here are two things to keep in mind when going to a concert you’re planning to write about: the first is a variation of the old adage about plans never surviving contact with reality, and the second is yet another application of the observer effect; knowing that you intend to pass on something about what you’re seeing to other people effects how you see it, and even what you choose to see. Unsurprisingly then, the most in-depth festival reports tend to come from seasoned hands, campers looking forward to their fifth or tenth year of camping in mud at Glastonbury or being dazed by the sun at Coachella. Your first time at any festival should be filled with wide-eyed discovery, and vets are better both at unselfconsciously falling into the normal routine of a patron and also of not planning out an article to the point where the actual event obviates all that work.
The Hillside Festival takes place in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and it has every year since 1984. I’ve lived in Guelph since 2000 and for the entirety of that time I’ve been the music guy (in your circle of friends, most of you are probably that guy or girl too). Hillside has grown from its roots as a folk festival to host significant (and in some cases career-making, at least in Canada) performances from the Arcade Fire, Constantines, Final Fantasy, the Weakerthans, Metric, Stars, and Broken Social Scene. It draws people from across Ontario (and increasingly from further afield) and is one of the biggest deals in Guelph, with over a thousand volunteers running the show and enough of the city attending that half of downtown shuts down for the weekend. My parents used to go, even after they moved out of Guelph. Surely I’m one of those vets, an experienced but not jaded patron who can guide you around this increasingly important but (to date at least) still unique and rather admirable event?
Well, no. I’ve avoided the festival for years, via a combination of reasons practical (weekend passes for the three-day festival sell out within days in recent years), social (most of my friends don’t go), and pointlessly idiosyncratic (hippies). There had never quite been that magic combination of acts I desperately wanted to see, money at hand, and social reasons to snap up one of the $75 early bird weekend passes, let alone to line up early in the morning for them, and honestly there are pleasures to be found in an unusually quiet weekend in Guelph. Anyone who listens to enough music, or processes enough of any form of mass entertainment develops after a while a slight suspicion of the universally acclaimed in any case and having person after person say “I can’t believe you haven’t gone! You’d love it!” made me wary.
So this year I got interested in going via two things: The chance to cover Hillside for Stylus, and the fact that my girlfriend had nabbed one of those early bird passes months ago. Requests were submitted, faxes were sent, and a week or so before July 27th when the 24th Hillside Festival opened its gates I received word that I was in. Of course, coming so close to the weekend I found myself working two of the three days, which only promised to make the whole thing more exciting.
The festival itself is different from most in North America in a few ways. Or at least it seems that way via the questions I asked the musicians I talked to and people I know who’ve been able to compare. As I said, there are over 1,000 volunteers each year at Hillside now, and except for the vendors and musicians it’s not much of a stretch to say that the volunteers do everything. The whole thing is put together in a terrifyingly intricate way to ensure that these volunteers, who of course get in for free, have enough time to check out some of the acts in addition to guiding traffic, providing security, helping musicians set up, doing dishes, and so on ad infinitum. Although there is a volunteer- and performer-only backstage area where the unpaid staff eats their meals and generally relaxes (and where you can see just how planned out it all is; from the outside it looks seamless) for the most part the boundary between patron, staff, and performer are remarkably porous; everyone just wanders around the site, on an island in man-made Guelph Lake, checking out what they can. There’s a conscious effort to make the whole affair environmentally friendly: While there may be other summer events that give away unlimited free water in an effort to prevent waste (new this year, and as announced from the stage responsible for an estimated 10,000 fewer plastic bottles in the landfill) I certainly haven’t heard of them. Food is served on washable plastic plates, and if there was a single corporate presence at the festival they were remarkably mute.
Actually I’m being disingenuous; there is no such presence. Hillside was established as a non-profit in 1987, the same year it moved to Guelph Lake Island from downtown Riverside Park. I can only assume there’s a hill there, as the name is now mostly just picturesque rather than descriptive. While the festival seeks out grants and other donations and also sells tickets and merchandise to keep things going the most advertising you see on site is the various food booths, which tell you where in Guelph or nearby Kitchener-Waterloo you can find them. I’ve heard good things about festivals like Glastonbury and Roskilde in terms of seeming and being so non-commercial, so “about the music,” but for now Hillside has the definite advantage of being relatively small. They sell ads in their program (nearly all of which seem again to be local businesses) but there was never a moment of “____ presents so-and-so at Hillside!” As the festival gets bigger every year there’s some worry this will be lost, but talking to friends who’ve been coming here for a decade or more I’m told that if anything, the ways in which Hillside are expanding (the free water, the free shuttle bus to and from downtown Guelph) recognize the informal, communitarian, environmental, and local aspects that make Hillside so unique and so endearing.
