A Festival That Does Everything Right
Throughout my life, I’ve attended and performed at a number of music festivals. As a kid, my folk-duo parents would drag me and my sister to their festival gigs, and these days I’m performing with my band, Lula Wiles. When we were asked to play at Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario, earlier this year, we were unfamiliar with the festival and most of the artists on its lineup, but I figured I would feel at home there when I read the mission statement on their website:
The Hillside Community Festival is a not-for-profit music festival that celebrates creativity through artistic expression, community engagement and environmental leadership. Hillside will create a more vibrant and caring world by promoting altruism, equality, environmentalism and peacemaking in every aspect of its work.
Our experience at Hillside began with a two-day drive from Boston, followed by a short trip on a small raft-like boat to an island in the middle of Guelph Lake. We found that we were sharing the boat with some of the musicians with whom we were about to kick off the festival. Canadian festivals are known for their collaborative “workshop” sets, where they see what happens when a bunch of bands (who have likely never met or heard each other’s music before) are thrown onstage together. Over the course of a 45-minute set, the audience heard The Jerry Cans’ Zydeco-inflected dance music mixed with traditional Inuit throat-singing, Begonia’s powerhouse soul-pop vocals, and Lula Wiles’ stringband indie-folk, including some spontaneous collaboration. For the artists, it’s a sudden bonding experience, like a trust fall; we have to open up our painstakingly crafted songs to new, unrehearsed interpretations and create a good show for the audience. And we can’t be too obvious about the fact that we’re flying by the seat of our pants. We played two workshop sets over the course of the weekend, and I like to think we pulled it off.
I spent much of the weekend marveling at everything Hillside was doing right. The festival was clean and efficient, the site is gorgeous, and the staff was knowledgeable and as friendly as the Canadian stereotype suggests. Every detail, from the gender-inclusive bathrooms to the designated handicapped seating areas to the reusable dishware, reflected the festival’s compassion and care. Hillside also reminded me what’s possible when arts programs receive proper government funding: It allows creative people, including musicians and festival organizers, to freely do their thing, to create the kind of energy and community that they want to see in the world. It seems to me that the Canadian government understands the value of the arts in a way that the American government hasn’t quite grasped. Some other festivals either suffer from a lack of funding that creates logistical pressure and shoddy infrastructure, or they take the kind of corporate sponsorships that can provide for a well-run event but kill a bit of its soul. Hillside managed to avoid both of those pitfalls, and I wish every festival had access to such resources.
The festival’s ideals were perhaps clearest in its artist roster, which included performers of diverse races, genders, nationalities, and genres without resorting to tokenism. Every act I saw was clearly hired not to fill some diversity quotient, but simply because they’re really, really good. I don’t know if I’ve ever attended a festival where I was so frequently floored by artists I’d never heard of before, and so eager to continue listening to music.
As the sky grew dark on Saturday night, I was wandering the festival grounds alone, feeling aimless and exhausted. I ended up at the entrance to the sacred fire circle, a longstanding Hillside tradition coordinated by members of Guelph’s indigenous community. I was instructed to scatter some cedar leaves in the entryway, and to walk clockwise around the fire. I sat and breathed deeply for a few minutes. It was a rare moment of peace within the tumult of the festival, and I emerged feeling re-energized.
Which brings me to Weaves, the Toronto indie-rock quartet who closed out one of the festival stages that night. Often, when I’m hearing or seeing a band, part of my “musician brain” can’t stop analyzing and dissecting, instead of simply experiencing the songs as a fan might. When I see a performance that can shut off that impulse and render me completely present, it’s something special. Weaves did that for me. (They also gave an impassioned speech on the importance of moshing safely, which I think really sums up the vibe at Hillside.) I watched lead singer Jasmyn Burke stand at the edge of the stage, her voice rising to a yowl with the band thundering behind her, and I felt something drawing me deeper in. I left my friends and clambered into the center of the tent. Alone in a crowd, I danced and shouted along with the festival attendees, and looking back almost two months later, I know I’ll remember that moment as one of my favorite live music experiences.
It’s difficult to keep this column to a reasonable length, because there are so many other moments I could share from the weekend. Suffice it to say that although Hillside’s lineup spans genres, it is a folk festival in the truest sense of the word. The festival’s commitment to diversity, sustainability, and, above all, community evoked not only the festivals of my childhood, but the kind of world I want to live in.