Hillside Festival, Guelph, Ontario, July 23-25
Note: I wrote this review for two other blogs, and it took me forever to write so I figured I should share the love and post it here too. It’s long, but I broke it into three parts on my personal blog, so click the “Day X” to read it chapter-style. There is some non-Americana/Roots music/content in this post, but think you all can handle it! Enjoy!
– Rockstar Aimz
|Mediocre photography by me.|
The 27th annual Hillside Festival took place July 23-25 at the Guelph Conservation Area, slightly northeast of the city of Guelph in southern Ontario. I like to refer to Hillside as “hippie fest,” not just because I didn’t shower for three days, but because the vibe at this festival is all peace, love, and harmony. Babies and older timers, hipsters and geeks, singles and families, dancers and shoe gazers: as along as you like music, you are welcome at Hillside. And the music ranges all over the place: electronic, country, classic rock, hip-hop, bluegrass, indie rock, spoken work, folk, afrobeat, gospel, blues, and so on. There is something for everyone at Hillside.
|Free drinking water: BYOWB (Bring Your Own Water Bottle).|
Hillside has a strict environmental mandate. People are encouraged to take a free shuttle bus from downtown Guelph, or to ride their bike and park it securely for free. Drinking water is free if you bring your own container (no plastic bottle litter). Food vendors serve tasty meals on plates that volunteers hand wash for reuse (no wasteful paper plates). Trash is separated and recycled or composted as needed. You even have to buy or bring your own beer mug/wine glass.
|Dish washing area where volunteers clean the plates and cups.|
Hillside is on an island in the Guelph Conservation Area. This year, due to local road construction and other logistical problems, performers were literally shipped in on a ferry boat over Guelph Lake. Since the island is limited in size to roughly 5000 people, tickets for this festival go on sale mid-winter, and they sell out before the performers are even announced.
I decided last minute to go to the festival, and my main woman TK set me up with a spare weekend pass that her friend couldn’t use. I busted out of work early and hauled ass to Guelph, and was only momentarily delayed by the disaster that is GTA traffic. TK (aka DJTK in the London, ON, area) is a huge fan of electronic music, and she insisted that I get there in time to hear festival opener Beardyman, a beat box performer from the UK. I’m not much for electronic music, but I am open minded, so I got there in time to get meet TK, get my bracelet, and settle in for Beardyman. Holy cow! I was completely blown away by Beardyman (aka Darren Foreman) who is very famous in the UK and Europe for his beat box skills, live looping, and general free-styling. He had people up and dancing at 6:30pm and could have easily kept the rave-like atmosphere going all night. He was one hell of an opener.
|DJTK and Rockstar Aimz (me) enjoying Beardyman.|
After Beardyman I really needed a beer, so I headed over to the Lake Stage to catch the Toronto-based Warped 45s. Although I did enjoy Beardyman, alt country music is more my thing, and The Warped 45s delivered a great set playing tracks from their debut album 10 Day Poem for Saskatchewan. Their country/rock style is reminiscent of Neil Young circa Comes a Time. Very enjoyable.
|The Warped 45s on the Lake Stage.|
Next I headed over to the Island Stage to check out Lee Harvey Osmond, Tom Wilson‘s latest project which he referred to as a “middle-aged song writing collective.” I would like to point out that it was hot and humid as all get-out that night. I was sweating in shorts and a T-shirt. Wilson and his band were decked out in suits with jackets and ties. I have no idea how they didn’t pass out due to heat, but hey, they’re professionals. On this night his band included guitar virtuoso Stephen Fearing, singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Linden, as well as Brent Titcomb, who is 70-years-young, on various instruments. This set wasn’t so much Lee Harvey Osmond as it was Tom Wilson’s greatest hits. After “Queen Bee” from the Lee Harvey Osmond 2010 Polaris Prize long list album A Quiet Evil, they played “Freedom” co-written by Wilson and Colin James. They got the audience to sing along to Junkhouse classic “Shine,” and played songs from the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings catalog. Towards the end of the set Titcomb took center stage and sang and played mouth harp at the same time. WOW! But the encore truly blew me away. Wilson brought Astrid Young (Neil’s little sister) up onto the stage, and sang Neil’s “Get Back to the Country.” After I scraped my jaw off of the ground, I decided that even if the rest of the festival was a complete disaster, this performance alone made the weekend worth it.
