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Recap: Sunday at the Hillside Summer Festival

Photo by Lisa Iesse.

It’s day three of the Hillside Festival. Even on a day like this, when the weather forecast calls for rain and thunderstorms in the morning, rain and thunderstorms in the afternoon, rain and thunderstorms in the evening and night – even then, you can’t shake these festival goers. It’s a “Happy Hillside” here or bust!

Today, my partner and I decide it’s a good day to make use of the handy bus shuttle service that’s included with the ticket. And we’re glad we did. As soon as the bus drives in, almost on cue the rain begins falling. We board the bus that is bouncing with happy Hillsiders, eager to hear more music, eager to be part of the dialogue, eager to learn more perspectives.

The Sunday Gospel Session with the Allison Lupton Band, Julian Taylor, Kyshona, Laurel Tubman & Friends, Leela Gilday, Nathan Lawr, and Nicolette & The Nobodies on the Island Stage

The Island Stage tent is overflowing with folks. A light sprinkling of rain doesn’t stop the audience from gathering even in the areas outside the shelter of the tent. The congregation of people gathered is visibly inspired by a stirring, sweet rendition of “Wade in the Water” led by Laurel Tubman & Friends. Most folks in the crowd are standing, even those who have seats.

For the spiritual, “Oh Rocks, Don’t Fall On Me,” all the performers join in together on stage and in the areas surrounding the stage, as there is not enough physical room for all the artists.

This song is a spiritual taken from American writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson’s compilation of African American spirituals, which he compiled into two volumes about a century ago. This is one that is more seldom heard.

The spiritual begins with the verse, “Oh rocks, don’t fall on me.”

The audience is invited to sing. A choir of voices rises from the audience. Then the audience is invited to sing the next verse, “Rocks and mountains, don’t you fall on me.”

The audience joins in again.

Photo by Lisa Iesse.

The lead vocalist begins with a deep, penetrating stream of soulful verse. A brilliant, intense, rich, rainbow wave of vocals from the all the vocalists of the choir join, branch out, then join in glorious harmony again.  The audience echoes the verses, enraptured by the overwhelming joy and vitality that is showering over the space.

The Sunday Gospel Session is probably Hillside’s most popular event, which is certainly evident today. The crowd here is smiling, dancing, singing, and swaying on a rainy Sunday morning. And I thank my lucky stars, because this is surely how I wish more Sunday mornings could be like everywhere.

Unfinished Sympathy Session with Cadence Weapon, DJ Shub, Boogát, Kinnie Starr, and Shane Koyczan & the Short Story Long on the Island Stage

 After extending a warm greeting, MC and master of ceremonies, Cadence Weapon begins with a fiercely brilliant live performance of his song “Oliver Square” from the album Breaking Kayfabe.

Cadence Weapon is a multi-talented, ground-breaking rapper, producer, activist, writer and poet. He served as Poet Laureate of Edmonton between 2009 and 2011. His albums Breaking Kayfabe and Hope In Dirt City were shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. His album Parallel World recently won the prize.

Boogát demonstrates some moves with the audience where we synchronize the motion of our arms together: we sway our arms towards the direction of the stage, then to the side, then towards the back.

We are all revved up now, and Cadence performs a live rendition of the song “Own This” from his 2018 album.

Then DJ Shub and Boogát join the performance.

The audience is ecstatic, clapping enthusiastically in unison, and moving to the heavenly beats.

Fresh from his 2022 Juno award win for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year, DJ Shub is hailed as the Godfather of the PowWow Step Sound; he stands at the helm of an emerging genre of electronic music. DJ Shub (whose birth name is Dan General) is a Mohawk from the turtle clan of the Six Nations of the Grand River. He first made big waves on the Canadian and international music scenes with A Tribe Called Red before releasing a solo EP in 2016.

Boogát is a seasoned, accomplished Mexicanadian artist from Quebec City. He has been making music for over 20 years and has collaborated with hundreds of artists globally. In 2013, he released his first full-length Spanish album, El Dorado Sunset, which won two Prix Félix for Best World Music Album and a Producer of the Year Felix. He has received multiple other awards, including a GAMIQ award and a 2016 Juno for his album Neo-Reconquista.

Kinnie Starr then addresses the audience, giving a shout out to all the women.

“I can see all the women’s hands in the air,” she said.

“It’s been amazing, I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 25 years, and I see so much more women in the industry, so many more Indigenous people in the industry; it’s an amazing thing to see. I would really like to connect music with environmentalism at a deeper level. We’re all doing it at some capacity.”

Kinnie Starr is a world-renowned activist, poet, speaker, songwriter, performer, illustrator, artist, author, and producer. She is based in Haida Gwaii. She is of Mohawk, Dutch, German and Irish heritage. Her decades-long career has produced a diverse portfolio of music, art, film, and literature. She is working on her ninth full-length album in 2022, to be released in 2023.