But I’m skipping ahead; I walked into Hillside deeply skeptical, thinking that I would be confronted by a bunch of smarmy, ostensibly socially conscious yuppies either pushing their agenda condescendingly on the rest of us or paying only the mildest lip service to the ethos that Hillside explicitly tries to include in their weekend of “Great Music. Great Food. Great Fun.” What follows isn’t just an account of what everyone I talked to seemed to agree was one of the best festivals in North America but also the story of how I was slowly, unwillingly seduced by it, compelled to stop looking so frantically for story angles and soundbites and do what everyone else does at Hillside: Slow down, have a few beers, eat some food, listen to some music, and relax.
In addition to full weekend passes Hillside sells a certain number for each day, and Friday’s are the least desirable. The festival only runs its three stages from 6-11 pm and while there are certainly draws the higher profile acts tend to be saved for Saturday and Sunday. To make matters worse, I’m working 2-9 today, and we don’t get the store closed until 9:30, which means I just write the day off entirely. In the middle of my working day I take an extra long lunch break to drive out to the site (roughly fifteen minutes from downtown to there, followed by an interminable wait in a line of cars) to grab my press pass. Already the mass of people funneling into the site is pretty impressive, but the small tent where we all get our passes runs smooth and quick. I get my all access press pass (not actually all access, but it was nice of them to say so): A sparkly pink wristband. This will provoke no end of hilarity amongst my friends for the weekend. The lineup of cars was so long and so necessarily slow (at one point several streams intersect and have to be funneled together by volunteers) that I actually jumped out at one point to walk ahead and grab my pass. My photographer and some friends continue on, not having to return to work.
The lineup tonight is pretty diverse and, I’m told, entertaining: Chumbawamba in their acoustic, rabble rousing mode are the biggest name and I’m told were excellent live by both friends that have followed them since the very beginning and those expecting “Tubthumping.” Local electro-pop duo Habitat are probably the only act I really keenly miss, partly because the band is breaking up just as members Sylvie and John have. I only saw them once, at an on campus art showing and that was apparently their “trashy” version, but it was loud and fun and I’m a sucker for last shows. The rest of the night is a smorgasbord of names that both myself and most of our readers are likely to find teasingly suggestive but also bafflingly unknown: In Flight Safety, the Golden Dogs (reputed by a musician coworker of mine as one of Ontario’s best live acts), wearemang, Gorilla, My Love, and a few I actually know, primarily the vaguely Van Morrison-esque Martin Sexton (a favorite of my mom). The festival’s site has blurbs for them all in the schedule, but as with any such venture you’re not going to get an unbiased take there.
As far as I can tell this is mostly a night to start checking out the site, set up your tent if you’re camping on the island and generally ease into things, an opportunity I will sorely miss. Much of the evening’s entertainment is taken up by something else I haven’t heard of in connection with other festivals; the three main stages are often offered up to planned in advance workshops that have an impromptu feel. A series of performers (sometimes multiple bands together, sometimes a mix of people from differing acts) who have some sort of tenuous connection are given a stage and a suggestive name and then get an hour to see what happens. In practice the times I check these out during the weekend each performer takes turns picking a song to play and the other musicians join in when they can, which means these stages offer you the opportunity to hear what are almost certainly one offs; an indie rocker accompanied by the fiddles from a country band and someone beatboxing, Madagascar Slim accompanying Dya Singh. At worst these are interesting failures, but the festival seems to have the knack of putting together sympathetic acts, and some of the more intriguing things I’ll hear this weekend will be on these stages. It’s part of the charm as well as the weakness of these workshops, though, that you have to be there to have any idea what they’re like.
I work again, until 5, which means I miss such tantalizingly (or not) titled acts as the Bebop Cowboys and Dance Hall Free For All as well as workshops that blends together Apostle of Hustle and some Do Make Say Thinkers and one called Bassindeface. I also miss Stars side project Memphis, which I will shortly regret. Although my unholy lust for lower register vibration has been thwarted once again, I catch the free shuttle to the festival in high spirits, especially after we happen to get the bus with air conditioning (it’s actually asked why the bus has such a wasteful, environmentally unfriendly thing by some patrons, but luckily for my sun-hating self the bus driver points out that it’s for older patrons of the festival and those who have infants with them). I arrive an hour or so sooner than I planned to meet anyone, and after a brief trek around the curve of Guelph Lake I get to the site itself and quickly become confused, even with the map in my free program. I’m right in front of the Main Stage, and somewhere out there are the Island and Lake and Solar stages (the latter run 100% off of the sun, as you’d expect), and there’s the merchandise tent, there a beer tent and there some vendors booths, selling various clothes and accoutrements and food. And everywhere people, wandering aimless, setting up seats on the grassy main stage area, refilling water bottles, milling around. The whole thing is very hard to process for me at first. As you walk around music and voices from all four stages blend and the whole thing seems more like an enormous, incredibly laid back gathering in someone’s backyard. Maybe Ray from Achewood’s, someone that rich and someone who would decide that setting up some enormous stages around to give people the right vibe would be worth the expense.
