Apologies for the absence: I’ve been in the Kawartha woods, homeless and housesitting in Toronto, driving to Delaware, camping in the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, juggling various deadlines and planning trips to Wolfe Island and Ottawa before I move house in September. Am I excused?
This year marked my 15th year at the Hillside festival (July 27-29), as a musician, a volunteer, as media, and as an MC. During that time I’ve only missed two days of programming.
Hillside is like a weekend-long New Year’s Party for Guelph residents past and present, where the entire community rallies to make this non-profit festival come together. Out of 6000 people allowed on to the peninsula where it takes place, 1000 of them are volunteers—and likely most of those are dishwashers, as there’s nary a disposable plate or container to be found anywhere on the site. And—though this is hard to believe for outsiders—the musical line-up almost doesn’t really matter. Hillside is a party you don’t want to miss. The fact that many of my favourite musical memories happened there is simply an added bonus background.
I’ve had intensely personal experiences there. One incident this year, however, was simply intense (if you're looking for an actual review of the festival, scroll down).
For the second time in my years of being an MC, the role took on a much more serious tone than expected. The first time was introducing the Arcade Fire’s mainstage set in 2005, where security had to be sent into the crowd to rescue people fainting from the crowd surge.
This year, I was assigned to introduce Shout Out Out Out Out’s closing Saturday night set in the Island Tent at 10pm. No matter who plays that slot, the 1600-strong crowd is drunk and ready to party, and usually the MC doesn’t have to do much more than say “Please pick up your garbage. OK, now, are… you… READY??!!!” before handing it off to the main act. No such luck this time.
It seems that someone in the Shout Out Out Out Out camp forgot their sampler at the hotel room on the other side of Guelph (about a 20 minute drive from the outskirts of the site). Not only did they discover this at about 9.30, but apparently said sampler is the single most important piece of equipment amidst the two drum sets, two basses and arsenal of keyboards that took over half an hour to set up properly anyway.
My first reaction, of course, was: what kind of band shows up at a former folk festival and refuses to play without their g-damn SAMPLER? Where is the DIY spirit? Where is the improvisation? And what on earth can that sampler do that the DI-ed cowbell and the vocoder can’t?
Keep in mind that the festival has a strict curfew of 11pm—anything past that, and the Grand River Conservation Authority, who run the site, have every right to levy massive fines to the Hillside organization.
10.05 rolls around, which is 20 minutes after Apostle of Hustle scurried off. I go on stage and announce that we’re experiencing delays, because this band obviously has a lot of equipment and we want everything to be just right. Mild boo-ing.
10.10. I’m informed by security that we have a missing child in the audience: Lara, seven years old, shoulder-length blonde hair, black pants, white t-shirt with a guitar design on the sleeve. If found, direct her to the carousel at the back of the tent. I get up and make the announcement. Oh, and by the way, the band will be on in ten minutes.
10.15 Shauna from Six Shooter tells me that realistically the band won’t be on for 15 or 20 minutes. She’s getting regular cell calls from the reconnaissance crew, while stage manager Dave Withers is trying to get a Hillside board member on the walkie-talkie to try and push the curfew of the tent, fearing things will get ugly if the band are only allowed to play for 20 minutes. Security tells me that we’ve actually found the child. I get on stage and make a good-news-bad-news announcement: we found the child (cheers), but the band won’t be on for another 15 minutes (boos), so take a break, go to the bathroom, get a drink. Many people start leaving the tent.
10.20 A shame-faced security officer tells me that, in fact, broken telephone meant that messages got crossed and—gulp—the missing girl has NOT been found and her mother is more than pissed that I announced otherwise. Whoops. I make the announcement. Boos.
10.25 Even though the stage is entirely set up, Withers tells his stage crew to go up and make it look like they’re tinkering with things, just so the crowd thinks that the band is still fine-tuning. Nik from Shout Out confesses to the audience that the delay is entirely his fault, that he forgot the sampler in the hotel room and that’s why there’s a hold-up. My friend Heather comes to the stage to tell me that no one at the back can hear a word I’m saying, because the P.A. music isn’t being turned down when I make missing child announcements.
10.30. The sampler has arrived on the island. Curfew extension has been granted to 11.15. The crowd is more than anxious. Those that left earlier have returned after facing the prospect of enduring The Dears. I get official word that the child has been found. I make sure I clarify this with someone who talked to the mother herself. I make the announcement, and it’s the one time I get to announce bonafide good news.
