Recap: Saturday at the Hillside Summer Festival
The Hillside Summer Festival and Hillside Inside 2022 took place from July 22 to 24 on Guelph Lake Island, featuring three days of multi-stage performances including collaborative sessions.
What is so special about the Hillside Festival experience is the creation of what is essentially an impromptu pop up village of people who come to share the space, to share music, literature, poetry, spoken word, dance, drama, comedy, visual art, crafts, and food in a mutually respectful, culturally, and environmentally conscious way.
As conscientiously acknowledged on their website, Hillside is located on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people, now recognized as the treaty lands and territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit.
The festival has a dedicated Indigenous Circle offering the Sacred Fire, ceremony circles, and workshops.
Surrounded by trees and blue skies on a beautiful balmy Saturday in Guelph, my partner and I head down the path towards Guelph Lake Island, walking quickly and feeling giddy from anticipation. There is a free shuttle bus available, but we are too excited to stop even for the 10 minute wait.
The walking path branches into a few directions. I spot a family of Hillside goers just ahead, who advise me to “follow the drums” heard in the distance. So, we happily trail them towards the festival entrance.
Many Hillside goers set up camp overnight on the Guelph Lake campgrounds, which surround Guelph Lake Island where the festival takes place. As we walk, we can see patches of tents lining and dotting the green spaces that surround us.
Island Trip II: Session with Kobo Town and Danny Michel on the Island Stage
We make it to the Island Stage just in time to hear Kobo Town perform the spellbinding song “Carnival of the Ghosts” from their latest album.
We are mesmerized by the shuffling eclectic symphony of calypso beats, meeting the round sweet rhythmic vocals moving at full speed.
Kobo Town is a Toronto-based band named after the historic district of Kobo Town in the city of Port of Spain, Trinidad, the district where calypso was born
The Juno-nominated band has a growing local and international fan base that spans the globe from Toronto to the cities and towns of Canada, Trinidad, Malaysia, France, the United States and beyond.
Kobo Town’s music has been widely hailed by audiences and critics as a mystifying, brilliant fusion of calypso, reggae, rock, and poetry.
Their third album, Where the Galleon Sank, was released in 2017 and won a Canadian Folk Music Award for World Group of the Year. Where the Galleon Sank was also awarded a Juno for World Music Album of the Year in 2018.
Carnival of the Ghosts was just released in 2022.
After Kobo Town performs the song “Carnival of the Ghosts” it’s Danny Michel’s turn to play “a little something,” and so begins a surprise merry rendition of punk rock band the Clash’s “Bankrobber.” At Danny’s urgence, the audience happily joins in to sing, as he plays his guitar and sings lead vocals.
Kobo Town also joins in, and what transpires is funk-calypso folk infusion that, like a Caribbean breeze, lifts the morning summer haze hanging over our heads.
Danny and Kobo Town’s performance draws to a close all too soon.
The Crossing: Session with MONOWHALES and Royal Canoe
My partner and I stick around the Island Stage, eager to witness the historic coupling of MONOWHALES and Royal Canoe.
After brief introductions, a humorous banter between MONOWHALES and Royal Canoe kicks off an amicable ‘battle of the bands’, with each band ready to show their stuff.
The audience is happy to oblige, jumping and cheering for the games to begin!
Royal Canoe starts the set with “Get It” from their 2021 album Sidelining – a song that starts off with a mellow, inviting open arrangement, then progressively builds in layers and intensity. Backed by a heavy base, the keyboard and drums join in sync, as slowly and gradually the blooming electric guitar sails in and steals away in a fantastic sonic storm.
MONOWHALES respond with their song “CTRL^^^,” which was just released this past February. Featuring a dazzling electric guitar and intense bass rhythm, the drums build up sound in sync with the lyrics sung by lead vocalist Sally Shaar “super.
A controlled alchemic crafting of sound waves expands and contracts. At Sally’s invitation, the crowd enthusiastically joins in to repeat the lyric “I like to be in control.”
Then Royal Canoe takes a turn, with their song “What’s Left in the River” from 2019’s Waver which features a fuzzy, vibrating but mellow introduction.
Bandmates combine vocals and then break down into layered vocals. A space saucer sound circles, the drums hit heavy then fall back as synthesizers and guitar cut in.
Then Royal Canoe steps aside for MONOWHALES to perform “All or Nothing” from their 2021 album Daytona Beach.
Sally tells the audience that the song is unfinished, but what better time than now to work out its kinks?
