracks, and, despite the lyrics being in Spanish, the audience did not even seem to notice, singing along with him throughout the concert. Cuba has the stage presence of a veteran performer but sings with the excitement and spirit of a young musician.
Despite it being a solo act, the performance did not seem that way, and if one were to close their eyes and listen, they might be convinced a full band was on stage. After about a
dozen Spanish songs, and one Blue Rodeo cover, the stage was relinquished to an icon of African music.
Before Tuku entered the stage, his bassist raised the mike about a foot higher, and with good reason. At 63, Tuku is an imposing figure, and a giant of Zimbabwean music. As he ambled onto the
stage to join his band, riffing a clean melody and singing in his deep, growling voice, the crowd was transfixed. Tuku interspersed his show with lengthy songs, jam sessions, dance-offs on-stage and heartfelt advice from what some would call the face of Zimbabwe.
Accompanying the legend were students of his own Pakare Paye Arts Centre, and his band The Black Spirits. Tuku’s music is often defined as Afro-Jazz, but he and fans call it something different: Tuku Music. It’s easy to see why, with the gusto and wisdom Tuku brought to Guelph.
BizZarh, BadBadNotGood and Kid Koala
The de facto party-down centerpiece of 2015’s Hillside Inside programming, Mitchell Hall hosted an evening with some of Canadian hip-hop’s most innovative and difficult to define acts on Friday, Feb. 6. BizZarh, BadBadNotGood, and Kid Koala performed a stacked bill to a rowdy crowd of all ages.
BizZarh, a Toronto R&B/electronic/hip-hop duo, made up of rapper Charli Champ and singer Dollar Paris, opened the night with cerebral, ethereal neo-R&B that maintains a decidedly avant-garde hip-hop edge. Though marred by awkward initial
soundboard problems and a then-sparse room lacking in energy, the duo pressed on to offer a refreshing opening act.
In many ways the enfant terribles of contemporary jazz, both in name and spirit, BadBadNotGood took the stage shortly after. The trio, made up of Matt Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, Alexander Sowinski on drums, and, for a few songs, Leland Whitty on tenor saxophone, performed material mostly off their latest album III, as well as amazing covers of Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut,” and an interpretation of Hudson Mohawke’s beat “Bugg’n”. With endearing stage banter, youthful talent, and challenging compositions, the group revitalizes jazz music
to a wide audience with an almost punk energy and clarity of vision (and the inevitable mosh pit).
Headlining the evening was the virtuosic, Montreal-based DJ Kid Koala (Eric San), performing on five turntables with no sequencer. Chopping and splicing an eclectic mix of genres, ranging from old-school hip-hop, blues, swing, and even metal (his penultimate track was a strange Slayer mix), a sense of child-like wonderment and radiating warmth and humour characterizes Kid Koala’s live performance. The emotional apex hit with his closing song, a remix of Henri Mancini’s “Moon River,” which he plays often and always dedicates to his mother.
The New Pornographers and Operators
Inside of Mitchell Hall, a Sunday school gym, Canadian indie-rock band The New Pornographers warmed hearts and melted faces for Hillside Inside. The audience was left elated when this vibrant group took the stage and opened with their new single “Brill Bruisers,” from their album of the same name.
With seven members present of their eight-plus act, the stage was packed. The collection executed new songs like “Champions of Red Wine,” and played some fan favorites anchored in nostalgia, like “Use It,” off of the 2005 album Twin Cinema. With the wide variety of songs included in their set, you could see how their collection ranged from folksy Canadian ballads to electro-choir-rock.
One song performed really highlighted the depth of the performance and it is called “Testament to Youth in Verse,” off their 2003 album Electric Version. This song really showcased the orchestral and complicated mix of talent available to their collective. In a full choir style, the song rings true with multiple harmonies sung by five members of the band lead by A.C. Newman. The original recording does no justice to the live experience of this song. Comparatively, the harmonies seem hollow, while the live version has so much soul it could elevate the lowest non-believers into The New Pornographers fan club.
The night finished with an encore, and the final song was “The Bleeding Heart Show,” off the album Twin Cinema. With thunderous applause from a sold out venue and ecstatic fans, the group took their leave.
Stars and Hey Rosetta!
On Feb. 8, Stars and Hey Rosetta! sent Hillside Inside 2015 out with a bang at Guelph’s River Run Centre. Hey Rosetta!’s seven-piece band
utilized the large stage to their advantage, making it difficult for the audience to divert their eyes from the stage. The orchestral set up to the room worked in the band’s favour to show-off their full talent. Most of the crowd had smiles on their faces, and standing ovations were given
to multiple songs. Tim Baker (frontman) radiated his genuinity and overall gratitude for the audience.
Stars headlined the show and set to the stage with high energy and enthusiasm. Although the band was a lot smaller than Hey Rosetta!, Amy Millan’s spunk compensated and made for an equivalent sense of stage
presence. Her co-lead singer, Torquil Campbell, showed off his dance moves across the large stage more than once. The band maintained a strong interaction with their audience, with constant commentary and calls for audience participation. Although the crowd itself was apt to sitting idly in their seats, with a handful of fans up and dancing, the show was a blast.
Kid Koala @ Planet Bean
Is there anything Kid Koala (Eric San) doesn’t do? Or, rather, can’t do? It’s hard to say. After seeing his multimedia performance in Planet Bean’s intimate setting on Saturday, Feb. 7, it’s now even harder. Blending personal stories, games with the audience, and an “olfactory score” of scents, designed for scenes from his graphic novel, Space Cadet, Kid Koala’s hour-long multimedia performance was a welcomed, intimate follow-up to his high-energy performance at Mitchell Hall on Friday, Feb. 6. With characteristic humour, friendliness and heartfelt adoration for a sort of “kid culture,” Kid Koala invited an enthusiastic crowd to partake in the enjoyment of music, graphic novels, and the craft of turntabling. With so much music production done digitally (and that’s not a bad thing, per se), there is something to be said for anyone keeping the traditional mediums alive, especially with the unbridled joy in which Kid Koala presents it.