Finding Community in Music: Hillside Festival Celebrates its 30th Birthday

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Camping, spontaneous drumming, a smorgasbord of musical variety, an artisan market, and so much more —Hillside is a place where people forge communities united in the transformative power of music.

The three-day Hillside Festival has gifted Guelph and the world with amazing music over the last 30 years. The festival is known for pioneering (primarily Canadian) talent as some of the biggest acts in music have played Hillside before blowing up, including: Barenaked Ladies, Arcade Fire, Feist, Broken Social Scene, Stars, The Weakerthans, Metric, and k-os, among others.

What is perhaps most astonishing about Hillside is not the music, but rather the sense of camaraderie one feels with others at the festival. And it’s not just hippies, although all those at Hillside are hippies, since the word hip etymologically implies a sense of being “in the know,” which Hillsiders certainly are.

Hillside refuses to change locations, even though the festival could fill a larger space than the picturesque Guelph Lake Island it calls home. The festival has garnered a reputation as one of the most inclusive festivals in Canada, and takes an approach to green sustainability that makes most music festivals seem downright shameful for the amount of waste they produce –Hillside uses real dishes, composts on the Island itself and operates bio-diesel powered buses.

Of course, a music festival could not sustain itself for thirty years on idyllic vibes alone; there was, and continues to be, truly amazing (and often inspiring) music at Hillside. This year’s festival had everything from an Indian brass band with a sword swallower, electro-pop, spoken word performances, a few punk acts (METZ and Fucked Up) and all imaginable variations of the indie-rock genre. The performances I will remember most were all on the Island Stage: from the catchy sing-along hooks of Said the Whale, the spoken-word magic of Shane Koyczan, the incredibly energetic whiskey-soaked lullabies of July Talk, and the infectious rock rhythms of Yukon Blonde, to the beautiful Sunday morning gospel session, and an awe-inspiring solo saxophone performance from Colin Stetson.

It was amazing to see so many young people vibe out to Stetson’s somewhat avant-garde performance, which might have to do with the songlike structures that he plays; he uses experimental effects like circular breathing and controlled overtones in the service of material derived, in essence, from popular music. Stetson delivers this material with precision, conviction, and considerable force in pieces around ten minutes in length.

One small critique is that there could be more hip-hop music at Hillside, especially since there are plenty of indie hip hop acts that would fit the folksy vibe of the festival. True, this year’s Hillside Inside—an extension of the summer festival in February each year— did feature K’naan, and hip-hop geared spoken-word could be heard throughout the festival on the Sun Stage. In the past Hillside has hosted  artists such as Buck 65 and k-os, but I’d like to generally see a little more hip-hop or creative DJs.

Minor quibbles aside, Hillside is a festival I will likely keep an eye and an ear on for the next thirty years, whether I live in Toronto or not. A little over an hour drive from Toronto and you feel like you are in a different province with a new providence. Perhaps I passed you at this year’s festival with a friendly nod and a “Happy Hillside.” Or, perhaps I’ll see you there next year. Until then, all the new bands on my iPod and record player will have to suffice.

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Pictures by Paul Watkins

About the author

Paul Watkins

Paul Watkins is a doctoral candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, as well as a doctoral fellow with the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) project. Currently living in Toronto, Paul is working on a collection of poetry entitled Listenings.

By Paul Watkins