Summer is all about outdoor music festivals, and you can’t get more outdoorsy than the Hillside Festival, on this weekend at Guelph Lake. More than just music, the festival is an experience: workshops, artisans and activities with a decidedly Earth-friendly bent.
Featuring more than 80 performances on five stages over the course of three days, Hillside offers a mix of well-known names, up and coming artists and local talent. The festival is known for showcasing rising artists, who played to Hillside crowds before making it big. That list includes Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist, for instance.
This year’s outing, the 28th since the first, one-day festival in a Guelph park back in 1984, features a real mixed bag, though without some of the bigger names that have appeared other times.
“There aren’t as many headliners this year as there have been in past years, but if you’re into indie music and world music, then there are headlining acts,” said Marie Zimmerman, Hillside’s executive director.
Sloan is the headliner to wrap things up on Sunday night, and there are performances by the likes of Hollerado, Kevin Drew & The Beauties, and The Sheepdogs to keep fans of radio-played alternative happy. But there a whole lot of gems to be discovered, she said, noting the serendipity of discovering new acts and new sounds is one of the big draws.
Given the diversity, there’s pretty much something for everybody. Fans of strong female voices, for example, will enjoy the likes of Hannah Georgas, Lights and Shannon Kingsbury, she suggested.
Hillside is really about an indie vibe, which extends beyond the music to undertakings such as the Neighbourhood Tent, which offers space to community, environmental and grassroots organizations to provide information about their goals and activities. The festival’s setting encourages a certain earthy Bohemianism. Held on an island in the middle of a reservoir and wooded nature preserve, there is no sign of urban development visible from the site. “The island is the perfect symbol for the festival. When you walk through those gates, you feel you are really getting away from it all,”explained artistic director Sam Baijal.
This refuge makes for open-minded audiences and for performers eager to hang out and have a good time. “Bands walk out on stage, and even though no one has ever heard of them, they’ll get an amazing response,” he explained. “Our audiences come without preconceived notions. They’ll buy tickets before we’ve even announced our lineup. They want to be challenged.”
Challenges come during the festival’s workshops: unexpected pairings of artists tossed together on one stage for a madcap jam session. Though once upon a time, Hillside made these matches by pulling names out of a hat – they were even called “hat bands” – now programmers curate performers who would never have jammed otherwise. Twenty-two musicians joined reggae legend Burning Spear to chant down Babylon one year during the festival, while Calexico and members of Los Lobos rocked out together another time.
“You can’t buy or plan that kind of spontaneity,” Baijal said. “These things just happen here.”
Alongside the commitment to adventuresome music is an equally important commitment to the environment. Hillside has been recycling seriously since the ‘80s and has used solar power to run events since the early ‘90s. The festival has stopped allowing plastic bottles, bringing in water trucks, not only to avoid waste, but “because the festival feels water should be complimentary to all,” Baijal notes. And you won’t find Styrofoam or plastic disposables on the island: Food is served on dishes that are washed by hundreds of volunteers.
Though hip, Hillside keeps it homegrown, right down to refusing all corporate sponsorship: You’re likely to catch seniors raving about how they loved the beatboxer they just heard, or see kids sliding through mud puddles. There is hand drumming, a First Nations circle, and spoken word performances. Festival fans practice yoga or get goofy citations from a self-appointed, tongue-in-cheek fashion policeman.
Although Hillside’s 4,000 weekend passes sold out the same day they went on sale back in the spring, there are still single passes available, ranging in price from $40 to $70. Full information, including performance schedules, can be found on the website, www.hillsidefestival.ca.
New to the Hillside experience, Zimmerman has a few suggestions: “Bring a hat, a water bottle, sunscreen, a comfy blanket and an open mind,” she laughed.