|Lee Harvey Osmond: (left to right) Brent Titcomb, Stephen Fearing, drummer dude (?), Tom Wilson, and Colin Linden (behind Wilson). I think there is also a bassist hiding behind Titcomb.|
I needed to decompress and have another beer, so I headed back over to the Lake Stage to check out Yukon Blonde. This Vancouver-based quartet took the stage wearing party masks, but since it was so effing hot outside, they ditched the masks pretty quickly. They played an enjoyable, energized set of rock. One of their songs called “Wind Blows” contains the lyric “Listen to the raindrops outside of your window,” and it occurred to me that BC-based bands frequently sing about rain. Write what you know, I guess. Midway through their set they pulled a random guy from the audience onto the stage to play tambourine. The random dude nailed it! So fun. I like these guys.
Tuscon, Arizona, based Calexico headlined the first night of Hillside. They are a really great alt country band with a unique tejano sound. They are currently offering a free live-show download here. Their more recent music is a little too jazzy for my tastes. Plus, I was really tired from working all day, then driving to Guelph, then rocking all night. I headed out about half way through their set. Please note that Calexico is scheduled to tour Western Canada supporting the Arcade Fire in late September. Yay!
There was a huge thunderstorm on Saturday, June 24, so I decided to wait out the weather over a breakfast/lunch of bacon sandwiches and onion rings before heading back to Hillside. Needless to say I arrived at Day 2 of Hillside much later than I wanted to, and I missed Royal Wood and The Wooden Sky. After sitting in my Jeep for a while, waiting for the damn rain to stop, I finally sucked it up and headed in, my bright yellow raincoat keeping me dry.
I attended Hillside once before in 2008, and that year I was totally blow away by two different workshops. The first one was called “Guitar Dreams.” This workshop featured Danny Michel, Liz Powell, Sue Foley, and David Woodhead. All four of them blew me away. Michel started out with electric guitar doing a very stripped-down version of Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” and got the crowd to whistle along. He followed that with a slow version of “I Will Love You For Miles,” off of his 2007 release Valhalla. Liz Powell did two lovely originals on acoustic guitar. Sue Foley, an accomplished blues guitarist, gave a demonstration on the Piedmont style of blues, then showed some of her recent interest in Flamenco-style guitar. Finally, David Woodhead amazed everyone with his fretless electric bass. The other musicians on stage had the “wow!” look on their faces too. Truly a magical session of music!
The second workshop that blew my mind was the last event of the 2008 festival, and featured The Sadies and Po Girl, plus any other of their musician friends that happened to be around. This is basically how it went down: Dallas Good of The Sadies would yell the key of the tune (“The key of G, as in Jesus” for damn near every song), and the rest of the musicians would play, take turns playing solos, and take turns being generally awesome. Even Hayden‘s trumpet player took a turn at improv soloing. I’ve never seen such a show of musicianship. I was so wound up after that jam session, that I didn’t sleep that night, and was a complete zombie at work the following day. So needless to say, I was really looking forward to the workshops/jams sessions for Hillside 2010.
