Friday, August 3, 20120 Comments
Photo By Chris Carr
The Mickey Hart Band closes out Saturday night at Hillside. Photo By Chris Carr
The Doldrums from the Lake Stage. Photo by Chris Carr.
Hillside at night. Photo by Chris Carr
There’s an island. Well, it’s technically a peninsula, but the natives call it the island. On this island is a festival of sorts, a kind of gathering-of-ideologies, soaked in beer and music. It flows from a river of communal comradery and a sheer love of the eclectic. It’s Hillside, and it was my first one.
I arrived to my designated camping spot on the overcast Friday at roughly 3:00pm. I had made plans to camp with an old co-worker of mine, Louis, to share on the costs of the lot. Born without the acute sense of planning, both of us were contented with the overflow parking allotted for us, and fellow non-planners. We set up shop, going about the usual camping rigmarole—tents, coolers, beer, chairs and more beer, all preordained to ensure our weekend was a success. But before all of that, I met Adam.
Adam, a Guelph local and experienced Hillsider, introduced himself and three of his friends. Each of which were firmly squatted on the patch of green I would be calling my home for the next three days. Adam began to tell me that he and his mentioned associates, were friends of Louis’ and with open arms, welcomed me to Hillside.
Being 3:00pm, Adam was sufficiently marinated in sun and beer and was set upon the task of making me his best friend. He told me stories of Hillsides past, his philosophies and his troubles all with a voice that can only be described as more rhinoceros than horse. He scratched his way through stories as if retelling lore handed down from father to son and so forth.
This is when I got the first inclination about the true nature of Hillside.
To think of Hillside as simply a music festival is like defining “humanity” with the synonym “person”. It just seems so ephemeral once the Hillside experience permeates your skin. It’s less a festival, than it is a tribe of the converted from the year prior. And here I was, face-to-face with one of the tribe’s most seasoned wise men. From the moment I landed outside the peninsula, I knew it had to be taken as an exercise in anthropology and not from the usual journalistic form of an outsider-looking-in. I had to become one of the tribe.
I’d like to say that because I was on the clock, working, covering the weekend’s festivities, I didn’t touch a drop of the drink. However, my inner Hunter S. Thompson got the better of me. I won’t advocate the use of alcohol to get great stories, but I can’t say it didn’t work for me.
“The dumplings.” Adam blurted suddenly, “You’ve got to get the dumplings. It’s tradition.” He was talking about Feng’s Dumplings, one of the myriad food merchants littering the grounds on the island. Of course, I obliged and am looking forward to continuing the tradition next year. It’s a pleasant feeling knowing that somewhere, even for a weekend, you can eat like for only five dollars a plate. The selection was as eclectic as the patrons, ranging from The Joint Café’s amazing “Vegi Sandwiches” to Studs and Spuds five dollar grilled cheese with kettle chips.
Once I had filled myself with all sorts of five-dollar foods, I headed off to explore Hillside even more. With my trusty camera in toe, I headed over to a circle of drumming, patchouli-smelling people. It was a drum circle. And I am embarrassed to admit, my first ever witnessed. Here I learned two very important things: first, drum circles are mesmerizing. I could have spent the better part of a day swaying the beats and chants of its contributors. Secondly, they don’t like having their picture taken. This sect of the tribe, to my ignorance, coveted their freedom of movement saved from the judgment of outside forced. As a journalist, I was a direct agent of that world and my pictures were not appreciated. With a smile, I left and wandered into one of the smaller stages, the Island Stage.
Finally I reached the focus of this gathering: some music. I was not disappointed as a band—I would later learn were called, Young Empires—launched into a performance that could have shook the peninsula free (which I guess would make it an island). Like a sermon distributed, the members of the band incited devotion in the audience not unlike a religious experience. This was another phenomena that Hillside brings: the vibration that happens when audience and band are in sync, playing off each other and for each other. The energy was good and it pulsed in you like a heart murmur. If Hillside is a tribe, this was where they came to pray.
From there I walked (read: stumbled) over to the main stage to catch one of the most arguably famous bands of the weekend, The Arkells. In usual form they greeted the audience making jokes only locals would get. This meant almost everybody got the ribs about driving up highway six in the summer time. They played there hits, of course, but the highlight of the evening is when The Arkells launched into an amazing rendition of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dream Come True”. In this reporter’s humble opinion, filling the much-needed void of 1980’s inspired rock, missing at Hillside.