This is a humble move from a band that took home the 2022 Juno for Breakthrough Group of the Year.
Beginning with the self release of the single, “Take it Back,” in 2017, Toronto-based MONOWHALES have quickly made their mark on the Canadian Alternative Rock music scene. They are currently the only independent, self-managed band whose single nabbed the #2 spot on the Canadian Alternative Rock Chart. Just in the last 18 months, MONOWHALES have seen four of their songs reach the top 10 Billboard Modern Rock Singles chart. Their music has risen quickly on the alternative rock charts and has been streamed millions of times by audiences online.
Hearing MONOWHALES perform “All or Nothing” live is an engaging experience at all levels. Sally’s powerful, resounding lead vocals cut through the thundering guitars and metallic, quickening drums.
Winnipeg-based band Royal Canoe carries a steam ship-sized stock of adrenaline, coupled with an endless capacity for adventure. It has earned a reputation for its unique and creative performance style, which has included playing music from instruments crafted out of ice. The band has been known to wow audiences with over-the-top instrument lineups, such as a seven-keyboard set-up that it recently carried on tour.
After MONOWHALES perform “All or Nothing,” Royal Canoe follow with “HAL” from the 2021 album Sidelining.
Bucky Driedger creates a reverse guitar loop, which will fade in throughout the whole song.
Matt Peters adds haunting robotic vocal effects. Midway through the song, the lyrics are fed into a reverse AI generator. Glittering drum beats, and heavy duty electric audio surges fuel the galactic voyage that ensues.
Nicolette and the Nobodies
It’s hard to believe that this is the first ever Hillside performance for Nicolette and the Nobodies, who are being greeted by a crowded audience already on their feet at the Island Stage.
The band’s live performance of “Back and Forth” gets the audience swaying, singing, toe-tapping, and dancing.
A soul infused, country sound with a rock’ n roll touch, the fiddlers weave rhythms in sync with the guitars, then break out into their own harmony, before returning to keep time with the guitars, back and forth again.
Nicolette’s rich, twangy booming vocals contrast with her soft-spoken demeanor when she graciously addresses the crowd.
Nicollette announces that all the songs the band is performing today are new, except for “Back and Forth,” which is a song from their 2019 album Devil’s Run.
I can’t hear the titles of the new songs — the crowd is pretty rowdy here — but the songs are so heartbreakingly divine, they need no introduction.
Nicolette & The Nobodies proudly embrace their outlaw country band status, like the hearts they wear on their sleaves. Their debut album, Devil’s Run, was released in February 2019. They describe their music and performance style as “[i]nfluenced by the songs of ’60s and ’70s cowboys and country starlets, we dress for the occasion and bring a set of toe-tapping sad songs and ballads for lonely hearts.”
Nicolette and the Nobodies frequently play to sold-out crowds in cities like Toronto, but Guelph is the city they call home.
By the end of the set it seems that the entire community of Hillside, and possibly the entire community of Guelph has gathered by the stage, still on their feet and still ready for more.
I want to take a photo of Nicolette and the Nobodies but it’s too crowded to get through.
Leela Gilday on the Main Stage
Leela Gilday begins her set with a vibrant intense performance of her song “Mahsi Cho,” driven by resonant, powerful and tender vocals.
“Mahsi Cho” is followed by the bold and inspiring “Dene Love Song” from the album Sedzé. The drums beating, low pitched and warm, join with the melodious uplifting guitar and deep windy bass. In the performance of “Dene Love Song” her vocals begin soft but then run rich and deep.
Her performance is met with cheers and applause from the crowd.
After greeting the audience, Leela explains that she travelled a long way with her band to come to this festival. She gives a big shout out to the green practices at Hillside,
“I’m really happy to see that everybody has re-useable water bottles here; there’s water stations. It’s such a green conscious festival. I just love that!” she says. “I was inspired by the protests at Standing Rock a few years ago. As Indigenous people we are often called upon to take the place of guardians of our earth and our water, but the truth is that it’s not just Indigenous people that are connected to the land and to the water, it’s every single one of us as humans, we have that connection.”
Leela introduces and performs the song “Rolling Thunder,” a song “dedicated to the water protectors and the land protectors, and to those who would put their lives on the line to defend our earth and water”
The electric guitar shimmers with a bass that that is deep and insistent. The drum beat echoes. Leela’s vocals are colorful and penetrating.
“All Alone” begins with a mellow deep base, the bold earthy rattle of the drum, and a melodious sparkling guitar rhythm.