Despite the rain, a “Colossal Jam” scheduled for the main stage took off Saturday evening and featured Calexico, Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett backed by Zeus, Emma Bortolon-Vettor, and Stephen Berlin the baritone sax player from Los Lobos. Other members of Los Lobos were supposed to attend, but had some travel/gear issues with their airline.
|Colossal Jam: (left to right) Joey Burns of Calexico, Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett, and dude from Zeus who’s name I don’t know, but his guitar playing is spectacular.|
The jam session was lead by Calexico front man Joey Burns, who incidentally, was born in Montreal (dual citizenship, yo). Calexico/Burns, Harmer, and Collett took turns leading songs while the rest of the people on the stage backed them up. Calexico played two originals, including one in Spanish sung by trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela. They closed with a killer version of The Minutemen’s “Jesus and Tequila.” Harmer started with “Silverado” from her new album Oh Little Fire, then played “Oleander” from 2005’s I’m a Mountain, and finished with one of my favorites “Luthers Got the Blues,” a Luther Wright cover also from I’m a Mountain. Collett started with “My Daddy Was a Rock and Roller,” and finished with “Blue Sky.” But Collett’s second choice of tracks was his most intriguing. He got the whole gang to cover Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and fortunately, someone captured it on video and posted it on youtube.
WOW! The soloists include Calexico’s Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, Los Lobos’s bari saxophonist Stephen Berlin, Emma Bortolon-Vettor, the tiny girl with the huge guitar sound, and the amazing guitarist form Zeus, who’s name I don’t know.
|The other half of the Colossal Jam: (left to right): Martin Wenk and Jacob Venezuela of Calexico, Stephen Berlin of Los Lobos, John Convertino of Calexico, and Emma Bortolon-Vettor of The Folk.|
Up next on the main stage was Basia Bulat. She and her band played a high energy, enthusiastic set, covering tracks from both of her albums. It looks like she is touring the states right now, but will be back in Canada in October and November, opening for Josh Ritter. That will be a great show. I’m buying my tickets right now.
I’ve already written about Jason Collett and Sarah Harmer a bit, so I will summarize their respective main stage shows here. Collett rocked extra hard, especially since he had Zeus as his backing band (more on Zeus tomorrow). Harmer played several songs off of her new album, plus several crowd favorites including “Basement Apartment.” Julie Fader provided keyboards and backing vocals for her set. One of the problems with these 45 min. Hillside sets by musicians like Bulat, Collett, and Harmer is that they can only cram so much into a short period of time, and these mini sets frequently leave you asking for more.
Another problem with Hillside is that I frequently want to be in two places at once. For my next performance I had to decide between The Beauties and The Good Lovelies. I’ve seen The Beauties before, and they frequently play in Toronto, so I headed over to the Lake Stage to see The Good Lovelies. Little did I know that The Good Lovelies had received a 2010 Juno award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Group, beating out the likes of Great Lake Swimmers and Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle (who I would have voted for). And I thought the Junos were all about Nickleback and Michael Buble. That’ll learn me. Anyway, the Good Lovelies are an all-women trio from the Toronto area. All three of them rotate between their various instruments: acoustic guitar, banjo, acoustic bass, and mandolin. Their style is a mixture of bluegrass, folk, and western swing, expressed through strong vocal three part harmonies. These ladies are ridiculously talented, not to mention hysterical. Their goofy stage banter makes their show that much more fun, especially when you are in a beer tent. They played many songs for their self titled 2009 Juno award winning release. Then they covered Gram Parson‘s “Juanita.” Note to bands: if you pull out a Gram Parsons cover, especially in three part harmony, I will be a fan for life. The Good Lovelies closed with a singalong to their song “Lie Down.” What a great performance.
|Hillside Festival mud on Saturday, July 24|
The headliner for Saturday was Los Lobos. By this time all of The Wolves’ gear and personnel had arrived, and the main stage area was packed. At the same time, Japandroids and Grand Analog were also playing their respective stages. Also at the same time, I was friggin’ exhausted and covered in mud from the afternoon downpours. I decided to call it a night, but I regretted it later when I heard that the Japandroids absolutely killed. I’ll have to catch them the next time they are in T.O.