Photo by Lisa Iesse.

After Kinnie’s intense performance of the song “Destroyer,” Shane Koyczan takes centre stage and speaks with the audience about the challenges folks are facing in these very difficult times.

He shares a rousing quote from John Steinbeck.

“In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Shane Koyczan & The Short Story Long perform “Places” from the album A Pretty Decent Cape In My Closet.

There is an almost deafening round of applause from the audience in response to the gripping performance.

Shane Koyczan is an internationally celebrated, award-winning spoken word artist, poet, and graphic novelist originally from Yellowknife, NWT. He is best known for his spoken word performances. However, from his first published collection of poetry, Visiting Hours (2005), to his first graphic novel, Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To (2014) and Inconvenient Skin /nayêhtâwan wasakay (2019), Shane’s work challenges genre classification. The animated video of his anti-bullying poem “To This Day” now has over 18 million views.

After Shane’s performance, Cadence speaks with the audience, saying “Well, I don’t know how you follow something like that, but we’re going to try anyway. Do you want to hear us try?”

A roaring cheer from the crowd ensues.

On that note, Cadence performs “Senna” from the album Parallel World as DJ Shub and Boogát join in.

Following Boogát’s lead with the flow of the music, the people in the crowd slowly lower their bodies into an almost seated position, pause and then slowly raise back up again into a standing position.

As Cadence calls out “Unfinished” the audience replies “Sympathy”

Kinnie joins in with piercing vocals.

The crowd is buzzing, and it’s standing room only. Some of us are standing on chairs to see. Everyone is cheering, on their feet and energized.

I, The Mountain on the Lake Stage

At the Lake Stage, I, The Mountain begin their set with their fantastically joyous song “Dreaming Out Loud” from their 2020 album Little Wild.

There is loud applause and whistling from the crowd. A number of enthusiastic folks initiate little make-shift dance-spaces in random corners of the Lake Stage tent. I suspect these are the famed ‘Mountaineers’ (fans who have adapted the name of the band).

The jovial and sweet “Wildflowers” is performed.

I, The Mountain perform a new original song, written by band mate Matt Rappolt. The song is titled “Gillian.” (I hope that is the correct spelling!) Matt Lamers explains that this is one of those songs that was written despite a writer’s block. A kind of song that wakes you up in the middle of the night, and you write it down, and your thankful you did.

The audience is definitely in agreement on that one. As the song continues, more audience members get up to dance.

A big round of applause erupts for the song “Gillian.”

The lead vocalist Matt reflects on the importance of the next song. He explains that he recently came out of a 10-year relationship. This is a song he wrote while navigating through that. During that time, he dusted off an old piano that was sitting in his house

Photo by Lisa Iesse.

Matt also tells a story about the piano onstage, once owned by Blue Rodeo, which could mean this performance technically qualifies as an I, The Mountain and Blue Rodeo collab.

An appreciative chorus of laughter erupts.

To the delight of the audience, the band performs another new song, titled “Fade Away.”

I, The Mountain also perform the dark, riveting “Coal Mine.”

Then it’s time for a sing-along with all the Mountaineers, and all the Mountaineers-in-the making who are growing restless for another song. Lead vocalist, Matt, introduces “Rule #1: this is a sing-a-long song”

I, The Mountain have been referred to as ‘all-natural’ vocalists and have been noted for an infectious ability to spark the natural vocalist hiding in each captivated audience member.

The lead vocalist and band members on back-up vocals sing, “I got you.”

The audience sings in response, “Don’t let me go.”

And so ensues a merry live rendition of “Rosa” from the album Little Wild.

The time has come to play the last song of the set and Matt introduces “Rule number 2: this is a dancing tune.” As the band performs the song “Little Wild,” many, many audience members now get up to dance as the audience claps in sync keeping the beat with the band. A clamorous round of applause extends from all the folks who now qualify as Mountaineer-Hillsiders.

Based out of Kitchener, ON, I, The Mountain has a growing and dedicated fanbase across Ontario, evident here at Hillside. The four-piece folk-pop band with a bona fide, unstoppable love for music is winning over the love of audiences and critics. Their album, Little Wild, with its singles “The Boat” and “Winter Blues,” landed national airtime on CBC Radio. The bold spirit of their music has arrived: from our radio airwaves to our cloud streams, to hillsides of Hillside, I, the Mountain is rising on the Canadian music scene. The band is set to release new music this autumn.

The Blue and Gold on the Main Stage

The Blue and Gold begin the set with a moving rendition of Elizabeth Cotton’s “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” that mesmerizes the crowd at the Main Stage.

Their debut album, simply titled The Blue and the Gold, is a tender tribute to the women trailblazers of the blues and country music. These ground-breaking musicians were Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color whose work and influence on blues and country, along with many genres including rock, has frequently been unacknowledged.

