Independent talent shines at Guelph’s most famous festival
The locally cherished Hillside Festival celebrated another year of music, community, and culture on what seemed like the hottest weekend of the summer. The heat, however, did not seem to faze many of the festival-goers, performers, or crew members. The lines for free Guelph tap water may have been longer than the lines at the beer tents, but that didn’t stop people from letting loose, kicking off their shoes, and sweating it out on the dance floor.
Hillside is well-known for being a passionately local festival, promoting homegrown talent, cultural diversity, and environmental consciousness. Over the last few years, many more corporately-sponsored festivals have taken over the area, and though Hillside’s ticket sales may be lacking due to heavy competition, it will always have a loyal following of patrons who return to the island year after year, unconcerned about which “big” names might be playing—if any.
Hillside is the kind of festival where you won’t necessarily find all the best acts on the Main Stage either. Some of the wildest and most intimate moments happen on the smaller stages, or perhaps during one of the workshops held throughout the weekend. Though it is impossible to really dig into every act during a three-stage (four if you count the Sun Stage), three-day festival, here are a few of the highlights (plus more photos to come)!
All the way from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Son Little came to Hillside to rock the Main Stage with a set of rhythm and blues. Son Little’s band was very energetic as they danced and jumped around the stage with wide smiles. However, front man Aaron Livingston stood front and center staring right into the eyes of the audience as he sang his stories seriously and honestly. Son Little’s powerful blues pulled the audience closer to the stage where they danced in a daze to the muddy R&B, giving a warm and gracious applause as the set came to a close with “The River.”
With all of the ’80s-inspired music abound today, it’s refreshing to see a band borrow from one of the more obscure corners of the oft-referenced decade. A first listen to Tim Darcy’s captivating vocals brings instant thoughts of Talking Heads and the legendary David Byrne. Fortunately, there’s far more than that to the Montréal post-punk band’s intricate and worthwhile sound. Vocally, Darcy effortlessly gave the impression that he was conversing directly to the audience; not lecturing but matter-of-factly telling. Ought’s compositions tweaked the standard indie rock formula; repetitive but dynamic, entrancing an audience waiting for what was to come next. The band was not afraid of their songs exceeding the five-minute mark, incorporating elements of drone that still managed to go somewhere beyond obscurity. Such strangeness in an era of overdone indie-rock formulae was certainly welcome.
Local Guelph natives Versa (Alex Ricci and Monika Hauck) brought their analog multimedia audio-visual collaboration to the Lake Stage on the first night of Hillside. The project (or band, depending on who’s asking) incorporated psychedelic delay-heavy rock with live visual paint-marbling projections; prints of which are produced during the set. The combination of adding keys and saxophone to the band’s lineup, as well as the largest screen on which Hauck’s work has ever been projected, clearly gave new energy and to the living, breathing spectacle. Watching the audience deciding whether to witness what was happening on stage or simply stare at the giant canvas above was nearly as entertaining as the group themselves.
Kicking off Saturday’s events with a local flair, The Lifers took to the Lake Stage to give a performance inevitably destined for Hillside. The band is fronted by a pair of sisters, Elivia and Anita Cazzola, who have grown up singing and writing music together in Guelph. As avid fans of the festival, it is clear that they knew exactly what the Hillside audience would be looking for and brought out all the stops: double bass, accordion, cello, ukulele, and all. The six-piece band created a full, harmonious sound that seamlessly flowed between their upbeat, carefree numbers, and the more mellow waltzes. A standing ovation from the audience showed that The Lifers were just what the doctor ordered for a hot Saturday afternoon on the island.
Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, Caveboy are a three piece electro-pop powder keg ready detonate at a moment’s notice. Incorporating thundering percussion and a touch of dreaminess into ’80s and ’90s inspired dance beats, Caveboy kicked up the Saturday afternoon energy level better than a third cup of festival coffee and had Hillsiders fully engaged in the first dance party of the day. The energy of the live show was obviously essential to the band, and even had lead singer Michelle Bensimon jump into the vaulting audience for the closing number. “This might be the most fun we’ve ever had,” said Bensimon, and not a single witness could have doubted the truth of that declaration.