That 1 Guy
I’m only more disoriented by That 1 Guy, aka Mike Silverman, who might be here because of his association with Ani DiFranco (who is this year’s headliner, and I tell you I just couldn’t be more excited about that) but who also plays something that looks like a cross between plumbing and a gigantic tone arm, as well as some assorted drum machines and noise makers. At first he sounds like a swarm of wasps on steroids, and then he smoothly segues into sliding bass pulses that remind me of Spiritualized. I’m not sure I’d want to own a record of his, as from the looks of things his lyric writing bent is more Primus than anything else, but in the open air at a palpable volume his head buzzing tones, sudden shifts of direction and relentless weirdness is a great introduction to events. I’m still lost, however.
Luckily I run into, and by run into I mean “pester,” Stars/Memphis frontman Torquil Campbell, standing in line for some ice cream like everyone else. Even more luckily, he will prove to be one of the nicest people I’ll meet all weekend, and my tentative and brief inquiry as to any sort of backstage area is met with a brief but helpful raft of advice and well wishes. He’s actually nice enough I wish I’d caught Memphis’ set, despite never having heard them before. I head backstage long enough to get my bearings, and run into some musicians I haven’t seen in a long while, all of whom I ask if I can talk to later and all of whom I don’t wind up tracking down as my weekend slowly and enjoyable slides off the rails. An acquaintance seeing me asks how I’m doing, and I can only mutter out “a little lost” as I try to figure out where I was supposed to meet people.
Luckily another friend finds me and on hearing this is my first Hillside promises to get me “so high,” which I only miss out on due to my poor timing. After catching no more than a casual glimpse at Rock Plaza Central’s promising set (I wander into a burst of frantic horns and thumping that somehow bring to mind Okkervil River once the singing starts) I do manage to meet friends eventually in time to check out the first act I had planned to see, the Stylus-approved Besnard Lakes. After reading Derek’s review I wasn’t sure what to expect but I see I’ve scrawled down “Like Silversun Pickups if they were any good. 3 gee-tars (My Morning Jacket?).” I also have a note here about how there’s dancing music and there’s drug music and seeing people confusing the latter with the former is kind of hilarious, but I’m not sure drug music quite gets it; there’s almost a space rock feel to their live set today, and they sound great in the Island Stage’s tent.
I manage to talk to Jace Lasek from the band for a few minutes, and start asking him whether there’s any significance to playing Hillside aside from just another show. He grins and tells me that I’d be better asking someone who takes his music more seriously than him about that. It’s the last show of their tour, and while the Besnard Lakes are indeed Canadian they’re from Montreal and as Patrick Krief from the Dears echoes they don’t really hear about Hillside out there. Which is typical; us Ontarions tend to assume we loom larger in the mental lives of the rest of the country than we actually do. Jace is exceptionally good company, laid back and funny, but although he likes the festival he doesn’t have much to say about it, so I leave him to his quest for beer. He and Patrick do both mention that Hillside is less corporate than the other festivals they’ve played, which is something everyone I talk to appreciates, although the intensity of that appreciation varies from fervent wishes that other shows would or could take this approach to a sort of shrugged that’s-nice take on it.
On my way across the site again I catch a few minutes of perennial Hillside favorites Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. A Canadian folk/blues rock supergroup of sorts, Tom Wilson (ex of Junkhouse), Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden formed the group as a one-off to pay tribute to Willie P. Bennett, which means even now that they’ve decided they work well enough together the band is still manna from heaven to those attending who remember Hillside’s roots as a folk festival that was more likely to get Bruce Cockburn to play than the Arcade Fire. It seems, at least this year, that the balance is tipping towards indie rock but there’s certainly still enough a folk influence around. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings are performing in matching black suits with matching flames on them and the crowd watching raptly skews a good bit older. They’re good, but most definitely not my thing.