Juno nominee and WCMA winner Ndidi O and folk-roots guitarist/banjo player Trish Klein are the musical collaborators behind The Blue and Gold. Ndidi and Trish are both seasoned, greatly respected veterans of the Vancouver roots music community. Ndidi, who is originally from northern British Columbia and is of Nigerian heritage, has blazed a long career path as a solo artist, with critically acclaimed albums to her credit in both Canada and France. Trish Klein has also blazed a long and celebrated career, known for her work with the alt-country band The Be Good Tanyas and the folk band Po’ Girl (formed with Allison Russell).

The Blue and Gold. Photo by Lisa Iesse.

After the Blue and Gold’s rendition “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” Ndidi introduces a song that was pioneered by (BlindMamie Forehand, a gospel blues singer, who would busk on the streets of Memphis in the 1920s.

She invites the crowd to sing, explaining that singing is one of the oldest ways to get your autonomic systems regulated.

“So if you are feeling real low, it can bring you up to the middle,” she says. “If you are feeling antsy, it will bring you right to the middle. Singing. Humming. Making noise. It helps regulate our nervous systems.”

Then the conversation moves to Memphis Minnie. Trish explains that Memphis Minnie was perhaps the most prolific recording guitarist of her generation, and in the 1920s she wrote and recorded over 170 songs.

Ndidi points out that the next song was the equivalent to “a viral hit” back in the day. This was the song that all the other acts at the speak easy joints would play

As a growing group of children dance by the stage, Ndidi and Trish knock out a sublime rendition of Memphis Minnie’s “What’s the Matter With the Mill?”

Trish introduces a song by Lottie Kimbrough, a country blues guitarist and singer from the 30s and 40s who is credited with being the first musician to include yodelling on her recordings, something that later really caught on in country music.

The Blue and Gold’s live interpretation of Lottie’s “Going Away Blues” draws appreciative applause from the audience, including a rocking and rolling section of “tiny dancers.”

Ndidi then introduces a song by Buffy Sainte-Marie. The audience buzzes and then cheers at the mention of her name.

Trish explains that Buffy was greatly influenced by early blues music, and was particularly influenced by Lottie Kimbrough.

The Blue and Gold perform a compelling rendition of Buffy’s song “Cod’ine.”

Ndidi and Trish dedicate the song to anyone who is facing any form of addiction.

Trish talks with audience about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was known to play a shredding, rock n’ roll guitar right before her congregation, in her full nun’s habit! She is among the musicians who are credited with inventing distortion guitar. She was also recently inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

The Blue and Gold perform a more mellow song of hers, a gospel-blues song, titled “My Journey to the Sky.”

They conclude the show with a superb live rendition of Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” met with reverberating applause from crowd at the Main Stage.

We look up at the skies, a little less heavy with grey now that the Blue and Gold have played these beautiful songs and shared the inspiring stories behind them with everyone.

OMBIIGIZI on the Island Stage

When Anishinaabe musicians Daniel Monkman (Zoon) and Adam Sturgeon (of Status/Non Status) decided to join forces, their joint synergy formed OMBIIGIZI.  Ombiigizi translates to “s/he is noisy” in the Anishinaabemowin language.

Adam’s music first made waves in the early 2010s with independent releases from his band Status/Non Status (previously known as Whoop-Szo). Since that time he continues his dedicated work as both an artist and community builder.

Photo by Lisa Iesse.

Daniel’s project Zoon debuted its album Bleached Wavves in 2020. The songs for this album originated from diary entries that helped Daniel reconnect with Ojibwe ??teachings – these became poems and then songs. Bleached Wavves was shortlisted for a Polaris prize.

Adam and Daniel’s collaborative project to revisit their cultural histories through music resulted in the debut album, Sewn Back Together, released in February.

After a breathtakingly magical performance of their song “Yaweh,” the vivacious applause of the crowd is met with a gracious greeting from Adam. The songs they will play today are from their album Sewn Back Together, which is a mosaic of family stories.

OMBIIGIZI’s live performance continues with the pulsating electric energy and rich acoustics of “Residential Military.”

The performance is met with loud applause from crowd.

Before performing the next song, Adam talks about his lived experiences as an Indigenous person, and what that means, reflecting on the past and looking into the future.

“Sometimes the way is hard. There is not always someone beside you who understands what that must be like, and it makes me think of what my ancestors must have gone through in their journeys,” he says. “We need to find a new way, and we need to do it together.”

The crowd cheers and applauds fervently.

OMBIIGIZI performs the thunderously awakening “Spirit in Me.”

The crowd is buzzing and cheering.

This is followed by the bittersweet and dreamy “Cherry Coke.”

Adam introduces the song “Birch Bark Paper Trails” and explains that birch is an import part of the Anishinaabe culture. Birch is important for tracking medicines and important for documenting the oral histories of the community in a sense.