“This song is about walking your heart path; sometimes that is not always easy but it’s so important to stay true to what you truly believe,” she said.
Melodic, warm, colorful vocals penetrate the air when Leela performs the next song, “Falling Stars,” a love song for her territory, Denendeh.
Leela speaks boldly about being a proponent for mental wellness, about how it is important to communicate, to speak with each other about mental health, to have those conversations. That also means looking at systematic racism, systematic sexism, the systematic othering of many, many different people because colonial trauma impacts all of us.
The song she performs next is a song written with her husband, called “North Star Calling.”
“This is a song about remembering that you are a part of something much greater than yourself, that we are a part of this beautiful earth, and our sprits are all connected to one another. So if you need to hear this song right now, this is for you,” she said.
The performance of “North Star Calling” begins with a sweet, shimmering strumming guitar that builds with a mellow base, before flowing out in syncopated rhythms and bright sustained percussion beats.
Leela follows that with the bittersweet enchanting song “Space,” which she explains is a song she wrote about being connected with her loved ones in the spirit world.
“Space” begins with magnificent vocals in the Dene language, but then flows into a colorful resonant harmony that joins with the tender but powerful acoustics of the guitar, solemn bass, and rustling drums.
Earlier in the set, Leela reflected upon the past few years and what it means to be able to connect in-person again, but also how in the space of this time she has begun to learn her Dene K’e language.
“My mother went to residential school,” she explained. “I was not taught my language as a little girl, but as someone who is learning as an adult now, it is an extremely humbling task.”
Among these exquisite songs is “Sets’éni,” which translates to “My Friend” in English.
Leela and the Fretless join forces on stage to perform this song.
“Sets’éni” begins with Leela’s heartfelt radiating vocals joined in moments by the vocals of her bandmates. The guitar, and string section weave a bold, dark, colorful, fabric of harmonies with the bright drums above the current of a vibrant varying bass rhythm.
Leela then talks a little with the audience about the next song, a song about taking back our power, taking back our waters and lands, and healing our relationships with one another.
Together with the Fretless, she performs the final song of the set, “K’eintah Natse Ju.”
“K’eintah Natse Ju” is a song Leela composed to celebrate the resilience of Indigenous northerners for the album Gho-Bah Gombaa: First Light of Dawn released in 2019. It’s a song about healing from the legacy of colonization and its impact on family and community relationships.
The song combines both Dene language and English language lyrics.
Leela’s passionate, lilting vocals drive the song’s current.
The string section builds into a lively radical motion of deep rhythms that exchange beats with a soulful twangy guitar backed by an intense bass, and the penetrating but quick drum movements.
The afternoon has grown overcast but as Leela performs with the Fretless, the sun begins to burst from the clouds.
Leela Gilday is a spirited songwriter and performer whose luminous work has spanned decades. She has won the love of audiences and critics across Turtle Island and beyond. In 2021 she won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Indigenous Songwriter of the Year for her album North Star Calling. Leela also took home the 2021 Juno for Indigenous Artist of the Year for her work on North Star Calling. In 2020, she received the SOCAN “Her” Music Award (together with Haviah Mighty). Throughout her career, she has earned multiple awards, honours, and nominations.
Leela’s family roots are in Dél?ne on the shore of Great Bear Lake. Her music is rich with the people and the land of her home, the experiences of being a northerner from the Dene Nation.
Julian Taylor on the Island Stage
After Leela Gilday’s performance, we head back to the Island Stage where a growing audience gathers in anticipation of Julian Taylor’s show.
The audience is buzzing. Julian greets everyone warmly.
Julian begins his set with the song “The Ridge,” a song about summers he spent with his grandparents in a town called Maple Ridge, which he remembers as some of the best times in his life.
Warm, low pitched drums join with soft, quick melodious guitar rhythms around a solemn deep bass.
Julian has the very rare skill of being able to transform his vocals with each distinct song he performs. With “The Ridge” Julian’s vocals are like deep, crystal resonating waters.
The live performance blazes on with “Desert Star (Who Could Ask For Anything More),” a swirling tapestry of warm, rich rhythms magically interweave with vibrant shimmering beats.
After the song, Julian shares the story behind another of his songs, “Seeds,” from his upcoming album, Beyond the Reservoir.
This song was inspired by a text his cousin wrote and sent to him one morning right after news broke of the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds,” it read.
“Seeds” is performed for the first time live. The crowd is mesmerized. Julian’s vocals shine luminous and resonant.