What is more my thing is an act that not only long-time Hillside goers but most of the audience finds pretty incongruous, if pleasantly so: Dragonette. Dan and Martina didn’t exactly meet at Hillside, but Martina did admire Dan from afar when he played the festival was the bassist for “live progressive breakbeat house” trio the New Deal (much better and funkier than you might think). She also played Hillside herself as a folky solo artist. Now they’re married and playing their first Hillside show together, and as someone who has been a fan for a while their set is everything it should be. Loud, buzzy, energetic and most of all fun—they’re the sort of band who can cover INXS’ “Need You Tonight” and make it sound both inevitable and a very good idea. I wander away to check out Do Make Say Think briefly, but the sound they make as I approach brings to mind “wibble” and although they quickly ascend to something more striking (and, yes, Godspeed-esque) my ears are too hungry for sugar pop to stick around and give it time to build.
With Dan from Dragonette I talk to my first musician of the weekend who’s come to Hillside as a patron, and naturally enough he has nothing but praise for the place. They were actually nervous about playing their kind of music at the traditionally more sonically rustic/”authentic” Hillside, but the fact that the crowd was both full and dancing only shows that most attendees are up for anything. He does note that a good festival is only “half about the music,” and as with most people I’ll talk to this weekend talks up the “camping vibe” of Hillside. And he doesn’t just mean tents on the island; even as I’m running around trying to see everything I can and not stopping to talk to friends for longer than five minutes I’m already getting the impression that attending Hillside is halfway between camping and going to a concert. You just sort of stroll away from your site over to the stage and back again whenever you feel like it. Even most of my friends drift in and out of shows driven not so much by an avidity to hear everyone as an unconcern with any sort of normal protocol. You always wind up making your own experience at a multi-stage show, but at Hillside more than the others I’ve been to people don’t seem to be set at staying at stages for the duration of shows.
Meanwhile, in addition to trying to catch all the music I can I’m spending most of my time trying to meet up again with my girlfriend and others; one of the by-products of the festival’s fantastically relaxed air is that without pretty clear planning you wind up wandering the walkably small grounds looking for people for an hour at a time. I’m not yet accustomed enough to approach like a vacation instead of a job so I’m actually pretty stressed—I can’t see both Dragonette and Do Make Say Think! I’m not sure I’ve interviewed enough musicians yet! I’ve only encountered some of the people I said I’d meet there! This will all seem very silly tomorrow, but at the time I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off.
Until, in my first truly amazing musical moment of the weekend, I’m stopped dead in my tracks. Apostle of Hustle in the same tent I’d seen the Besnard Lakes and Dragonette in seems to be the draw for most of my friends and most others I talk to, but neither their record nor the live performance suggest I’ll be anything but bored if I stay. Emily Haines’ debut with the Soft Skeleton, meanwhile, is one I found interesting and had filed for further listening but then promptly forgot about (my further listening pile approaches epic proportions). If anything I had reservations about her playing the Main Stage at Hillside; in the open air, her less presupposing solo work might not work as well as some of Metric’s brasher material.
Seeing that it was her at a piano, one guy providing beats and a screen playing black and white films (both fitting and just as predictable as you’d expect) made me even more dubious. But her voice and the piano carry beautifully, even to the pathway where I’m standing that marks the edge of the Main Stage audience area, and as she launches into “Our Hell” my breath is very nearly taken away. She follows it up with an even more impressive rendition of “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” and although I find myself wandering off a few times to find people I mostly stay rooted, catching fantastic airings of “Detective Daughter” and “Doctor Blind” as well. The sheer quality of her live show as well as a song called “Sprig” where she sets the words of her deceased poet father Paul Haines to music suggests that Marcello was utterly right about her album. I’ve listened to it a few times since and that live performance, just beats and piano and Emily singing with cool control and power in an “I Heart Metal” shirt proved to key to unlocking it. I belatedly regret not including it on my 2006 best-of list.
Shout Out Out Out Out
Backstage I consider trying to talk to Haines, but she has the haunted, slightly haughty look of someone who’s recently had to get used to being even more the center of attention and isn’t sure how she feels about that and she looks at the line of volunteers and well-wishers craving conversation, autographs, time with something approaching fear, so I decide the better of it. She does talk with unguarded delight with a young girl who has apparently been writing songs and loved Haines’ show, which makes sense given her own relationship with Robert Wyatt and others. Being photographed at the same time as Haines for a local free weekly is Torquil Campbell, however, and I do manage to chat with him briefly.