But more adventures loomed in the parking lot (i.e. a big field). The afternoon rain had caused the formation of huge mud puddles, and people with small cars were getting stuck everywhere. Cue Corb Lund‘s “The Truck Got Stuck.” It was pitch black outside, and no one could see what they were doing while they were trying to get their cars out of the muck. Tow trucks from Guelph were lined up waiting to stiff people $45 for a tow (which happened to my girl DJTK). Fortunately, I had a Jeep, so I popped it into four wheel drive and laughed at all of the suckers getting towed away. It was actually really fun plowing my Jeep through the muck. I got to my friend’s place relatively early, and got a good hot shower to end my rockstar day.
|My truck did not get stuck.|
|Perfect day in Guelph, despite the previous day’s deluge.|
The weather on the third day of Hillside, Sunday, July 25, could not have been better. The traffic volunteers were directing everyone to a different field on this day, and you could still see a few stuck cars in giant mud puddles in the adjacent lot. It looked the beginnings of Hillside’s own Carhenge. More importantly though, I had my act together and got to the island by 1pm.
The first act I caught on Sunday was Zeus. I am nominating Zeus as the “hardest working band of Hillside 2010.” They played an 11 a.m. show on Saturday, backed up Jason Collett in the Colossal Jam at 4pm on Saturday, backed up Collett solo 7pm on Saturday, and finally had their own show on Sunday at the Island Stage.
|Zeus plays to a very crowded Island Stage.|
Their Island Stage show was electric! It was packed with people of all ages. I couldn’t see a thing (above photo), but they sounded fantastic. In addition to playing a number of songs from their 2010 album Say Us, they also played a few killer covers including “That’s All” by Genesis, presumably for the old people (and by old people, I mean me). Check out below how talented these dudes are. In the below video they first play a new song that they had never played live before, followed by “How Does It Feel?” Notice how three of the musicians switch instruments between songs. Amazing. Mark my words people, Zeus will be huge some day. Can someone please tell me the name of the dude in the blue shirt who starts out on guitar and switches to keyboards? I feel like a real jackass blogger for not being able to figure out who is who.
My next musical selection was one of the main reasons I attended Hillside this year. Corb Lund and his band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, are my second favorite Canadian act (the first being The Sadies). Every time Lund and his boys have been through Toronto in like the last five years I have been somewhere else, so even this 45 minute set on the main stage was a treat for me.
|Corb Lund (center) and guitarist Grant Siemens (left) play the main stage.|
Lund and his superb band played a fantastic greatest hits-style of show, drawing on many songs from his excellent 2009 release Losing Lately Gambler. The crowd was really great. Sometimes Ontarians can be a little standoffish when it comes to country(ish) music, but people at Hillside were even two-steppin’ with their toddlers. Lund also introduced a new song, an old-style country tune called “R-E-G-R-E-T” which reminded me a little of the Old 97’s “W-I-F-E.” And check out Grant Siemens, Lund’s extraordinarily talented guitarist (left above). Not only does he rule the strings, but in his plaid shirt, frayed jeans, crazy hair, and cool shades, he looks like he is auditioning for a 1992 Nirvana video, only with country music. Bad ass!
Check out the below video where Lund tells AUX TV about flying in from Calgary at 5:30 a.m. (Mountain Time) and barely getting to Hillside in time for the show.
Click the square thing on the left of the volume for full screen.
|Andy White and his tiny 12-string.|
I meant to head over to the Sun Stage to check out Reid Jamieson, Royal Wood and Alex Cuba, but I was starting to get sunburned and I really wanted to cool off with a beer. I headed over to the Lake Stage to get some shade and some suds. One of my favorite things about Hillside is when you discover someone who you had never heard of before, and you really like him/her. In this case, I discovered Andy White. His folk songs remind me a bit Paul Kelly meets Billy Bragg, only not as surly as Bragg. Although I feel like an idiot now as White has only been doing the singer/songwriter thing for over 25 years! White is originally from Belfast, Ireland, and now makes his home in Melbourne, Australia. He plays this tiny 12-string acoustic (right), which I asked him about later as this guitar is smaller than the girly guitar that I “play.” He told me that he had it custom made in Australia, and for the purposes of touring, it sounds very similar to a full size 12-string. Plus, the smaller one is much easier to travel with, especially when you are traveling half way around the world. White played the following week in Toronto and I missed his set due to my crappy job, but I was sure glad that I stumbled upon him at Hillside.
