Summer is all about outdoor music festivals, and you can’t get more outdoorsy than the Hillside Festival, set for July 28-30 at Guelph Lake. More than just music, the festival is an experience: workshops, artisans and activities with a decidedly Earth-friendly bent.
Featuring some 80 performances on five stages over the course of three days, Hillside offers a mix of established performers, up-and-coming artists and local talent. The festival is known for showcasing rising artists, who played to Hillside crowds before making it big, a list that includes the likes of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist, for instance.
This year’s outing, the 40th since the first one-day festival in a Guelph park back in 1984, features a real mixed bag, as Hillside continues to emerge from the pandemic. That’s been something of a challenge, notes executive director Marie Zimmerman.
“We were almost two and a half years into avoiding gathering. That was, I think, long enough to set a kind of habit, so it takes time to sort of unravel that little blanket that you made for yourself and under which you hid for two and a half years. We’re seeing a little bit of hesitation about joining big crowds, and that kind of thing,” she said, noting the gradual return to normal that started last year.
The pandemic had an effect not only on audiences, but on the industry side as well. Coupled with the rising cost of living, booking acts has become more expensive, for instance. That’s means fewer big headliners and more of a focus on exposing the Hillside audience to an array of acts, says Zimmerman.
“There were a lot of artists that we that we wanted to showcase, like Emmanuel Jal, for instance, and DakhaBrakha and Balaklava Blues – there are so many of them, and so we feel really lucky that we’re able to showcase them. But I think the reality is that in the music industry, artists’ fees have risen dramatically, because transportation costs have risen, so we can afford fewer artists this year, for sure,” she explained.
“Headliners have never been our bread and butter, but the possibility of having big headliners seems more and more remote for a lot of festivals now, because you have to have huge amounts of money. We’re a not-for-profit charity, very grassroots, and we try our best, but we also really love to showcase emerging artists, too, and artists that we really believe in, who then go on to make it really big.”
This year’s lineup includes a wide assortment, from Bedouin Soundclash to Hayden, from Lonesome Ace Stringband to Scott Wicken.
There are a whole lot of gems to be discovered, she said, noting the serendipity of discovering new acts and new sounds is one of the festival’s big draws.
Given the diversity, there’s pretty much something for everybody.
That aside, 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. There’s a certain element of escapism, where the audience itself runs the gamut from babies in strollers to their grandparents.
“Being side-by-side, face-to-face, arm-in-arm with sometimes strangers when you’re dancing and bumping into people, that kind of thing is one of the features of the collective joy that a communal gathering supplies, and it’s so great for our health and wellbeing to feel transported beyond daily drudgery or routine – to feel like the arts can make the spirit rise up and contemplate bigger and better things,” Zimmerman enthused.
More information, including each evening’s lineup and the assortment of activities, can be found online at www.hillsidefestival.ca.