He would like to go on record as stating that Hillside is his “favorite festival in the entire world” and that compared to it the bigger European festivals he’s played are “shit.” That’s the closest to negativity the nicest guy at the festival has, though; he’s also the first to tell me that, yeah, Stars playing Hillside for the first time was an opportunity not just to gain some new fans but to realize now how many fans they already had, that they had ascended the next step of the latter. We talk, in what is rapidly becoming my theme for the weekend, about how much smaller scale Hillside is in a way that belies how big it’s getting, and how a lot of the bullshit that’s regarded as a necessary evil in order to get so much good music into such a small space and time is avoided here. He’s also the second person to describe the experience of being a patron as halfway between camping and a concert.
While I didn't try to talk to Haines I do recognize Jason Tait of the Weakerthans in the beer line of the volunteer area and being a ridiculous fan of Left and Leaving I talk to him too (because when you notice someone 1/4 responsible for the one of the best albums your country has produced in the last fifteen years or so you try to thank him, even when you feel bad about interrupting his weekend). He's also been coming to the festival for years as both patron and performer and like Campbell rates it highly against similar set-ups in the States and overseas. He's not here drumming for anyone, he just wanted to attend again. I secretly wonder if he knows how to get free beer, but thank him and head off to see six-man Edmonton groove beast Shout Out Out Out Out.
Shout Out Out Out Out are half an hour late starting, and although I’m informed they provided one hell of a good time. I’ve seen the photos, and they air is filled with a weird effect—when I asked about it I was told it was sweat from the furiously dancing crowd. I regret missing it, but when the band realized they’d left equipment at their hotel and it would be a while getting it I slipped over to the Main Stage to see the Dears. In my first characteristically Hillside moment I wind up never making it back to Shout Out Out Out because I run into someone I haven’t seen since high school and we wind up chatting and catching up seated in the grass at the edge of the crowd.
The Dears’ recent turn to providing one of the newer and subtler takes on Big Music with Gang of Losers is one I would have thought would adapt well to the open air and big field of Hillside, but Murray Lightburn’s voice isn’t carrying as well as Haines’ did and I wind up with the impression that although the show would be great if you were up close with the real devotees, playing to the big crowd isn’t quite working for them tonight. There are moments of genius, particularly a spectacular take on “There Goes My Outfit,” but as they keep playing climactic song after climatic song from the last record things start to feel a bit anti-climactic. One of the drawbacks of Hillside aside from the ridiculous beer lines is the ridiculous lines for the free shuttle back to Guelph at night (and really, if that’s all you’ve got to complain about…) and we successfully beat the rush. The music is beginning to get to me and I’ve successfully stopped caring much about this article; things are going so well it’ll write itself, I’m sure. Tomorrow I don’t have to work, and that should be the really fun day.
Despite my own tendency to sleep in at every available opportunity, I'm actually keen enough that I hope the shuttle back to Guelph Lake Island before the group of friends I was going to go with. I'll run into all of them at various parts, and will spend much of the evening hanging out with my girlfriend, but between the people I talked to yesterday and just the thrill of having all day to kill I want to get on site as soon as possible. Yesterday as I finished my shift I remember I wasn't that excited; I'd missed the first day of the festival and eventually writing this article loomed as daunting, and it felt like going on to do another eight hour shift rather than anything fun. But given that the sum total of other media I'd seen going around on Saturday was a photographer for Exclaim and a videographer for beloved public broadcaster CBC (which like so many things cultural in English Canada lies somewhere between the US and UK equivalents) and how everyone I talked to and saw treated even my asking them questions as just another way to pass a beautiful summer day I've decided to let the day hit me as it will, except for one act I've been waiting for all weekend.
It also helps that I've decided I can spare a little bit more money than originally planned and the dumplings you can get in one of the food booths are fucking amazing, both the chicken and the tofu-and-mushroom. I'd expected a lot of the normal fried and greasy options here but spend the whole weekend eating curry roti, vegetable samosas, roast beef sandwiches with enough horseradish to make you tear up, the most amazing veggie burger I've ever had, and copious amounts of free water. Not only do they allow you to refill your bottle, as the sun climbs in the sky (I hit the island just after noon) they prompt you from the stages between acts to make sure you're drinking more water than normal. All of this is actually no more expensive (and in many cases cheaper) than you'd get in the city, and while beers are running at $4 a piece (served only in reusable Hillside mugs, get yours for $2!) it's good local stuff like Wellington SPA and Stone Hammer rather than more watery Molson Canadian or Labatt Blue (when I go abroad and see that stuff being sold as imported Canadian beer, I have a sudden pang of sympathy for Australians being confronted with Foster's). I won't actually get drunk this weekend, both to save money and to hold on to what I laughingly call my critical faculties, but the at times massive lines to do so imply that the crowd minds neither price nor selection.
