For over three decades, Hillside has established itself as an arts and music celebration that goes against the fray. At a time when many music festivals swallow you up in corporate logos and sponsorships, the not-for-profit showcase offers an alternative: a Folk-based model with an eco-and-community-centric centre.
You feel this sense of community when you stroll the idyllic lakeside grounds. It’s in the tie-dye clad men and women of all ages, the reusable mugs hanging off festival goers belt loops, the countless volunteers brandishing yellow bandannas and wishing you a “happy Hillside” at every turn. It’s also in the performers themselves, who again and again thanked their audience for the respect and courtesy they received throughout the weekend.
Over the course of three days, the performances ran the musical gamut: from high-energy Rock, Dream Pop, Electronic, and Punk to Folk, Bluegrass, Americana, Alt-country and Spoken Word. Whatever your taste, there were no shortage of sounds bound to resonate.
Friday evening, I started things off watching Ora Cogan on the Lake Stage. The Vancouver native gave an intimate and dreamlike performance of delicate guitar playing and haunting vocals as she delivered songs from her latest album Crickets. Later on, I headed to the Island Stage where I saw Chastity perform from their melodic-punk debut EP, Tape. They were followed by Montreal’s Duchess Says, the self described “Moog Rock” band who delivered a high-octane and theatrical show. It was hard to keep an eye on vocalist and guitarist Annie-Claude Deschênes, who jumped from stage to dance floor to picnic table. At one point she adorned herself with a straw hat discarded by an audience member before jumping down to become engulfed by the crowd.
Saturday I was blown away by William Prince’s bare bones performance from his album Earthly Days— the power of which left a crowd so hushed you could hear a pin drop. Later on, I headed over to see The Blurry Pickers who announced themselves as the “only Bluegrass band with no banjo” (though they did have a washboard). They got things moving with their barn-burning sound backed by Deadheads and Bluegrass fans alike. Later on, post-rock BIG|BRAVE pit striking vocals against heavy drums and biting guitars for a sound that felt ominous and aimless. Once again I found myself ending the night at the Island Stage, where I watched Weaves performed their gorgeous blend of rock-prog pop to a high-energy crowd. Jasmyn Burke’s striking stage presence was a perfect way to cap off the evening.
On the final day of the festival, I saw Aerialists bring Celtic tradition together with contemporary folk. The beautiful harmonies keeping listeners captivated even as rain began to fall. Early in the evening, I saw Kacy and Clayton grace the Island Stage. The Saskatchewan duo brought whimsy into the tent through their 70s-folk-drenched style and musical clout. Near the end of the evening, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took the main stage to sing songs from their new album Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad. Their performance looked to a storied past, mindful of the legacies of icons like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. Beginning with the traditional folk song “In The Pines”, they went on to perform covers of classics like Bob Dylan’s “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”. Bragg and Henry ended their set with Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ Round”. Bragg spoke of the folk legend earlier, reminding us that no, Woody’s guitar didn’t actually Kill Fascists, but rather his music spurred consciousness. He also encouraged the audience to face the current news cycle with solidarity and strength rather than disillusionment.
I would be morally remiss if I didn’t discuss Hillside’s great workshops. These were sets where various artists and bands shared the stage together. Among the themed collabs were: “Don’t Tell Me This Town Ain’t Got No Heart” (Weaves and The Luyas), “It’s a Rainbow Full of Sound” (The Turbans and Parsonfield), “Higher Ground” (WHOOP-Szo and Century Egg), and “Are You Ready for a Brand New Beat?” (DJ Shub and Boogat).
The workshops were one of my favourite parts about the festival, a highlight of camaraderie and community that allowed audience members to see a multitude of talents at once.
Below are a couple of my favourites:
The Sunday Gospel Session (Lindi Ortega, Kacy and Clayton, William Prince, Ora Cogan, NEFE, and Mt. Joy)
Sunday’s gospel session showed that church can be an experience far removed from stained glass windows and cathedral walls. Under a white canvas tent (and spilling out of it), a congregation of music fans gathered together, all body heat and sun streams. Lindi Ortega announced, “I’m going to sing the only church-y song I know,” before belting out a beautiful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Matt Quinn of Mt. Joy shared a similar sentiment, “I’m not religious, but I wrote a song about Jesus, which I’m realizing now is probably why I’m here,” before the band performed their popular “Astrovan”. The performers joined together to end the session with “I’ll Fly Away”, backed by a choir of festival goers.
Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound (Billy Bragg, Sarah Harmer, Lisa LeBlanc and Leonard Sumner)
Things got political in this workshop with a focus on environmental issues and social injustices. Billy Bragg performed new song “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,” while Sarah Harmer sang a song in its “very first incarnation” about the Line 9 Pipeline. Leonard Sumner stunned his audience as he combined spoken word with song. The Anishinaabe singer tackled heavy issues, citing murdered and missing Indigenous women as one of our country’s great injustices. Lisa LeBlanc brought some levity, showing her banjo picking chops and performing originals along with a striking rendition of folk song “Katie Cruel”.
Hillside Bluegrass Jam (The Blurry Pickers, Murder Murder)
The Sun Stage was crammed with strings as the bluegrass session commenced. A typical jamming genre, members of The Blurry Pickers and Murder Murder covered some of country and folk’s most celebrated artists, including performances of John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”. Attempts to sit still were thwarted by the high-octane energy and palpable skill of these players.
Hillside 2017 was a celebration of music and community filled with a wide range of talent, local support, and a backdrop of bucolic dreaminess. If you missed out this year, tickets for 2018 are already available.
All photos by Elizabeth Andrews.
Read our previous coverage of Hillside.