Rounding off a number of impressive Montreal performances was Jean-Sebastien Audet, better known as Un Blonde. Audet and his trio floated in and out of the warm July breeze occasionally letting the wind fill their sails before gently bringing a number to a close. Recorded versions of the band’s material consist of carefully plotted soundscapes and, in contrast, the live set featured stripped down folk-blues songs with a feel similar to that of Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas), but with much more spiritual and thought-provoking lyrics. The act was so perfect for a hot summer Saturday that it’s hard to imagine Un Blonde anywhere other than an afternoon festival stage.
Juno award-winning singer-songwriter Rose Cousins brought along a mixed bag of emotions for the Main Stage crowd. Cousins performed a stripped-down set with minimal instrumentation, focusing on the storytelling aspects of her music. In true folk fashion, Cousins sang songs about freedom and hope with a soft and genuine vocal performance. The audience listened so intently that Cousins periodically felt the need to check on them. “Sorry for all the feelings…but not really,” she teased before delivering another emotional performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Halifax’s Nap Eyes came to Hillside straight from a gig in Quebec to add a bit of garage rock to the festival lineup. With their unconventional, almost “anti-pop” songs, Nap Eyes’ moody performance might have been better suited for a hip music club rather than an outdoor summer music festival. Nonetheless, the band played a solid set of intentionally rough-around-the-edges rock ‘n’ roll and no doubt walked away with a new crop of fans.
Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers played a set of true Canadian folk at the Island Stage. Caplan’s versatility shone as he hammered down chords on his guitar, smashed away at the pianos keys, and roared into the microphone with earnest passion. Sweat poured out of his suit as he poured his heart out with his poetic lyrics. The Casual Smokers were always on the same beat as Caplan, and brought forth a captivating performance.
The Slambovian Circus of Dreams came from Hudson Valley, New York to rock Hillside. “I know the last band said they just finished a 21-day tour of the States. Well, we just finished a 21-year tour of the States, but we couldn’t be happier to be here with our Canadian cousins,” said front man Joziah Longo. The Slambovian Circus of Dreams have their own unique sound that could be best described as either southern gypsy rock or psychedelic folk. Longo explained the band’s friendship with Bowie, and asked for the Canadian cousins to sing with the American cousins a Slambovian cover of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” Their music twanged, their lyrics were surreal, and the band preached the church of Slambovia—a religion that the band must have created in some chemically-induced state.
All the way from Beijing, Ajinai quickly adopted the Guelph festival’s customs, getting the crowd dancing and wishing everyone a “Happy Hillside.” The band combined traditional Mongolian instruments and remarkable vocal work with intricate time signatures and modern rock effects that created a distinct Ajinai sound. The free spirits of Hillside were unleashed when the bass player hopped off the stage and into the crowd to show off a few dance moves nearing the end of their set.
It can be very intimidating to walk out alone in front of a festival audience with nothing but an acoustic guitar, but Donovan Woods took to the Main Stage like a pro, starting his set with a few solo numbers. Known for his songwriting skills, even when Woods’ full band joined in, there was little need for any flair in his performance. Woods captivated the audience with his slow, melancholy songs about broken hearts and broken promises, combining elements of folk and country, fitting right into the Hillside scene before the night started to get a little crazier.
Guelph native Liz Powell led her Montreal-based (surprise, surprise) four-piece Land of Talk through an energetic late night performance at Hillside’s Island stage, often the site of some the festival’s rowdiest sets. Securing their status as more than a nostalgia act, the band played a few brand new songs in the set that you’d swear could have been on their 2006 debut release. In what could be described purely as great Canadian indie rock, the band had the tent bouncing and head-bobbing in sync, particularly during big open chord-fuelled instrumental sections that the band simply dominated.
Karl Denson has toured with the Rolling Stones for their Ole’ Tour, and came to Hillside Festival with his Tiny Universe to present his iconic funk-, blues-, and jazz-driven sound. Denson played the saxophone and flute throughout his set, as well as providing vocals for most of the numbers. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe had many people dancing the night away to their groove, and although they were all great musicians and performers, their show seemed to be more of a blues jam than a planned performance.
If you’ve ever attended one of Hillside’s Sunday morning Gospel Sessions, it’s almost guaranteed to become one of your favourite moments of the entire weekend. The 2016 edition of the morning musical mass proved no different. Consisting of some of the festival’s “folkier” artists, Old Man Luedecke led touching gospel-style sing-alongs that set an elating mood for Hillside’s final day. We won’t say much more than that because these performances are something more than special. For one hour every year, the Island Stage becomes a spiritual place for the musically-driven and you’ll just have to see it for yourself to say you’ve been there.
