Dispatches from the Hillside Festival – Day One (Friday)
Opening day of the 36th annual Hillside Summer Festival truly was a beautiful day full of stories that needed to be told (that’s the theme for this year’s festival, by the way).
My wife and I arrived at our campsite Thursday evening, and it was nice to have the time to walk around the Guelph Lake Conservation Area, observe from afar the army of volunteers that it takes to present this amazing festival and establish our “must see” list for each day. With such a full and diverse lineup being presented on five stages throughout the festival, we were in for a busy weekend. We spent Friday morning finalizing our list for opening day then loaded up our wagon and made the trek from our campsite to the island where Hillside takes place.
While there is a free shuttle bus that routinely travels the entire campground, we preferred to take the leisurely walk and let the excitement build as we approached the festival grounds. It seems appropriate that the walkway that leads into Hillside is actually referred to as “Anticipation Alley.” It’s hard to describe but there’s a vibe that emanates from Hillside and everyone involved. As expected, the volunteers at the Gate Tent greeted us with an enthusiastic “Happy Hillside.” It was great to be back again this year!
Having arrived just after the gates opened we had approximately an hour to survey the festival site before the official opening ceremonies. We walked by the Funga Drummers entertaining everyone as they arrived and an upright piano sitting around for anyone to play. The artist performing at the time we past by was a toddler! We popped by the info booth to purchase a souvenir program, something we regretted not buying last year. Then we stopped at the merchandise tent so I could grab this year’s t-shirt and peruse any of the artist’s merch that was already on display. I spotted an Andy Maize solo album on vinyl that I expect to take home by the end of the weekend.
We took a leisurely stroll around the entire festival site. It was incredible to see the variety of activities, facilities and vendors that Hillside is quite capable of cramming onto an island in Guelph Lake. We passed by a Trust Tent, Greenspace, Indigenous circle and tent, a coffee vendor with a bike driven bean grinder, solar powered charging stations for patron’s devices, and The Oasis (an elevated shade tent for anyone with special needs) – only high quality craft vendors and some of the best food options we’ve ever seen at a festival. They even have an oyster bar!
We filled up our water bottles at the free water filling station, compliments of The City of Guelph, then it was time for the show. The festival kicked off around 5:45 p.m. at the mainstage with a heartfelt and moving Indigenous welcome, with members representing the local Indigenous community being accompanied by the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Algonquin group from Rhode Island.
The first thing on our “must see” list was a workshop at the Lake Stage entitled The Other Side of the Hill featuring Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, a duo called The Sea The Sea, and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and his Quiet River of Dust project. It was our first time seeing each act, and we were looking forward to how well they might work together and if any magic that can come out of the best workshops could be created. Rhiannon Giddens kicked things off with stunning vocals and skillful fiddle and banjo playing. Francesco Turrisi was also phenomenal on accordion, tambourine and hand drums. To some degree, everyone on stage improvised on each other’s songs, which was a treat to watch. It certainly left us wanting to see more of each act throughout the weekend. The big finale came when Rhiannon lead the crowd in a resounding rendition of, and singalong to, “Lights In The Valley.” Richard Reed Parry seemed particularly moved by the experience.
We stayed at the Lake Stage to catch The Pairs, a five-piece band from London, ON. It was awesome to see an enthusiastic and sizeable group of fans sporting the band’s t-shirts in the audience. One band member joked that most were probably family. The Pairs shared that they’d been attending Hillside for 10 years, and on their calendars the festival is right up there with Christmas Day. I believe it was their very first time actually performing at the festival. Their three-part harmonies were very good, and the band was clearly enjoying every second of their opportunity to finally perform on a Hillside stage. No doubt they will be asked to return.
Unfortunately we had to duck out early and head back to the mainstage to see the last part of Grounded To The Rhythms, a workshop featuring the Eastern Medicine Singers and Quantum Tangle. The groups had never even met before, but their mix of throat singing, electric guitar, keyboard, synthesizer, traditional drum and vocals worked well. Hearing modern technology alongside traditional drumming and vocals was thrilling.
It had been mainly cloudy most of the day but almost on cue the clouds began to part and the moon rose in the sky as we sat in front of the mainstage to see Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi. They were in their element on the big stage and performed a flawless, moving and thought provoking set with Rhiannon deftly switching between playing fiddle and plucking a banjo that was a replica of one made in 1858. Francesco skillfully switched between the accordion and various tambourines and drums. The highlight for me was when he told a hilarious, but apparently true, story about a song that was performed in Southern Italy to cure a person who was bitten by a spider. Apparently the afflicted would have to dance for as long as it took in order for the bite to heal. Sometimes the musicians would end up playing, eating and drinking in the home for a week. Sounds like a good racket to me! Rhiannon earned the first standing ovation of the festival following an awesome rendition of “Molly Brannigan” that started with an incredible tambourine solo by Francesco.
Then it was time to head back to the Lake Stage to catch The Sea The Sea. We were happy to see the duo perform as a four-piece this time, as their sound was much more fleshed out than when we saw them at the workshop earlier. Their two-part harmonies were fantastic, and their writing very strong. We were impressed and both agreed that we’d discovered another great new act at the festival.
We finished the day off with Alan Doyle and his band on the mainstage. Alan had the crowd on their feet from the very first song. People of all ages were clapping, dancing and singing along. Somewhat surprisingly it was our first time seeing Alan Doyle live. We’d skipped out before his mainstage performance during last year’s Mariposa Festival. Tonight’s performance certainly made us regret that decision. Alan is a consummate entertainer. We were surprised by how many songs we knew and quickly found ourselves enthusiastically singing along with Alan and the rest of the crowd. At one point, the area was a sea of lighters and cellphone lights. Other times it was a raging dance party as everyone jumped up and down in unison. Alan announced that it was his Hillside debut and repeatedly thanked the organizers for inviting him and his band to perform. Alan put on an awesome show, and I think almost any festival in the country would benefit from his being included in their lineup.
Sadly the day came to an end shortly after 11 p.m., and we joined the throngs of festival-goers making their way off the island under a bright, but not quite full, moon and a starlit sky to guide the way back to our campsite to rest up for Day Two. Surely it’ll be another full day of stories that need to be told.
So far it’s certainly been a happy Hillside!