Hillside Festival Review: Nicolette & the Nobodies, Habibi, Hyd, The Blue and Gold, Nathan Lawr, July 23

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“Happy Hillside!”

That’s a greeting you’re likely to hear around the grounds of Guelph’s Hillside Festival, which made its return to Guelph Lake Island this year after a three year absence, and as a motto, it really does capture the spirit of the festival. For those who’ve returned to the festival year after year (with the obvious exceptions of the last couple of years), Hillside really is a happy place.

There’s a certain feeling to this festival that many of the performers clearly also felt throughout the day, with Leela Gilday noting during her mainstage set that though she’d barely been there an hour, she already loved it. Montreal’s Wesli similarly commented on the good vibes amongst the crowd during his set and there really is a definite vibe to this fest. It’s the kind of festival where you can participate in a drum circle, attend workshops on subjects such as “A Crash Course in Permaculture” and “Acupressure for Everyday”, go for a swim in the nearby lake, or if you’re lucky, you might even see Chris Murphy bust out a killer Sex Pistols cover.

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Yes, one of the most memorable aspects of Hillside are the workshop sessions wherein performers are thrown together to collaborate in some way, either through sharing songs in the round or just jamming together. And it was during such a session where I witnessed Murphy singing the aforementioned cover of The Sex Pistols’ “Problems” alongside Pink Mountaintops, Dean Baxter, and his Anyway Gang bandmate Menno Versteeg. When I made my way to the Island Stage for the “Supersonic 2″ workshop, things had already gotten underway, with the makeshift band in the midst of a cosmic stoner rock jam that brought the spirit of Hawkwind to the Island Stage. It sounded fantastic, though notably, Murphy was nowhere to be found onstage. Then midway through, who should appear in front of the stage but the man himself, taking his acoustic guitar out and roaming through the audience like a wandering troubadour before taking to the stage, at first trying his hand at rapping over the band’s jams before switching gears a bit. It was a fun performance that also saw Murphy testing out some Dufferin Mall-inspired stage banter and culminated in a mashup of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.”

Another memorable musical workshop came earlier in the day when The Blue and Gold’s Trish Klein and Ndidi O joined Nathan Lawr for a set of Rolling Stones tunes performed in a more acoustic-based format. Lawr started things off with a version of “Miss You” that worked quite well as a country-ish shuffle before turning things over to The Blue and Gold, who offered up the more obscure “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’)” and also gave a bit of background on songwriter Barbara Lynn, who originally recorded it. Lawr would close out the brief five song set with what he called “a bit of a Hail Mary” – a cover of “Mixed Emotions” that had me thinking it might be time for a reevaluation of Steel Wheels.

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Later in the day, I took in a set by New York’s Habibi. The band’s self-titled 2014 debut album was a favourite of mine at the time and their most recent, Anywhere But Here is a similarly solid collection of tunes. Playing Hillside’s Island Stage in support of that album, the band put on a late afternoon set that was a lot of fun and really got the crowd moving, despite the fact that the band had gone through a bit of an ordeal on their way to the festival.

“We went through hell to get here. Anyone been to an airport recently?” asked singer Rahill Jamalifard. “Wouldn’t recommend it.” Yes, like many touring musicians these days, the state of air travel caused a bit of a wrinkle in the band’s travel plans, but they made it there and were determined to put on a show despite the fact that they were generally exhausted. “We are so tired, but we’re enlivened by your energy” said Jamalifard and the band did indeed put on a great show, playing tunes from their latest album Anywhere But Here alongside some older tracks.

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Hyd put on a show that was ultimately quite memorable even though they were just one person alone on the stage. I find that there’s often an inherent weirdness to watching a solo performer sing to a backing track in that even a really good performance has a bit of a karaoke vibe. The best performers, however, will either lean into that weirdness or put on a show that’s so compelling you forget that it’s just one person and a mic up there. Hyd did a bit of both, making it as big and dramatic as possible while also definitely bringing a touch of the weird to the proceedings. The highlight of their set was a cover of Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” which had a bit of a Caroline Polachek vibe.

Locals Nicolette & the Nobodies also impressed with their twangy, old school country sound and hipster-meets-honky tonk aesthetic. Singer Nicolette Hoang has a powerful voice that brought to mind the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Neko Case and the eight-piece band sounded great as they ran through a set full of tracks off their 2019 debut Devil’s Run.

While I may have missed out on the first day of Hillside, Saturday’s lineup was ultimately an impressive one that made for a good return to the festival after three years’ absence. Happy Hillside? Yes, I’d say so.

Posted on by Paul in Concerts, Hillside

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