Layered, colorful percussion beats blend with warm muted acoustics that build into a driving movement that is impossibly beautiful.
For the next song, Julian invites the audience to join in to sing with him.
With that, the live performance of “Ballad of a Young Troubadour” (from 2020’s The Ridge) begins.
The audience joins the caravan of harmony.
Afterwards, a gorgeous performance of “Bobbi Champagne” from the album Desert Star ensues which receives enthusiastic howls and applause from the crowd.
This is followed by a rocking performance of “Why Would You Do That” from 2014’s Tech Noir.
The electrifying “Set Me Free” is the final song of the set. Dancing erupts in full swing where a crowd has gathered by the stage.
Toronto-based songwriter, bandleader, band member, and solo artist Julian Taylor made his debut on the music scene back in 1994.
Since that time, he has led many music projects and accumulated an extensive body of work, which showcases a superlative range of musical styles that defies genre classification.
In 2021, Julian was nominated for two Junos: Indigenous Artist of the Year and Contemporary Roots Album of the Year for his album The Ridge.
Also in 2021, he was named Solo Artist of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and was also nominated in the English Songwriter category.
Laurel Tubman and Friends on the Lake Stage
Following Julian Taylor’s performance, the crowd beams with revitalized energy. My partner and I find the strength to head to the Lake Stage for one last show before finding a good place to recuperate before for another big day at Hillside.
We didn’t know it, but we were already on the right path, heading to see Laurel Tubman and Friends.
Laurel Tubman is hailed as one of the most versatile, emerging voices out of Toronto, praised for her ability to interpret multiple music genres.
Here at Hillside, audiences are ecstatic to hear her perform.
Laurel first began singing in the church in her youth. She has sung for delighted audiences across the world, performing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and the Jason Wilson Band.
She also worked as an Artist-In-Residence at the famed New York Bar in the Park Hyatt, Tokyo.
Laurel has also been engaged with Juno Award-winning artist David Buchbinder’s Ward TO since the project’s start in 2015.
A gentle twinkling of keys on the piano-keyboard sounds just before Laurel and her accompanying vocalists begin a riveting, sung rendition of Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.”
Laurel speaks to the audience, giving a brief introduction to the set, which is composed of Afro-centric pieces including folk, spirituals and gospel from all across Black culture.
The music Laurel and Friends share today is all about a journey.
“This could be any journey, a journey in life, like finishing school or moving to a new home or starting a new partnership,” she says. “Some journeys be longer and harder than others, but ultimately they have the same goal: to be safe and happy.”
The audience is invited to join in singing an apartheid song from South Africa, “Hamba Nathi,” which translates in English to “Go With Us.”
Laurel and Friends continue the journey with the audience through song, and then stop with us again to consciously reflect on the themes the songs tackle.
“People face discrimination for different reasons, like on the basis of the color of their skin,” she says. “You don’t have to be Black to understand that experience.”
Laurel introduces the spiritual “Buildin’ Me a Home.”
“Sometimes people are talking about building a home in their hearts or building a spiritual home,” she explains.
She talks with the audience about how, although it may seem that the music conveys a Christian vibe, it’s not intentional.
“For people of African descent who were stolen form their homeland, Christianity was not something that people brought with them, she says. “One thing that Black culture has done is always this ability to be creative and to iterate and to take something that has been given to us and make it into something so much different.”
Laurel introduces some more songs, which are work songs that were used to co-ordinate work in the fields. One of these songs is “Travelin’ Shoes.”
Laurel engages the audience again in reflection, saying “Ultimately what we are all trying to journey towards is peace, so that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Laurel introduces “This Little Light,” a song that was important for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s, a movement made of people who would not allow their message to be extinguished.
“As you listen, think about what is important to you, things you want to bring light to, take this time to let it shine,” say says.
The bass vocalist then takes lead. One by one, each vocalist joins the harmony.
The crowd cheers and glows with a new light.
As the vocalists sing, I see the shadow of a bird soaring above the stage tent.
“As you go out into the world, out into the festival, we want you to walk together,” Laurel says, before leading the group in the performance of the final song, “Walk Together Children and Don’t Be Weary.”
Bold bursts of verse, begin and stop, begin and stop quickly.
These verses the vocalists synchronize before syncopated moments of rising and falling independently. The voices join again, then branch out again.
The audience is now standing in an extended joyful applause, pausing for a moment, and taking time to feel peace and harmony before we head out to where we are going to, carrying that sweetest music within us.