It’s Hillside time again. Time to celebrate 32 years of the Guelph festival's community spirit, groundbreaking programming and musical memories. But it’s no secret that Hillside—which blossomed from its local folkie roots to sold-out weekends with international headliners—has had a tough time in recent years, partially because of its own success: its family-friendly, multi-genre, foodie focus has been emulated by non-folk festivals in Toronto, Hamilton and beyond.
Now there’s a major big-budget festival competing on the same weekend near Barrie—you know the one—with a lineup that has likely sucked away the twenty- and thirtysomethings of the Guelph/K-W area. One of the headlining acts of that festival this year, Arcade Fire, got its first big break in Ontario playing to a packed Hillside tent the summer before their breakthrough album came out.
There were many times in the last 10 years when I heard Guelphites complain that Hillside was too big, too crowded, and too hard to get tickets. They had a point. Last year, however, the dip in ticket sales actually improved my own Hillside experience—though I’m sure no one in the Hillside office wants to hear me say that (disclosure: I volunteer every year as an MC). There was actually room to move around the site; there were no lineups to get into tents; it was much easier to catch up with friends and still see the calibre of music I’ve always expected from Hillside, even if there were only two acts (Daniel Lanois, Michael Franti) who could be considered major headliners (and I missed both sets—parenting has changed my festival habits).
It’s admittedly hard for festival programmers with no headliners to say: trust us, it’s going to be great. This year the only big names are young American folk duo the Milk Carton Kids and Canadian songwriting legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’s on the comeback trail with an award-winning album and will be appearing with the Sadies as the Sunday closer. But while Milk Carton Kids are somewhat high-profile, they’re also niche, and as much as I worship Buffy, I’m not convinced she’s enough of a commercial draw.
So cue the former Hillside faithful who are now complaining that they haven’t heard of anybody on this year’s bill, and so they’re either a) headed to That Other Festival or b) staying home. Even though the entire point of Hillside—indeed, the point on which it built its reputation—was that it was a place of discovery, a place where artists just starting to get a critical rep were put on stages in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people, a place where open-minded audiences who might only go to one major musical event a year fell in love with artists that would sell out larger venues (or festivals) in the space of a couple of years.
As a recent article in the Waterloo Record illustrated, Hillside is sounding a bit desperate this year. Other Canadian festivals have cancelled this year (Squamish, Wolfe Island), due to saturation as well as the weak Canadian dollar (because even major Canadian acts, many of whom are handled exclusively by U.S. booking agents, get paid in US$). Other than the behemoth festivals, everyone else is trying to get by with smaller names with smaller draws. Which is where the experience comes into play. If you have the choice to stand in any random field and watch a bunch of good-to-great music, then it’s all the other factors that will shape your decision: the expense, the food, the physical space, the access to shade, the beer lines, the bathroom lines, and whether the audience is comprised of boozed-up bros or families or something in between.
In this otherwise wonderful and passionate defence of Hillside and small festivals, Will McGuirk puts the question to Canadian artists performing at WayHome this year instead of Hillside: shouldn’t you remember the festival who gave you a big break? Have you no loyalty? By taking the (presumably) bigger cheque, are you undermining the infrastructure that made your success possible?
I don’t buy that argument. For starters, the Hillside/WayHome crossover includes acts with wildly different audience bases: of course Arcade Fire is not going to play Hillside again (turning it into a complete zoo and bankrupting the festival), and considering the wallop of international acts at WayHome, acts like BadBadNotGood, Bahamas, Stars, Shad and the Arkells are little more than a rounding error in that festival's budget. Also, if those five acts, for example, played Hillside again this year, then Hillside would start to look pretty stale and repetitious. Finally, with few exceptions (i.e. Arcade Fire in 2005), I’d suggest that most artists are happy to surrender their schedules to their bookers. It’s the bookers’ job to find the biggest cheques and the biggest opportunities for their artists. And God knows every musician has to take every paycheque they can these days.
Because of its size, Hillside will always be a farm-team festival: an incubator for the upstarts, a step down from the major leagues for old-timers. Hillside will never, ever, be able to book a major artist at the height of their popularity. That’s not the point. Hillside, for me and hopefully others, is an experience, one that should be full of surprises. There are many acts this year I’ve never heard of before that I’m looking forward to (bands from Mongolia and the Bahamas, Son Little, Versa), acts I love that I’ve never had the chance to see (Un Blonde, Tuns, Rose Cousins, Ben Caplan, Esmerine, Fond of Tigers), and acts I’d go see any day of the week (Holy Fuck, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Jennifer Castle).
