Concert Review: Hillside Festival (including Tegan and Sara, Basia Bulat, + more)

Having lived and worked in the region for the better part of a decade now, it’s a complete and utter shame that this was my first ever trip to Hillside Festival in Guelph. Now in its 31st year, this is an event that has been perfected over time and is an annual attraction for music-lovers from all over our fair country.

After experiencing this year’s Hillside Inside series, I knew the organizers were capable of pulling great talent for their stages, but didn’t even begin to grasp the other elements that this festival pulls together. As well as having 3 main stages, a couple of smaller stages, including a children’s stage, the festival also offered a great craft vendor selection, an array of local food options, and workshops to help expand your mind, body and soul.

The festival itself does it’s part to remain ‘green‘ with various initiatives over the weekend, starting with encouraging attendees to camp for the duration of the weekend to reduce car pollution. Every bit of dishware and utensils used over the weekend were reusable and were hand-washed on site by festival volunteers. A huge credit to the success of this event goes in large part to the 1000+ generous folks who commit their time to Hillside. Also impressively, the Sun Stage, home to acoustic and spoken-word performances, was run entirely on solar power.

I began my weekend with one of the most surprisingly breathtaking performances I’ve ever seen. Matt Andersen & The Mellotones was a catchy array of songs that had booming vocals and soulful beats. He left the crowd with goose bumps at the end of his set with a powerful performance of The Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends”.

I was very excited to catch a rare sighting of Feist’s newest project, HYDRA. Pulling from husband and wife duo’s AroarA and Snowblink, this act was a festival must-see. The set was a mash of tracks from their respective projects with a couple of covers thrown in, including a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”. The set certainly left me wanting original material from HYDRA.

Taking on the headlining slot at Friday night’s Main Stage was indie-pop twins Tegan and Sara. The duo had the crowd dancing and singing along from start to finish, opening the show with the synth-heavy “Goodbye, Goodbye”. The crowd really went crazy for some of the more classic tracks including “Back In Your Head” and “Alligator”. Entertaining the audience in between songs, Tegan talked about her own camping experiences growing up, dropping acid in the wild and embarrassingly admitted that she’d never camp again, even with campers shouting invitations from the crowd.

Even some youngsters in the crowd had their bedtime extended to catch the 9:45pm set. The ladies certainly played to the younger demographics by playing a short snippet of their catchy-as-hell tune from The Lego Movie, “Everything is Awesome”. They changed gears and set out to woo the older audience, doing a great rendition of Pete Townsend’s “Let My Love Open The Door”, leading into their closing track “Closer”.

Folk-trio Red Moon Road entertained the Main Stage Saturday afternoon. Their harmonies were complimented by a variety of strings including the banjo, mandolin and guitar. The group were masterful story tellers both through song and in between them. Beginning one song out of tune, they stopped to regroup while making me laugh with quips like, “You know what they say about folk musicians, they spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune.”

Toronto’s DIANA brought their 80’s style synth-infused set to Hillside to a slew of fans who have obviously caught on to the DIANA momentum. The soft-sweet vocals are paired with guitar, drum, keys and sax to bring a unique blend to the stage. While steaming through the set, the band took a few chances to make jokes with the crowd, but mostly stuck to playing the tunes from their full-length debut album Perpetual Surrender.

Sticking close to the Island Stage for the day, I was introduced to some incredible acts. East-coast legends The Super Friendz took to the stage after a very impressive introduction that set the expectations high. The set was a high energy, raw performance that felt like they’d invited all of us to a fun garage-jam session. Their instruments gave out crisp, loud notes and just very simply, rocked. The most unique part of the set? Seeing tote bag straps used in place of an actual guitar strap. Very DIY-trendy for the hippie crowds.

My personal highlight of the weekend came from Wild Child, twice voted Best Indie Band at the Austin Music Awards. Their folk-styling’s rang true to the entire vibe of the festival and brought an engaging performance to the stage that had everyone smiling, singing and dancing. The enthusiastic audience was all over the call and response opportunities and the modest band were not shy to show their gratitude in return. The band continuously thanked the crowd, expressing their love for the festival and our country, saying they hope to return to Hillside in the future. Please, please come back.