10.35 Shout Out Out Out take the stage and—obviously—don’t wait for an official introduction. I’ll admit now that I’ve never been a fan. I saw them three years ago in Montreal and left half way through: perhaps it was too bludgeoningly buoyant for my lonely Montreal self, perhaps it was the vocoder overdose, perhaps it was the mug-faces of the second drummer. I felt the same way when I heard the album (minus the mugging). But on this night, they know they have something to prove and they take charge immediately. The intensely packed tent is instantly forgiving, and the band hit their stride within seconds, no doubt fuelled by an adrenaline overdose. The set was fiery, fun and funky and even the most hardened skeptics were screaming in ecstasy by the end. If I wasn’t still so tense, I would have been too.
11.15 The band jettison the idea of an encore and play for 40 minutes straight, which means they leave the stage at exactly 11.15, after a ridiculously climatic conclusion. That means I have to face 1600 drunk and dancing people and tell them that the party is over—now. The trick? Let them scream a bit. Repeat the band’s name. Keep looking at the back of the stage as if you, too, are expecting them to return. Let the crowd continue screaming. Then announce that the band is putting their clothes back on and that the show is, in fact, over. Plenty of booing, along with resigned acceptance.
It reminds me of my favourite joke:
“How do you get 100 drunk Canadians out of your swimming pool?”
“You say: ‘Okay, everyone out of the pool.’”
The most unusual exchange of the weekend was sidestage during Shout Out Out Out Out, with a veteran Hillside performer, the kind who dwells mostly in the folk and improv worlds and usually doesn't go near anything overly pop or electronic. He was rather baffled by the band and the audience reaction. "So, uh, I'm not sure, but is this some kind of gay thing?" he asked. I chuckled. He continued, totally serious and earnest and non-judgemental, just curious: "No, really, because I don't know and it kind of seems like it might be." Not knowing how to respond, I say simply, "No, it's an Edmonton thing." I paused. "Which I suppose, in Alberta, might as well be a gay thing."
Some lowlights before we get to the good stuff:
- For some reason I was stuck watching Dragonette, the new UK project for Torontonians Martina Sorbara (ex-folkie) and Dan Kurtz (ex-New Deal). Even those who liked it considered it sub-Metric; those who loathed it thought it was one step away from Hilary Duff. Either way, it was shrill, annoying, and didn’t even cut it as bubblegum.
- On the flip side, American singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins failed to engage on any level, and one had to think that there were scores of other similar American artists who could have fit this bill much better. I’m guessing he shares a booking agent with someone else the festival wanted.
- I didn’t know the Rankin Family were here—oh wait, that’s Chumbawumba!
More importantly, some Hillside highlights:
- The final show by Habitat, a Guelph synth pop duo with only an EP to their name. Yet those five songs burrowed into the hearts of everyone who heard it, and their send-off was met with an outpouring of love from both local fans and those who stumbled upon the set. I only got to see a few songs, as I had to be MCing another stage, but “Mess It Up” gave me chills. Word has it there were plenty of tears by the time they closed with “Next Year.” John O'Regan will be busy with the D'Urbervilles; the big question is what Sylvie Smith will do next.
- A workshop titled Monsoon Melodies, which matched the subcontinental sounds of Sikh band Dya Singh with powerhouse blues singer Ndidi Onukwulu (the only person on site brave enough to rock high heels on a damp and muddy night). These east/west fusion workshops can be a hit and miss affair, but this one raised the roof of the Island Stage tent, and set the bar for the rest of the weekend—at 7PM on Friday night. And Onukwulu was ambushed by new fans for the rest of the weekend; her mainstage set (with guitarist Madagascar Slim) was just as inspiring.
- Gorilla My Love are a group of Guelph high school students who snuck on the bill as a selection from the festival’s Youth Committee. Barely a few shows old, they already employ a taste for the unconventional: a modified drum kit, vintage keyboards, the requisite glockenspiel, and one guy who plays a bunch of dimmer switches—definitely the most original light show I’ve seen in a while.
- The look of pride on the face of Mike Sharp, a Guelph singer/songwriter who used his Hillside slot to launch his first album after 30 years of writing and performing, with the help of Nick Craine and a band of Guelph all-stars.