I’ll see you there. And maybe at Camp Wavelength in Toronto. And maybe at Arboretum in Ottawa. And maybe at Sandbanks in Prince Edward County.
Here’s a look at two Hillside 2016 artists not yet reviewed in this column, and a look at more sure-to-be-highlights.
Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled (Meant Well)
This songwriter from Sarnia recently landed a publishing deal in Nashville, where he’s written songs for Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum and Tim McGraw. He writes about that experience on the bittersweet “Leaving Nashville,” where he talks about “Friends of friends with country stars who are buying homes and here you are, two weeks from sleeping in your car.” It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken Woods singing a country hit himself—his voice is more Sufjan Stevens than Brad Paisley—but there’s no denying his skill as a songwriter, of which there is plenty of evidence on this, his third album, recently long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.
Stream: “Leaving Nashville,” “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town,” “On the Nights You Stay Home”
Xylouris White – Goats (Other Music)
Hillside this year is not lute-free. That’s because virtuoso Cretan lute player George Xylouris is bringing his duo with dexterous drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey) to town, still promoting this (largely) instrumental 2014 debut album. The lute gets a bad rap: we know it only from Greek restaurants or because we confuse it for an oud on Leonard Cohen records. But like any string instrument, it’s all about the player, not the tool. Xylouris is an entrancing player, drawing from styles on every side of the Mediterranean, filtering it through his doom-laden modal blues style. White is an ideal dancing partner, a master of nuance, not to mention one of the most fascinating drummers you’ll ever have the pleasure to watch.
Stream: “Pulling the Bricks,” “Suburb,” “Chicken Song”
15 more reasons to go to Hillside this year:
Ben Caplan: A big-throated baritone with a carnivalesque bark who will go over big with Tom Waits fans.
Jennifer Castle: 2015 Polaris-shortlisted artist writes haunting, unforgettable melodies that operate on their own clock.
Choir! Choir! Choir!: They’ve filled the AGO and Massey Hall to lead singalong tributes to David Bowie and Prince, but it’s not necessary for legends to die in order for this large ensemble to have fun.
Esmerine: Guelph drummer Jamie Thompson joins these members of Godspeed You Black Emperor’s extended family for gorgeous, cello-driven instrumentals.
Gregory Pepper and his Problems: This prolific Guelph pop provocateur has been making catchy records since 2007, but he’s still making new converts. You could be next.
Holy Fuck: The live electronic rock band from Toronto return from a six-year hiatus, during which keyboardist Graham Walsh became one of Canada’s most in-demand producers (Metz, Operators), with what is sure to be an explosive set.
Land of Talk: Speaking of a six-year hiatus, Guelph’s Liz Powell has been MIA since 2010. Let’s hope this appearance is a sign of new material.
Lemon Bucket Orchestra: Simply one of the best live bands you’ll ever see, this multi-culti Ukrainian musical circus has been spreading their gospel around the world.
McGarrigle Family Slideshow: Anna McGarrigle, sister Jane and various extended family members including a “secret guest” (likely Rufus or Martha Wainwright) pay tribute to the late Kate.
Noah 23: This veteran Guelph MC puts out at least three albums a year. Time to play catch-up.
Rose Cousins: This Maritime singer/songwriter is guaranteed to break your heart. Bring some hankies.
Andy Shauf: This Regina songwriter has plenty of famous fans in the U.S., was recently shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and was handpicked to open a tour for k.d. lang and Neko Case.
Suuns: If shiny happy people bring you down, surf the dark waves underneath Montreal’s Suuns.
Tuns: If you a) grew up in the ’90s loving Sloan and their spawn or b) haven’t loved a rock band of any kind in years, then you need to see this new supergroup with members of Sloan, Super Friendz and the Inbreds. This is a can’t-miss.
Un Blonde: Mysterious, lo-fi, gospel-tinged, experimental folk music from this 19-year-old Calgarian who found himself on the Polaris Prize long list.
Check the full line-up and performance schedule here
(The above is a modified version of my column last week for the Waterloo Record.)