Festival Review: Hillside 2010, July 23-25

Guelph – The 27th annual Hillside Festival is in the books, and for the second year in a row the Panic Manual was there amidst the natural beauty of Guelph Lake Island (pictured above), covering the fest from Friday night mainstage opener Beardyman to Sunday night closer Stars. Punctuated with pictures, here are our picks for best, worst, and everything in between from Hillside 2010.

Most Danceable: Alex Cuba

We were a bit lukewarm about seeing Alex Cuba just because it seems like he’s playing Toronto all the time (something not uncommon at the Hillside Festival, which has no exclusivity agreement preventing bands from playing the area around the fest dates like a lot of festivals do), but in the end we were glad we did. Alex Cuba makes me think of what I imagine Carlos Santana was like in the early 70’s, with Latin rhythms behind some great guitar work making for some eminently danceable rock music. With all due respect to the Tabla Guy, who was laying down some great dance tunes late on Sunday night that had the masses moving before switching to something a lot quieter, Cuba even had me doing some booty-shaking near the main stage, and that just doesn’t happen very often.

(after the jump: best country, best hip-hop, and more, with lots more pictures)

Best Hip-Hop: Grand Analog

As good as Shad was on the main stage on Sunday evening, Grand Analog just killed it on Saturday night. While I was wandering during the first part of his set, my partner Trina saw every minute of his show and declared it one of her favourites of the festival. After quickly losing interest in Los Lobos, the Saturday headliner, and Japandroids at the other stage, who were late and in my opinion seem to be trying to make up for uninteresting tunes with volume, I caught the last half of Grand Analog, and despite only catching half his set I would have to agree. Grand Analog also had the most devoted fan, a shirtless dude at the front of the stage who knew all the words to every song and who was brought on stage a couple of times to do some b-boying. Terrific set. Grand Analog is playing the upcoming Summerworks Festival here in Toronto for a pay-what-you-can show at the Performance Bar. Go check him out.

Best Country: Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans

Corb also takes my choice for “Best Dressed.” Look at that snappy tie and vest combo! Anyway, Corb Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, got in at five in the morning after taking an overnight flight from Calgary, where they’d played the folk festival the night before. Despite this, they managed a tidy set packed with all their best tunes, the best being “This is My Prairie” and his usual set closer and crowd pleaser “Rye Whiskey/Time to Switch to Whiskey,” which Corb introduced as a song that’s “kind of like a hymn.” Corb should probably fire whoever set up his summer schedule, which in addition to this overnight from Calgary to Guelph saw him go from Saint John to Medicine Hat for consecutive shows earlier in July, then had him play last weekend in Guelph, then this coming weekend in Camrose, Alberta, then back to Ontario the weekend after that, but he and his band still put together a nice show.

Best Entrance: My Son the Hurricane

After the sound check, My Son the Hurricane left the stage, went around the back, and came in the audience entrance with a big banner and playing and walking like they were some kind of Louisiana funeral procession. After the twelve of them managed to squeeze on stage, they unleashed a set of tunes led by the eight-piece horn section and featuring a Zach de la Rocha-style vocalist. It might sound a bit odd, but it works. They seemed a little overwhelmed at first, particularly MC Jacob Bergsma, but once they settled in they fed off the typically strong Hillside crowd energy (there’s a reason why bands love to play this festival) and finished strongly, to the point that Bergsma declared it the best show they’d ever done. A band worth keeping an eye on, to be sure.

Best Pleasant Surprise: Lee Harvey Osmond

I am a big Blackie and the Rodeo Kings fan, and I was really looking forward to BARK member Stephen Fearing’s solo set during Hillside. However, I’d somehow forgotten that other BARK member Tom Wilson was touring a new band. So while wandering aimlessly on Friday night, trying to find a band in the lineup I knew, I stumbled upon Lee Harvey Osmond on the Island Stage and managed to recognize not only Wilson on vocals, but Fearing sitting in on guitar. So I made myself comfortable and was rewarded with my favourite set of Hillside’s Friday night, and one of the best sets of the weekend. The band played a rendition of Junkhouse’s “Shine,” one of the tunes that made Wilson big in the Canadian music scene, that brought me right back to high school, and closed their set by bringing Neil Young’s sister Astrid (pictured above with Wilson) on stage for a terrific cover of Neil’s “Are you Ready for the Country.” This is a band I’ll be seeing again sometime. Michou was also a pleasant surprise for me, and Trina loved Socalled’s set even though she knew nothing about them going in.

Biggest Disappointment: For lack of any other choices, Los Lobos

I’m happy to say that I didn’t see any bands at this year’s Hillside that didn’t meet or exceed the expectations I had for them. This includes Los Lobos, who pretty easily met my expectations as a nostalgia act that would probably seem a bit out of place among the festival lineup made up largely of up-and-coming Canadian acts. It’s not that Los Lobos are bad at what they do, and I’m sure there were fans at Hillside who’ve loved Los Lobos for 30 years and were over the moon to finally see them. But after 20 minutes of their set I’d had enough, and it would’ve been nice if the Saturday main stage closer could’ve been a bit more interesting, both in terms of music and showmanship. I guess the two of us just weren’t that into the headliners this year, as we weren’t really feeling Sunday closer Stars either.

Weirdest: Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles

Most people probably know that Gord Downie is a weird dude, particularly when it comes to his on-stage persona. His rantings between songs during his set at Hillside were incomprehensible, and I gather that’s pretty par for the course with Gord. It’s incredible the devotion that Downie inspires: we were in the parking lot earlier that day and a nearby fan in a Hip t-shirt suddenly perked up, put his ear to the sky like a dog smells food on the wind and proclaimed “That’s GORD!” He was hearing the end of Downie’s session on one of the side stages with Julie Doiron, and I felt bad because there’s no way that guy was getting to that stage in time to catch the end of that set. But when Downie played, he barely acknowledged the crowd’s presence, except to make fun of people for taking pictures rather than just watching the show. Also, the music he plays with this band (who’s name I could make fun of all day, and did) is just not that interesting. But an awful lot of people were there in Hip shirts to see him, and he played music that was bland and acted like a weirdo. It made for a very strange vibe. Beardyman’s schtick of sampling his own beat boxer award winning voice into dance music was certainly weird, but Gord was weirder.

Best Female Singer-Songwriter: Basia Bulat

The plethora of great woman in the lineup this year was a real joy. Laura Marling had a great set, I know a lot of people enjoyed Sarah Harmer, the Good Lovelies on Saturday night were great, Hayley Sales was a nice refuge once we got tired of Gord Downie’s antics, and that was just the ones I saw. However, none were better than Basia Bulat, who overcame a brief weather delay to play a lovely main stage set on Saturday. Basia was charming, she looked lovely, and her voice was beautiful.

Best of Fest: Horse Feathers

I liked Stephen Fearing’s solo set on the Lake Stage, and certainly Corb Lund, Lee Harvey Osmond, and Grand Analog were among the best I saw at Hillside. But only one band inspired me to actually purchase one of their albums this year, and that band was Portland’s Horse Feathers. Their quiet, acoustic tunes really had something special, and the band’s quiet, self-effacing charm between songs won me over. The drummer spent one song holding a stick in his teeth while he played the banjo so he could hit the drum during the chorus, and the violinist played the saw on a couple of tunes. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed them either, since I got the last copy of their new album Thistled Spring that the merch tent had. It was a terrific Hillside once again this year, and Horse Feathers really stuck out as my favourites of the entire weekend.

Thanks to Hillside for accrediting us again this year. We’re already looking forward to Hillside 2011.

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Everything, Hillside