As I walk in the Overtones, Guelph's own massive all female choral/barbershop group. They sound very good for that sort of thing, and that sort of thing is admittedly just what we need to ease us into the day but my friend Mark is holding a workshop on one end of the grounds. On the way there I walk past the beer tent where Pat Robitaille is playing. I'll hear people praise him elaborately for the rest of the day, but the sum total of my thought as I pause for a minute or two is “do we really need our own James Blunt/James Morrison type figure?” If your answer is yes, I respect you and your choices but I won't be inviting you to any parties.
In addition to the music (both normal sets and the collaborative efforts I described yesterday), vendors, food, and beer Hillside also has a number of workshops Saturday and Sunday in many small tents scattered around the venue. The full list is in the schedule you can download here, but you will get the idea very quickly. There are two General tents, two Healing Arts ones, an Aboriginal Circle, tents for Children, Women, Youth, and Crafts and naturally enough one called “Enviro Workshops.” Titles across all of these range from “Creativity Happens” and “Ethical Consumption” to one teaching Bhangra Dance and a discussion about tattooing and piercing, the one my friend is holding. It's basically an excuse to hang out for a bit while curious kids and concerned parents ask questions, and I could bring myself to attend a random sampling so I hope the usefulness of the talk for most of the participants is indicative of most of the workshops.
Two Hours Traffic
Honestly the titles alone set my teeth on edge; I've been known to begin sentences with “I'm not a class warrior, but...” but in Guelph sometimes anything less than full on vegan dumpster diving makes you feel like Alex P. Keaton. Hillside manages to give those with the political and social will to spend all of their time focusing on Cathartic Art Healing or asking How Democratic is Our Democracy? the space to do so without making the rest of our hedonistic asses feeling hectored. An undercurrent of activism flows through Hillside but unlike some events I've been to it always feels like you can drop in or out of that as well depending on how you feel that day. There are people who go to the festival just to see bands, yeah, but I also get the impression there are people who just go for some of the other activities and somehow everyone not just gets along but enjoys each others companies. I'm too used to hippies either haranguing me or being so stoned they get in the way; here they actually seem productive and friendly, which goes a long way to understanding why my parents glare at my brother and I when we use the word as an epithet.
During the tattoo and piercing discussion I can hear a loud, energetically Crazy Horse-ish clatter coming from the nearby stage, and although I'm enjoying talking with Mark too much to do more than listen from afar from my program tells me it's local act Richard Laviolette & His Hollow Hooves I'm appreciating at a distance. If you're a local, one thing Hillside does for you is allows you to assess lots of local acts at once, and I promptly make myself a note to check out Laviolette when he plays one of the bars near my apartment in the future.
I'm at semi-loose ends for the next two hours, with no-one on schedule I'm burning to see, so I wander around looking for friends and find them at the Two Hours Traffic show. Which is lucky, because although I'd half planned to check them out due to the Joel Plaskett connection (Plaskett, severely undersung Eastern Canadian rocker ex of Thrush Hermit, is beloved to me partly for coming up with “True Patriot Love,” which is both a great song about passing out drunk and newly single on the couch with the TV on and also the keenest summing up of the whole Canada/America thing I've ever heard) I might have wandered past without social reasons to stop in. It's hard for me not to resort to the received wisdom of the program in terms of terming the band power pop meets alt country, but it sounds not only better but more natural than that label might suggest. They're hooky and urgent live and I planned to grab the album, but it's sold out. Their website I will later find streams the whole damn thing and it sounds great, subtler than the live show (like always) but capable of Cars-ish detours (and if you think that's faint praise, you've only heard the hits).
I also owe Alec from Two Hours Traffic some sort of favor, because when I sit down to talk to him he offers me a spare VIP pass they were given, which makes the rest of the night much easier. As the band is from Prince Edward Island I wonder if they like the Montreal musicians I've talked to will be nonplussed by Hillside but he tells me he's impressed by the lack of meatheads in attendance, and the band are taking in the festival as patrons as much as anything else. We mostly wind up talking about Teenage Fanclub (I'm wearing a shirt) and the audience response to their show, as my originally very focused Hillside-centric questions have slid into just shooting the shit.