At the conclusion of OMBIIGIZI’s show, there is a loud extended applause, the audience members who are not already standing, stand up and cheer ecstatically.

 Lizzie No on the Island Stage

The crowd greets Lizzie No as she begins a show-stopping set.

“What’s up Hillside festival?” Lizzie asks the crowd, which greets here with more cheers.

Lizzie No introduces herself and talks briefly with the audience before she dives back into the set.

“You’re going to get one love song in this set, and this is it,” she says. “So hold somebody’s hand if you’re going to do that.”

She plays the enchanting song “Scared” from Holidays.

Lizzie No. Photo by Lisa Iesse.

“During the 2020 quarantine, I had a lot of time to sit in my apartment and reflect on what it’s like to be outside,” she said. “Sometimes the worst part is being at a party where you sort of know people, enough where you can’t be on your own, but not enough to be truly uncomfortable…This is a song about that experience that we’ve all had.”

Lizzie’s vocals are whispery and husky in moments, then they open up into a bold, rich, twangy, colorful stream of sound in “Birthday Party” that breaks out magnificently through the steadily building warm, upbeat drums and guitar acoustics.

At the conclusion of the song, the audience cheers and whistles in appreciation.

Lizzie takes a moment to speak with the audience.

“Anybody here ever get a tarot reading you didn’t want to hear?” she asks. “I was at a festival a lot like this one. They were doing tarot readings for charity. The fifth card, which is the card of destiny, said ‘ruined.’ The reader told me that sometimes the cards are unclear the first time, …but it gave me a sort of witchy sense of freedom. When you know that the destination is ‘ruined’, it’s incredible what you can say no to.”

Lizzie then performs the powerful, haunting “Deep Well Song.”

There is another round of applause and cheering from the audience.

Her performance of “The Wedge” is dark, deep and solemn, leaving no doubt that Lizzie is on a path that is bringing joy, inspiration and hope to many folks, but a path that is certainly not an easy one.

This is the first time that Lizzie has played with her band in Canada. She tells the audience that she is really enjoying her time here and plans to return. This draws encouraging cheers form the audience.

Lizzie treats the crowd to a new song, which will be on her upcoming record, a 1960s R &B style record that will be released by Coal Mine Records.

The crowd cheers with delight.

The song is titled “Shield and Sword.”

Lizzie’s vocals are clear, sweet, tender and resonant, interweaving with the flowing upbeat harp and twangy melodious guitar rhythms met with a steady, warm progressive bass and drum.

The audience applauds, whistles, and hollers in appreciation. Lizzie affectionately thanks the audience.

During the show, Lizzie reminded the audience to stay hydrated in the heat. After the show, my partner and I take her advice. There are lots of water stations located throughout the grounds, and they are free. There are also “water droppers” wandering around, holding what looks like a green power tool, making their way through the crowd to provide complementary sprays of refreshing water mist.

I’m not sure about everyone else, but water droppers in my parts are quite scarce, so when I first spotted them, I was a bit skeptical. After two days of this heat, they’ve won me over. When I saw a water dropper today, I couldn’t resist a quick action shot. Before receiving a complementary shower of water mist, I was able to nab a few photos.

It’s also important to stay nourished with healthy food, especially on a hot day like this. There is a myriad of food vendors throughout the grounds of the festival: TC Tibetan Momo, Laza Food and Beverages, LemonGrass Thai Food, Rodofolfo’s Rebel Foods, Belvedere Bistro, Chao Bistro, Manouche, The Flying Chestnut Kitchen, Christopher’s Gelato, Elora Coffee Roasters, ChocoSol, Fierce Friends, Bread Heads, Mustache Burger, The Bollywood Bistro, Pappas Greek, and The Pop Stand.

That was a mouthful!

I wish I could have tried them all!

The food and beverages are served with reusable and recycle-able cups, dishes, and cutlery. This is a service maintained by the volunteers and crew of the festival who work tirelessly to run an incredible festival that makes it a mission to offer an accessible and inclusive visit for all folks –  and is also impressively conscious of the environment. From helping folks get to the shuttle bus, to directing vehicle and foot traffic, to directing attendees to the free fresh water stations, to providing complimentary cooling water mists ? volunteers were everywhere at the festival, doing such a great job helping festival-goers. Thanks to all of you!

I even saw someone dressed like Gandalf walking past the central food vendor station, carrying a large blue recycle bin in one hand and a staff in the other! I nabbed a quick photo of him from behind.

This was an extraordinary Sunday. I feel honoured to have had the chance to hear so much outstanding, amazing music from so many talented artists. The weekend went by in a flash. Despite however much my partner and I want to hear more performances, we have to call it a day. But when I drift off to sleep at night, I dream the most beautiful dreams of Hillside past present and future!

Happy Hillside to all!

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