Photo of In-Flight Safety courtesy of Craig Norris of CBC Radio 3.
There are those who snidely believe the Hillside Music Festival is all politically-motivated tie-dye and body odour, but that’s a cursory dismissal. The 2007 version of the festival brought together the indie-kids and the hippies, the families and the staunch loners, and the musicians and the fans into a community of solar-powered folk and rock music that blistered throughout the weekend.
Toronto was well represented, with acts ranging from The Bebop Cowboys to The Golden Dogs to poets Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler Henry to Torontoist darlings Rock Plaza Central. The bands took over four stages and poured out sweat-drenched, but wildly appreciated performances. Provided you could dodge the fanatic Ani Difranco devotees and the hordes of ladies chasing Ron Sexsmith, you could catch a wealth of good music.
The big local draw was Do Make Say Think: a grinding pseudo-ambient composite band which constructs wonderfully orchestral rock music. However, when they took the mainstage Saturday, most of their formidable talents were swallowed up by the sheer size of the venue. While the music was striking, the style didn’t lend itself to a field of people who were anxious to roll and jump around, always looking to becoming involved in the act at any point. (This critique is not just directed at Do Make Say Think; most bands that played the mainstage struggled a bit to maintain any momentum, including audience-passive The Dears. In fact, this was the second time Torontoist has seen The Dears live and we’ve now come to the sneaky suspicion that the group doesn’t really care for audiences).
Where the festival had greater success was on the smaller Lake and Island side stages. Rock Plaza Central’s (who jokingly renamed themselves “Sweat Machine”) played a Saturday set on the Island stage that dragged the sluggish day forward while showcasing their unique brand of stomp along indie-pop songs. Chris Eaton’s vocals doused the crowd and lead the band—who seemed sincerely overjoyed to be playing—through a show that ended with the audience on their feet and cheering.
What the mainstage lacked in intimacy, the small stage tents more than made up for, packed tight with people looking for shade. This led to a weird sort of communal spontaneity that bled into the performances. The best set all weekend was a bizarre amalgamated workshop between Indian-Australian performers Dya Singh [turn speakers down if you’re at work] and blues-rock act The Bebop Cowboys. Like all the workshops, the festival organizers compiled bands together and let them jam out for an hour. What was striking about the “Lakeside Lullabies Jam” was the across-the-board virtuosity. The set alternated between traditional Indian-style music, infused wonderfully by Steve Brigg’s sharp guitar and Howard Willett’s harmonica, with jazzy call and response between all the instruments. Whether it was the electric violin or Dya Singh’s giant voice (probably one of the best voices Torontoist has heard live), it is was a completely unexpected and glorious coming together.
Kudos also go out to math rock group The D’Ubbervilles who thrilled the Lake stage Sunday with infectious and kick-drum dependant new wave. And further proof that a God might exist, the Sunday Gospel set, joining together members of six or seven different festival bands, was well past entertaining and only vaguely spiritual.
Sunday was a bit slower and more mellow. There was a restlessness that pervaded over everyone as they shipped themselves between the outhouses, the snaking beer line-ups and the tanker of constantly streaming free drinking water. The Writing for Life set on the Sun Stage provided a nice change of pace as Toronto writers (and ReLit nominees) Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry blasted through apostrophe, sprinkling in well timed banter between their rapid-fire list poems. It’s usually difficult for an audience to maintain focus for an hour but all four readers were grabbing and witty, leading the responsive crowd into fits of repeated laughter. Tony Leighton read a hilarious confessional involving a great deal of flaxseed and colonoscopies, and the incomparable Thomas King read two delicious short stories from A Short History of Indians in Canada.
But it was the sense of community, the old hippie cliché, that underlined the Festival and made leaving a bittersweet ordeal. Fortunately there were bundles of albums to truck home and replay until next year.
Bottom photo of Rock Plaza Central courtesy of fkastewart, via Flickr.