- Rock Plaza Central were the best I’d ever seen them, due largely to the fact that the sound was crystal clear and gave the backing vocals the prominence they deserve (even more impressive considering the quick 15-minute change-over and minimal sound check that the tireless stage hands have to cobble together on the hour, which is considerably more difficult with a band the size of RPC). They had some big fans in the audience—the kind who cheered at the sound of a few recognizable chords during a line check. Singer/songwriter Chris Eaton was so genuinely moved by the standing ovation; he had a look of incredulity and took a minute to soak it up while his band quickly packed up behind him.
- Eaton wasn’t the only performer deservedly moved to tears. Over on the main stage, Toronto hip-hop/soul performer Zaki Ibrahim not only had one of the best-dressed bands of the weekend behind her, but her charisma and positivity easily had the dancing crowd in the palm of her hand—somewhere right above that Latoya Jackson-style one glove she was rocking. I don’t know what Ibrahim expected to get out of her festival appearance, but she was visibly overwhelmed by the reaction.
- A workshop with Elvis Perkins, a deer-in-headlights Mother Mother (who, backstage rumour has it, were uncomfortable with the idea of playing with others; their workshop with Born Ruffians was made easier when that band didn’t show up for that slot), Angela Desveaux and Zaki Ibrahim. Nothing much was happening until Ibrahim took her turn and announced that instead of playing her own song, she wanted to build something together. So she started singing rhythms, bass lines, and melodies, getting each of the performers to take on a part before she built the next one, and a wave of relief was evident from both the performers and the audience alike—this was the kind of Hillside moment that more workshops should be about. (I must admit I missed the annual 12-lane highway workshop, an inspired and interactive improv spectacle conducted by Dave Clark.)
- the D’Urbervilles, featuring Forest City Lover Mika Posen on violin and Immaculate Machine’s Brooke Gallupe on third guitar, as well as a visibly ill John O’Regan with a more deadpan delivery than usual—which made for an interesting contrast with the powerhouse rock band behind him
- Ohbijou, who had the misfortune of competing with Ron Sexsmith, though they nonetheless had a full tent hanging on every note. They also discovered that bassist/banjo player Heather Kirby is the sex symbol of the band, judging by audience reaction
- Solid sets from Apostle of Hustle (despite a bizarre Bush/Harper bashing interlude), Angela Desveaux (whose guitarist Mike Feuerstack was being flashed by a freeballin’ Rolf Klausener of The Acorn during the set), Plants and Animals (who sound completely different every time I see them), Vieux Farka Toure (who flew in from WOMAD in the UK just for this show), Ani DiFranco (mellowed in all the right ways, and still a fiery and engaging performer), and Ron Sexsmith (whose “Secret Heart” still stops me dead in my tracks and suspends me in time—so much so that I had no idea it was his last song, and I had to sprint from the middle of the field where I was watching to get back and leap on the stage to do an MC extro).
- Eliza Gilkyson, a Texas songwriter who is the one in a million political songwriters who can write with such empathy, conviction and passion that she can have me weeping almost instantly. “Man of God” is the song that hooked me, though she has plenty more. Seriously, Billy Bragg is a braying toddler compared to this woman’s skill and finesse. Her classy and stoic stage performance lets the songs speak for themselves; her reserve makes them even more powerful. I ended up eating lunch beside her backstage, and was actually dumbstruck, mumbling not much more than inarticulations like, "Uh, I really like your songs. They say what I feel. They make me cry. Um, yeah."
- A early morning Sunday workshop that brought together Forest City Lovers (whose Kat Burns is the classiest dresser in Ontario indie rock), Ohbijou, Basia Bulat and her band, and two-thirds of Immaculate Machine (minus Kathryn Calder, who had to play the Rogers Picnic with the New Pornographers). All musicians were on stage the entire time, and unlike those boring workshops where one act after another plays a song devoid of interaction with other performers, this young crew were not only all excited to play together, but they all have excellent ears and understand that it’s not about ego. That meant that despite the 18 people on stage, it never sounded busy—and the ad hoc string section came up with instant arrangements that worked perfectly. The choice of covers was impeccable and surprisingly diverse: Swedish pop star Annie’s “Heartbeat,” the Constantines’ “Insectivora,” Magnetic Fields’ “I Think I Need a New Heart,” a Sam Cooke song, the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and a take on “Stand By Me” that almost had me bawling. Why? Because this crew know that music means so much more when you make spiritual connections with your peers, when it’s about much more than individual units competing for the same small piece of pie, when you have Friends in Bellwoods, when you listen to one another, when you can say to your musical comrades without a single wink of irony: “whenever you’re in trouble you can stand by me.” And that’s something that, for this crew especially, doesn’t just happen on a Hillside stage once a year.