News / Toronto

Guelph’s Hillside truly one-of-a-kind

An affordable weekend getaway of great music and good food in an idyllic urban green space, all within 90 minutes of Toronto? Sounds like a summer utopia — one that thousands of GTA music fans have discovered exists in nearby Guelph every July.

The university town just west of Toronto has played host to the eclectic Hillside Festival since 1984, but it’s only in the past decade that many beyond its borders have caught on to its unique mix of top Canadian talent (the festival booked acts like Arcade Fire and Feist long before they became household names) and performers of every stripe from all over the globe.

Held at the Guelph Lake Island conservation area, this year’s Hillside runs Friday through Sunday with over 50 performers (including Ontario songstress Kathleen Edwards and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart) over four stages, the entire weekend helmed by an army of 1,500 enthusiastic volunteers who take the festival’s grassroots, sustainable ethos to heart.

What other festival has a stage with a green roof, solar-heated showers and a washing station for reusable dishware?

So it comes as no surprise that Hillside tickets sell out in a flash every year, with about a quarter of festivalgoers coming from Toronto, says the festival’s executive director, Marie Zimmerman, who runs the non-profit event with a staff of only three other directors and an intern.

“In a word, Hillside is like Christmas,” she says. “A celebration of light and life.  In a time-bound and boundary-obsessed culture, we need opportunities to be immersed in beauty and transported by music and love. We have a very open-minded audience that is restless for new sounds and ideas.”

Toronto-based artists make up a good chunk of the Hillside lineup again this year, including local retro-rockers Zeus.

“Hillside’s a very friendly environment,” says band member Mike O’Brien. “It’s always a lot of fun because you’re playing to an audience that is eager to discover a new band. To look out and see your friends smiling at you — it feels like a party!”

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