Concerts

Hillside Festival Review: Ifriqiyya Electrique, Myriam Gendron, Bedouine, Cat Clyde, Boy Golden, July 24

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At their best, music festivals are about discoveries and though a Sunday night storm would ultimately lead to an earlier than expected end to Guelph’s Hillside Festival, the performances which took place earlier in the day still provided several great musical discoveries within the final day’s varied and eclectic lineup.

And I do mean eclectic. Hillside has always been a fairly eclectic festival with performers from acrosss many genres, so this was nothing new, but it’s still worth noting. A glance at the main stage schedule alone would reveal a lineup that encompassed everything from the Danish klezmer group Mames Babeganush to bluegrass-meets-hip hop band Gangstagrass to Faroese singer Eivør to, most unexpectedly, the industrial sounds of Ifriqiyya Electrique, who delivered one of the best shows of the whole weekend. With their loud, bracing, and passionate performance, the Tunisian four-piece put on a show that was certainly hard to forget.

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Also delivering a unique and memorable performance was Montreal’s Myriam Gendron, whose latest album Ma délire – Songs of love, lost & found, finds her interpreting old traditional tunes sung in both French and English.

Gendron plays folk music in the truest sense – it’s music that draws on the songs and traditions of the past and builds on them, ultimately creating something new while still paying tribute to what came before. Gendron put on an absolutely beautiful performance during both of the sets she played during the day. I caught only part of her main set on the Lake stage earlier on in the afternoon before later taking in her second performance of the day as part of the “Before The Moon” workshop on the Sun Stage. For that set, she was backed up for two songs by Leela Gilday’s bassist and drummer, who provided some brilliant accompaniment. And on a side note, Gilday and her band probably deserve to be named Hillside MVPs for not only playing perhaps the most workshops of any performers but also being game for as much collaboration and jamming as possible on each occasion.

Speaking of workshops, as usual, some of the most memorable Hillside moments came from the workshop sessions, including the crowd favourite Sunday gospel session, which saw incredible performances from the likes of Kyshona, Julian Taylor and Nicolette & The Nobodies and which culminated in a group performance of the old spiritual “O Rocks Don’t Fall On Me.”

Another memorable workshop saw Bedouine, Cat Clyde, Boy Golden and their respective bandmates all collaborating together on the Sun Stage. Boy Golden (aka Liam Duncan) in particular took the ‘workshop’ aspect of the session to heart by playing songs that were not only new to the other performers joining him onstage, but ones he hadn’t even played live yet with his own band. That workshop was entitled “Afternoon Delight” and as Boy Golden noted at the end of the session, it was indeed a delight. As was the entire weekend. See you next year, Hillside.

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.

Concert Review: Laura Stevenson, July 21, The Garrison

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One of the first things I noticed upon entering The Garrison for Laura Stevenson’s Thursday night show was a note from the headliner posted near the entrance (and also on the men’s room door at the back) which said the following:

Dear fans:
We are so glad you are here.
Please wear your masks.

Love, Laura

It was a simple and polite request that served as a good reminder that while many may feel like they’re done with Covid, we are still in the midst of a pandemic and touring musicians are among those who still need to be pretty vigilant as getting sick can cause a lot of complications while on tour. And guess what? Pretty much everyone complied! Just goes to show what can happen when people actually care for and show consideration towards others.

While plagued by a few technical issues early on, they worked that out by the third song or so and put on a solid show. Starting things off with “State”, the first track off of her latest self-titled album, Stevenson and band seemed to be warmly received by those in attendance. with one fan shouting out “Canada loves you!” after the opening number.

“Thank you. I love Canada,” replied Stevenson, adding, “I’m trying to move here.” It’s not entirely clear just how serious she is in her intentions to move here, but she did say that she was looking into Waterloo, noting that they have the largest Oktoberfest in North America, so she’s done a bit of research anyways. And she’s at least somewhat intrigued at the idea of living in a city where once a year, one can have a big pretzel alongside a giant stein of beer while watching a polka band. If so, I can’t say I blame her.

While Stevenson’s band sounded great (and I must give a shout out to the guitarist’s excellent “Weird Al” Yankovic/MAD Magazine t-shirt), a highlight of the night came during Stevenson’s solo mini-set that came at about the midpoint of the evening.

Opening with “Lay Back, Arms Out” and moving on to “Baby Bones”, she closed out the solo set with “Moving Cars“, a beautiful tune and one of the strongest tracks off the latest album. She could have ended the show there and I would have walked away satisfied, but thankfully, she brought the band back out for a few more, noting near the end of the set how it was her first show of the current tour and that it was “nice to be here with nice people.” Amen.

Concert Review: Arooj Aftab, July 8, Axis Club

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Arooj Aftab is a Grammy award winning artist making beautiful music that straddles the lines between folk, jazz, classical, Sufi and probably a few other genres. But what a lot of people who’ve only heard her on record may not know is that she’s also incredibly funny in concert, offering up plenty of deadpan humour between songs over the course of her entire set at Axis Club on Friday night.

The jokes started early, with Aftab taking to the stage to start off her show, looking at a wine glass and remarking, “This shouldn’t be empty.” She would go on to describe her misadventures before the show, which included her limo driver recommending a restaurant (“It was terrible”) and what it was like to drop into the middle of the “weird internet apocalypse” that was enveloping much of the nation on that day. A little later in the set, she asked where the after party was, wondered where Drake might hang out and also took a good natured shot at the fans up front “making these videos of me from a really shitty angle. I see you … I don’t want to be tagged in those.” Another element of her show that was probably at least a litle bit ironic and tongue in cheek was her periodically throwing roses into the crowd, though the crowd certainly seemed to take it pretty seriously. A lot of people were really gunning to get those roses.

Aftab and her top notch band put on a gorgeous and absolutely mesmerising show focusing on numbers off of her latest album Vulture Prince, which she described as “our attempt at making sexy music out of sad music.” She went on to say that with everything the way it is in the world right now, maybe the moment is right for really sad music to start ruling the top 40 charts. And though it’s still yet to be determined if Arooj Aftab will have a breakthrough Top 40 hit, she certainly charmed the crowd at Axis Club on this evening.