The next hour is devoted to wading in the Guelph Lake with my girlfriend (neither of us brought suits and sadly there's a bacteria warning for the lake, not that it stops a string of broad-daylight skinnydippers), watching the small clumps of people who've wandered away from the areas of the site with stages and tents rest in the shade and mostly smoke copious amounts of pot. At one point a couple tries to hide their pipe as a young mother with her infant walks past but she just smiles and tells them not to worry. It's that kind of atmosphere out here in the outskirts of hillside, which sometimes I'd find irksome (myself, my friends and family smoking pot is fine, but potheads as a class annoy the shit out of me) but seems to fit the festival so well that it's more restful than anything else.
We wander back inland in time for me to check out the very tall Elvis Perkins on the main stage, mainly on the strength of, well, Marcello again. His magnificently wracked songs come across well in the open air, but seem a bit out of place in the sunny day playing to a crowd of people reclining on blankets and chairs. There's a prickly, restless intelligence to it all but I can't quite get absorbed; if anyone demands a nightime slot here it's Perkins, not the better natured or at least less oblique acts that will follow him. I wind up wandering over to one of the beer tent stages to see Danielle Duval whom a friend had raved about. I had doubts after she was described in the program as “an old school torch singer” which seemed an odd match for the stage and after Robitaille I was worried that meant watered down Norah Jones.
Sure enough, though, the power trio blasting through something bluesy and thrilling as I approached belied the press, and Duval was playing an Angus Young guitar (I'm not up on my technicalities, but you know what I mean) and kept me pretty captive for the next half hour. I'm not sure how to sum up her show other than she's responsible for the only version of Grease's “You're the One That I Want” which doesn't make me want to vomit, and in fact her slow-burn blues rock take on it was so compelling I went and bought the EP (although it doesn't match the energy of the live show).
I stuck around with my friends to catch well-regarded local band the D'Urbervilles (which more than one person would mistakenly call the “D'Ubervilles” which is funny/sad in itself). My situation with the band was much like mine with Hillside; I'd heard of them for a while, they'd been around, and I figured I'd probably like them but I'd never pulled the trigger. I'm not sure whether it's good or not that I waited for their incendiary set that day; if that's what they're normally like than I'm set and ridiculously excited about their upcoming debut, and if not then I guess I just witnessed lightning in a bottle. But for a band I'd never heard before to be so immediately riveting, and to have the same effect on a packed crowd split between partisan fans and people like me. There's something about the bleakness-even-when-screaming in John O'Regan's voice that suggests bleaker and better than the Interpols and Bloc Parties you might compare them to. He sounds more like a cross between Jim and Travis Morrison than anything else, and while the tracks on their MySpace boast a thinness that reminds me of Unknown Pleasures live they're a wholly different beast. I missed whatever formative stage this band had, which is just as well.
O'Regan, it turns out, has had a killer fever this weekend but between the D'Urbervilles coming out party and his last show as one half of Habitat he wasn't going to miss the festival. He's already getting people (and not just locals) asking for his autograph but he mostly seems excited about finally playing a festival he'd been to many times before. For the band Hillside is both homecoming and a kind of pinnacle, and although O'Regan just wants some ice and some time to sleep now he's clearly happy to be here.
Upon returning to the volunteer/backstage area it's pointed out to me that my VIP pass card lets me partake of the volunteer meal for the evening (vegan if you skip the feta you can put on your salad, probably ridiculously good for you and uniformly delicious). I eat it all there with more free water as I just assume you can't carry your meal out onto the grounds as then you could share the volunteer food with others, and they're supposed to pay, right? But then as I leave much fuller I see a woman taking a full plate out and quickly see that in fact I'm wrong, a fact that irks my hungry girlfriend just a little as I tell her what I just had. We wander around, half-intending to check out Dya Singh but never quite managing it, and eventually wind up at the Solar Stage for what our friends have dubbed “fiddle madness.” It's a musical workshop with Stephen Fearing from Blackie & the Rodeo Kings leading the combined Madviolet (who were good but a bit MOR on the main stage) and Beolach bands, so C&W fiddle and its Eastern Canadian equivalent go back and forth as we watch. It's a pretty beautiful display, with the kind of friendly rivalry that tends to bring out the best in players, and we intend to stick around for the “Minor Modal Madness” one with Elvis Perkins and Mother Mother, who've I've heard good things about but will never quite catch at the festival.
Because the one act that I'd call appointment viewing for me is coming up, and although times were impressively regular on Saturday (acts start on the hour, are done by quarter-two and then it starts again) today on Sunday as I slacken so does everyone else and Perkins and co. haven't started by 7:30. We make our way to the Island Stage to grab some close seats to the stage for Los Campesinos! making their North American debut. British friends of mine had been talking up their live show for months and I'd really enjoyed the EP when I'd heard it, and was looking forward to hearing “You! Me! Dancing!” More so than even Sunday evening I was going to this one just as a fan, and as the seven band members got ready to take the stage I slipped into the small crowd.