8-piece San Fermin, headed by Yale grad Ellis Ludwig-Leone, was an impressive group that wowed the stage with the indie-pop tracks. The Brooklyn-based act combined vocal harmonies with violin, trumpet, saxophone, keyboard, guitar and drums. Despite having a full stage, they did an excellent job of highlighting the individuals and getting roars of applause following the brass solos. The highlight, for me, was a fantastic cover of The Strokes’ Heart in a Cage.

Another Brooklyn-based band was next to take the stage and also yielded a 7-strong-piece act. Rubblebucket was just as quirky and unusual as their name led me to believe. The entire unit brings a ton of talent to the table, having perfected their crafts on instruments ranging from sax, trumpet and trombone. The wee little singer brought so much energy to the stage making her seem larger than life! The set was made even more intimate and somewhat magical, by having the band parade through the crowd, being surprised by a glimpse of each member as they marched past.

As the night set in, Hillside got loud. Toronto punks PUP tore up the stage in a raw, fast, gritty set that even had security calling the cops. The peace-loving crowds unleashed a whole new creature during this energetic set, filling the tented stage with crowd surfers and moshing kids. Urged by security, the boys slowed down mid-set for a track before launching into the final half of their high-volume performance. Favourites Mabu, Reservoir, and Back Against the Wall had the crowd going mental before closing out the night with a great version of Sabotage.

As if the night couldn’t get any better, Hollerado, took to the stage to close out the evening. Concert-goers were still catching their breath from PUP’s set, but were anxiously awaiting the Ottawa-based group and were ready for more. With a slew of hits under their belt, Hollerado had everyone singing and dancing along. Early in the set Juliette even got the crowd jumping and moshing again. One of my favourite and most memorable moments in every Hollerado set, no matter the crowd size, is their use of perfectly timed confetti blasts throughout the entire set. You just can’t help but feel like you’re at the best party of your life.

Starting Sunday in a bluesy bliss is the best was to begin any day. The Harpoonist and The Axe Murderer showed off their percussion skills on the Island Stage, playing instruments using their entire bodies. The sound of harmonica’s rang through the air, with the raw twang of guitar ripping alongside. While I was not overly familiar with the work of the Vancouver boys ahead of their performance, they definitely made a lasting impression on my Hillside memory.

To witness Basia Bulat in person is nothing short of breathtaking. She has made this year’s short list for the Polaris Music Prize and after seeing her perform live, in my mind she is a front-runner for the win. The Toronto singer-songwriter began alone on stage with just her ukulele for an enchanting start to the set before bringing the band out. Every track had a great charm to it, letting her unique, captivating voice ring out and steal the show. She also incorporated great use of instrumentation, including her iconic autoharp.

Before heading home after a music-filled weekend, we knew we had to catch Royal Canoe. I’d caught wind of this band only after their inclusion in this year’s Osheaga lineup. Knowing the talent Montreal pulls for that fest, I figured they were worth checking out. Playing to a uniquely small crowd, the Manitoba-based indie-pop band made the set feel huge. The excitable crowd held on to every beat, making this one hell of a dance-y set. Royal Canoe were one of my happiest surprises of the entire fest.

With exhaustion setting in and the impending rain approaching, it was time to bid Hillside a happy adieu. After experiencing this festival first-hand, it’s no wonder so many return year after year. I chatted with one group who’d been faithful for “at least 15 that I can remember” and another volunteer who returns each year, flying from Western Canada to make Hillside part of her summer vacation for the past 6 years. Hillside isn’t just a music festival- Hillside is a community gathering that brings together music, art and happiness. No wonder the phrase Happy Hillside rings through the park, it’s nothing less than pure happiness.

Happy Hillside!

Review by Shannon Bryan (@xoradioxo)

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