Another local favourite, Gregory Pepper & His Problems, stole the Lake Stage with one of the highest-energy performances of the weekend. The band’s matching headbands and tie-dye shirts were drenched with sweat after just one song, demonstrating their dedication to rocking out and putting on a stellar show despite the intense heat. Pepper & His Problems gave Hillside the healthy dose of guitar rock that it so desperately needed amid all the folk and electro-pop acts. Although many of their short, snappy songs were slowed down to fill the 45-minute time slot, they did not lack in their usual gusto, producing hook after hook of powerful harmonies and wailing solos. It was only clear how much the crowd enjoyed the band until after their set when they were given a standing ovation. Pepper & His Problems certainly know how to keep their audience wanting more. Every. Single. Time.
Lemon Bucket Orkestra, who have been nominated for a number of world music awards, performed at the Main Stage with a 13-piece band, including accordion, bongos, tambourine, tuba, saxophone, and many other instruments. Their performance was more than to be expected with “Orkestra” being in their name. They battled their violins, kneeled during solos, and jumped in uniform when they resumed their songs. The band was very versatile and unique, and was able to cover many genres and sounds during their set.
Guelph rapper Noah23, and DJ $ensi Bo¥ took over the Lake Stage of Hillside Festival. Noah23 approached the stage wearing a glittering silver outfit, hat, disco ball earrings, and Lennon sunglasses. Noah23 told his fans that he was going to give Hillside 23 songs, and was able to deliver by cutting some short after a chorus. He invited a very willing volunteer to help out with some air guitar on one of his songs. The volunteer jumped around the stage and did a Townshend-style powerslide before hopping back into the crowd to watch the rest of Noah23’s set, which included some freestyle and a rap from $ensi Bo¥. Noah23 was well-versed with lyrics about religion, government, aliens, and the illuminati, and was very courteous to warn the audience of the swearing in his content.
Indie-folk-country band Les Hay Babies from New Brunswick performed a mix of French and English songs, trading off vocals between three uniquely talented singers: Katrine, Vivianne, and Julie. Les Hay Babies would introduce each song with a story about its origin, giving the audience a glimpse into the band members’ small-town upbringings and inspirations. Their songs were made up of relatable lyrics and catchy tunes that had something quintessentially Canadian about them. The set only got better and better, drawing in more of a crowd as passersby were stopped in their tracks by this brilliantly fun group of musicians.
At the beginning of his set, DJ Kid Koala pointed out that he did not have a laptop or headphones and that he was using straight-up vinyl to create his signature scratch mixes. There were two screens above him that showed close-ups of the intricacies in his work, but as the show progressed, there was a lot more to look at on the stage. Kid Koala brought out a group of dancers from New York who played multiple roles throughout the show, from magicians to puppeteers to set-builders. Kids, teens, and adults alike were sucked into this impressive screwball show, not knowing what they were going to see or hear next.
Choir! Choir! Choir!, led by Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman, is not so much a band as it is a community. As 60 or so singers took to the stage, accompanied only by Goldman’s acoustic guitar, a rush of energy filled the island. The group performed choral arrangements of popular songs, encouraging the audience to join in on several classics from artists like the Tragically Hip, David Bowie, and Neil Diamond, as well as some contemporary hits from Lana Del Ray and Justin Bieber. It was clear that the performers were very excited to be on the Hillside stage, taking photos of the crowd from their phones and singing their hearts out at the sun began to set in the distance.
Halifax super group TUNS took the stage late Sunday evening. Consisting of Matt Murphy (Sloan), Chris Murphy (The Super Friendz), and Mike O’Neill (The Inbreds), the power trio brought back the sounds of the ’90s with a straightforward pop-rock set featuring some great harmonies from each member of the band. With already accomplished careers under their belts, the band seemed to be enjoying the experience of touring without any pressure to prove themselves, and that relaxedness shone through in the live set, even if their new project didn’t quite seem to live up to each other’s previous work.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, 2016 Juno Award winner of the Aboriginal Album of the Year, played the very last show on the Main Stage. Her music was very bare and lonesome, yet intriguing. Sainte-Marie’s show began with her singing and playing a few instruments alone on the big, empty stage. However, The Sadies came to join her for the latter portion of her set, which changed the entire dynamic and meaning to Sainte-Marie’s word and rhyme. What better way to close the local festival than an intimate show with a collaboration between Canadian music legends.