Gareth and Tom from the band both expressed exceedingly polite doubt when I told them afterwards that theirs had been, I was willing to say without seeing anything more, the best of the festival. Of course, they also were touchingly and flatteringly awestruck that someone from Stylus liked their work (the first time I'd ever had that reaction) and told me I shouldn't have any problems getting their EP since they'd brought 50 copies. The look on their faces when I was back five minutes later to confirm the merch tent was long sold out was priceless. But I'm making it sound as if I want to sing the band's praises because we got along well, and my conversion experience came much earlier.
Of the twelve songs they played I only knew the five from the EP but it didn't matter. Maybe it was the acoustics of the tent, maybe the sound guys at Hillside are wizards, but for a seven piece band who regularly employ xylophone and violin along with the usual drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and keyboards to sound so crisp and separate, so alive and visceral and present (whatever you think of violin and xylophone in the abstract, in practice Los Campesinos! use them either to drive home hooks even more solidly or, even more wonderfully, to ensure that four or five separate ones are buzzing away at once) was practically a miracle. That the band backed that up with one of the most energetic and joyful performances I've ever seen, telling us they wanted to move to Toronto after the first few songs and making the whole falling-apart-at-the-end-of-the-set thing feel fresh again with an incredible song called “Sweet Dreams Sweetcheeks” was something that already ranks high among my favorite concerts I've attended. Words really do fail me, but a late set “You! Me! Dancing!” counts as probably the happiest musical moment of my life to date, and that's when I had assumed I was getting jaded. God knows our experiences were probably different but I can't shake the feeling that this was the sort of thing John Peel must have gone through when he heard “Teenage Kicks” for the first time.
Gareth continued to tell me how much they loved Canada on their first visit here, and Cardiff's loss would be our gain, but mostly it was touching to talk with a band just as overwhelmed as the bowled over, mostly unsuspecting, ecstatic crowd was. If the show hadn't been so transcendent or I'd still been feeling a misplaced sense of journalistic responsibility I'd be able to report back on Ohbijou, whom my friends reported were excellent. Ron Sexsmith, whom I understand some people like, was also playing. And afterwards Ani DiFranco played, and so did Mother Mother and Born Ruffians (who I didn't like when I saw them open for Hot Chip and had no desire to check out now). But you couldn't have torn me away from that show, or from praising the band afterwards for love or money and you also couldn't have kept me from euphorically grabbing the next bus home before the lineup started (I did stop to hear about ten minutes of the DiFranco set, because she was after all the headliner, and she sounded exactly like she always has, which in her case is somewhat admirable but still falls into my earlier comments re: who I invite to parties; the converted seemed to be eating it up, and she certainly had the most rock star like reception of the weekend).
Fittingly enough for a weekend I only started really enjoying and more importantly understanding once I stopped following what I thought I was supposed to do, I made my own headliner for Hillside. The festival was over, and anything else would have been anticlimax. What did it all mean? Well, we're Canadian; we can't figure out what our national identity 'means,' let alone some live music. Going by both my own experience and what I heard from musicians and patrons both old and new it seems that Hillside is at both a uniquely positive and unusual position. It doesn't get the biggest bands but for the last few years the lineups have consistently been of the sort to offer enough to attract most, say, Stylus readers, and with the bucolic setting, ridiculously relaxed/low key/sustainable atmosphere it's about as idyllic as a festival can get. But even as I'm looking forward to attending just as a patron next year I wonder how long the festival can keep this sort of thing up; as long as they restrict the number of passes they should be fine, but can even this non-profit resist the lure of offering more tickets it seems clear they can sell?
Weirdly enough given my usual laziness, my response to this hazy concern (which is something along the lines of yes, we have good people in charge now, but what about a decade from now?) is to want to get involved. The festival palpably runs off of the efforts of its thousand plus volunteers and if some of them are mainly in it for the free pass the fact remains that they love the event enough to work to get in. Maybe it's that culture that makes Hillside feel even after just one year, a year where I missed the first night and spend much of the second focusing on the wrong thing, so much like something worth protecting. Even writing about it gives me a twinge; on the one hand I want to drag everyone I know there, on the other I worry that trying to grow it any bigger will lose some part of what makes it special for nearly everyone there (and honestly, the whole thing feels a bit more special when you live in Guelph itself). The only thing to do during that one weekend in July though, as I learned, is to relax, have a beer, eat some dumplings, and listen to some music.
Thanks to Emily Jaklic for this article's header photograph.