As a writer, it’s hard to know where to start when asked to review this years’ Hillside Festival of Music and Community. To call trying to do it all justice “daunting” would be a ludicrous understatement. This year truly had a bit of it all, from super-groups, to stellar workshops and jams, to Chinese reggae, it was all there. The only real downside to the festival, is not being able to get to every single set being played. If ever there were a surplus of excellent acts, it was at Guelph Lake in July. Hillside has once again proven to be the best weekend of the year, despite the festivities being cut short after heavy rain and a tornado warning prompted festival organizers to cancel the final three sets of the Sunday schedule.
While the festival’s first day may hold the least sets, Friday was by no means lacking in great performances. I managed to catch part of Elephant Revival and Red Moon Road‘s workshop that could not have been chosen any more appropriately. The two groups blended together with ease, producing melody and harmony like no other. Folkin’ great. The real gem of the evening for me though, was seeing Hydra. More than just a band featuring Feist, Hydra is a super-group consisting of Canadian indyroyalty. It is no easy task to have five electric guitars on a stage without your sound getting crowded, but Hydra pulls it off (seemingly) with ease.
By Saturday morning, Hillside was in full swing and this (rather groggy) writer was ready to take it on full force. The day began with Stella Ella Ola, which includes two members from the ever-popular group Hollerado. While SEO may be a relatively new act on the scene, they boast an impressively tight and boisterous set, reminding a listener of early 60’s british rock. Throughout the course of the day, far too many fantastic sets were seen for me to list them all here, but several in particular stuckout: Daniel Champagne absolutely blew me (and everyone else at the Island stage) right away. An entertaining oneman show, Daniel stunned with his speed and skill, and knocked everyone’s socks off with his closing rendition of the blues classic “Spoonful”. Wild Child impressed as well, tying in strong pop elements into their folk-based sound, and the inclusion of cello into their roster of instruments was an excellent choice.
My Saturday night closed with the one two punch of bluegrass maestros Elephant Revival, followed by Irish Rockabilly Queen Imelda May. Despite seeing them in the workshop the night before, I don’t regret going to see Elephant Revival on Saturday, and would go see them again and again. While Rockabilly may be a bit of a bygone or niche genre, you couldn’t tell when Imelda May hit the stage. A huge crowd pleaser, Imelda rocked with class, and demanded respect. I had heard about just how great her live show was, and I was not disappointed in the slightest.
Sunday morning brought with it my defining “Hillside Moment”. Royal Canoe and Hey Rosetta! were playing a workshop titled Marmalade Skies, and I should have clued in from there. The first half of the workshop was spent as many such workshops are, each band trading songs back and forth, without a whole ton of chemistry (not that it wasn’t enjoyable). Then, as the set hit the halfway mark, the opening piano chords of “You Never Gave” were played, and the two bands launched head-first into the entire Bside of Abbey Road, back-to-back-to-back. Featuring strings, horns, and all the necessary harmonies, the pulled it off flawlessly, as very few bands could without having practiced together.
While their mind-blowing performance may have been hard to follow, the rest of Sunday proved to be stellar, as I caught the tail end of the Sunday Gospel Session tradition, in all its’ sing-along friendly bluegrass glory. Hillside really loves Kim Churchill, and he seems to return the sentiment, playing with his signature groove and grace at all three of his performances. What really made Sunday unique and memorable though, had very little to do with music. As the night progressed, weather warnings that tossed around the word “tornado” started pouring (no pun intended) in, and stages were suspended. For the hour and a half after the suspension, I was at the Island Stage with friends, anxiously hoping for more music. While patrons at another festival may have shown displeasure or anger, the audience at the Island Stage began to sing. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Here Comes the Sun, the audience spent the exhausting time standing in good spirits, trying to make the best of an otherwise less-than-pleasant situation. Sadly, the suspension led to only a cancellation of all other acts that night, and an evacuation of the Island for patrons.
By no means a perfect Hillside, the 2014 installment was just as enjoyable, and likely more memorable than any other. Therein lies the real magic of Hillside: the music is only half of it. This crazy music festival brings together friends, family, artists, ideas, countries, and musicians for one weekend every year, and you’ll never find me anywhere else that last weekend in July.