Nothing else on the schedule was looking interesting to me, and I wanted more beers, so I decided to chill out some more at the Lake Stage. The announcer introduced Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long and said something about “spoken word.” I mumbled, “Aw cripes.” Needless to say I am not a huge spoken word fan, but heck, I stuck it out for Beardyman, I can handle this too. It took me a while to figure out why Koyczan looked familiar (I’m slow): he was the dude that did the “We Are More” poem at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. For this set, Koyazan spoke his poetry while a band backed him up with appropriate music to set the tone of the poem. Damned if he didn’t have every person in the tent, including me, in the palm of his hand. Maybe it was the beer, or the fact that I am a giant suck, but I got choked up during one song! He made a terrific impression on me, and I would go see him again.
Next I headed over to the Sun stage to check out the workshop called “Don’t Break My Freakin’ Heart” hosted by Corb Lund. This country/folk workshop also included Andy White, The Good Lovelies, who I wrote about yesterday, and a youngster named Sam Doores and his band The Tumbleweeds. As you undoubtedly read yesterday, my favorite parts of Hillside are when they cram a bunch of musicians together and say, “go!”
|Left to right: The Good Lovelies (Kerri, Sue, and Caroline), Sam Doores, and Andy White.|
Lund started the set with a sad cowboy song called “The Horse I Rode in On.” It’s too bad that there wasn’t beer being served at the Sun Stage, because that song made me want to cry into one. White followed with a folk song who’s name I forget about the first time he was asked about his religion in Northern Ireland. Doores, an American from New Orleans who, thanks to our friends at Canadian Customs and Immigration, was held at the border for 20 hours before they let him into the country, played another country crier called “Wrong Time to Be Right.” (Listen on Myspace.) Doores’s band The Tumbleweeds is equally excellent, rounded out by an upright base, and a bad-ass lap steel player. Doores has an excellent country voice, but I can’t find any info on albums or anything. Kid, you need to update your website or Myspace or Facebook of SOMETHING! And Sammy if you are reading this, your Myspace layout is terrible.
|Corb Lund hides behind the speakers.|
Anyway, my new favorite band, the Good Lovelies, an all woman trio from the Toronto area, played their “Catholic school guilt” song called “Down, Down, Down.” Even Lund commented on how ridiculously talented they are. The musicians took turns playing three songs each, with Lund doing “Long Gone to Saskatchewan,” much to the crowd’s delight, Doores covering a Townes Van Zandt song, and the other musicians backing each other up as needed. The Good Lovelies closed out the session by getting everyone, including the audience, to sing along to “You Are My Sunshine.” Fantastic!
The two big headliners for the night were Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles followed by Stars. The main stage area was packed! I was standing way in the back. When Downie got on stage he started being weird, and saying strange things into the microphone that made absolutely no sense. I know that Downie has his odd moments (don’t we all?), but after spending eight hours at Hillside, I was wishing he would get down to business and rock. Also, I suspect people wanted to hear Downie throw out some Tragically Hip songs. I’ve seen the Hip a number of times, most memorably in the ghetto in St. Louis, which I will leave to another blog post, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out if Downie broke out any of the classics. I still had a long trek back to Toronto that night, and work Monday morning. But on my way out of the festival grounds, I turned around and saw one of the most beautiful full moon rises that I have ever seen. The moonlight guided me back to the big city, already pining for Hillside 2011.