News / Toronto

Crowd soaks up Hillside Festival delights

“It’s not the biggest festival out there, but good gracious, is it ever the best.”

Toronto graphic designer Chris Spencer, 35, who has been attending Guelph’s Hillside Festival for the past 15 years, speaks for thousands of other music fans in his assessment of the annual event, which wrapped its 29th edition Sunday night after three sold-out days of genre-spanning performances.

Buoyed by near-perfect weather, the resolutely anti-corporate, eco-friendly festival on Guelph Lake Island brought together local musical favourites and emerging acts over four stages. It kicked off Friday evening with scrappy U.K. indie-rock quartet Bombay Bicycle Club, a rare nod to the younger set in a year marked by veteran Canadian acts like Kathleen Edwards, who ably headlined the main stage on opening night with the achingly intimate folk-rock tunes from her Polaris Prize-nominated album, Voyageur.

“To see all these amazing bands in one place is a gift,” Edwards noted during her set. Her own band was a good example of the kind of homegrown talent on display at every Hillside — made up of some of Canada’s best players (including Ottawa’s Jim Bryson), Edwards’ backing ensemble proved they were capable of getting heavy when they needed to, coaxing even the gentlest songs into full-blown rock ’n’ roll epics.

With both Saturday and Sunday featuring 12 straight hours of music, Hillside continued to live up to its “something for everyone” ethos, with Saturday bookended by dance parties of an entirely different stripe. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s ensemble had the old-school hippies getting down, while Halifax electro-pop iconoclast Rich Aucoin overcame some technical difficulties with his video projector to whip the 20-something hipster crowd into a frenzy to close out the night.

Festival-goers groggily eased into Sunday morning with the traditional gospel hour featuring a wide swath of the weekend’s performers. Etobicoke-bred, U.K.-based Cold Specks drew on a similar gospel-and-folk-based vibe — albeit a far darker one (she aptly calls her sound “doom soul”) — for her arresting set later that afternoon, with many dubbing her the discovery of the weekend for her bluesy, shiver-inducing vocals. Hometown duo Memoryhouse, also making their first appearance at Hillside, deserved a larger audience for their dream-pop ballads — the perfect soundtrack for the Instagram generation.

As Hillside heads into its 30th anniversary next year, it’s that very mix of the old and new that keeps people coming back every summer. “I’m hoping to make it a family tradition,” says Spencer, who brought his three-year-old daughter to the festival for the first time.

“Great music and good food in a beautiful place — what’s not to love?”

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