Most of The Arkells’ performance is highly speculated, as myself and many others could only hear The Arkells, as our eyes were plainly fixated on the undulating hula-hoopers dispersed among the crowd. With sequins and LEDs, these talented people kept people dispersed and entertained.
As The Arkells finished their set and I was walking back down the path to my camp ground, I felt my night was complete, and I could look forward to a much-needed sleep on a much-appreciated air mattress. But, as if in tune with the rest of my expectations of Hillside, I was wrong.
I gave my fellow happy campers maybe an hour or two to settle in, and get some rest. After all, Hillside was only six hours old and there was much to come. When it hit around two in the morning, I got the feeling that the festivities were not waning, but increasing as drum circles, and all-out karate jams were ramping up. There were limited fires, as a result of a fire ban, but the shadows of many drunken and vivacious Hillsiders danced around my tent. Huddled in my tent, I felt like a patron of the world’s oddest planetarium. Each constellation had their own instrument—some wooden and stringed, others bound and taught and most only the fanatical yelling that can only come from a gaggle of lacquered young women.
I awoke the next morning, having slept a possible ten minutes, to the stale heat of another festival day. It was early morning, so I set off home to pick up supplies and maybe catch a nap. Eight hours later, I awoke, anew, ready for my second day of Hillside.
This time, I was prepared. I came with a charged camera and gumption for photo-takin’. I shared a grilled cheese with my roommate/photographer/significant other, Meaghan and we both set off to capture Hillside in one thousand pictures, or less.
Our first sermon came from the bellows of the Lake Stage, where the Doldrums were just ramping up a set of electric drums and sweaty hand-claps. This is what Hillside was about: a new band and a fresh audience, eager to take in the sacrament given by such up-and-comers. The Doldrums did not disappoint. With poppy rhythm and sheer will of execution, the meager three piece band infected the gold-glowing audience with dance like their was something in the Kool-aid. At one point, they invited members of the audience up onto the stage, only to be quickly stifled by the security and the structural integrity of the stage.
On to the Mickey Hart Band. Grateful Dead alumni, Mickey Hart played maestro to an array of different, bluesy tunes. The audience, marinated in all things Dead Head, played them as sweetly as guitarist, Gawain Mathews gave seismic lessons in all things jam-band.
And with Mickey Hart’s last words, the second day of Hillside came to end. What begun thereafter was the second night of campfire song sans campfire, ruckus gatherings and “camping”, which is another word for passing out in the grass. As I was prepared for the second night, I found this to be some of the most pleasurable parts of Hillside. The music and food were amazing, but the comradery and togetherness that emanates from hundred of ale-soaked Hillsiders are the reason the festival has such a high rate of repeat offenders. Somewhere between playing Radiohead on a ukulele and pretending our lantern was the god of fire, Hillside become more than a festival, it became an experience.
As my shaman, Adam, lead me through another rendition of a song he wrote (which simply enough, consisting of only one chord), others joined in, and jammed as if they were sitting in with Clapton himself. We had drums made of kerosene cans and no one seemed shy about singing there voices horse.
The next day—the final day—of Hillside, I was free to turn my attention on the inner working that made the festival run so well. Hundreds of volunteers bustled around the event with the efficiency of a soviet beehive. Either toting recycling bins, washing dishes or just simply watching over the congregation of Hillsiders, the volunteer staff was never too far away or too close to ruin the motif that the festival. These were the unsung heroes of the grounds, they were our caretakers.
Having been to both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, I find music festivals a very familiar and a comfortable atmosphere to be in. Aside from the size, the thing that really set Hillside apart from others is how welcoming it has been for families. Bonnaroo takes place in a Tennesee field with plenty of helpings of dirt, sun and accidental overdoses. It’s many things, but one thing it isn’t, is a place for children. Hillside welcomes families of all shapes and sizes and gives them a place to play. This makes the festival all the more inviting while giving it a hopeful sheen of sustainability. The smartest thing the fore-fathers of Hillside ever did was open the event to the most possible people while still maintaining a trusty music festival vibe.
Playing off such a vibe, The Joel Plaskett Emergency closed out the night with his signature hipster swing. Playing mostly his hits, he acted as doorman for those leaving and ambassador of the night for those just starting.
On my out of Hillside, I ran into Adam once again. With the wisdom that should be described of simple directness, we traded pleasantries and looked forward to seeing each other next year. The stark fact is that he will, and without my reassurance, he knew. The music of the festival acted as a reason for Hillside to exist, but anyone who has been can tell you, it is certainly not what perpetuates the annual event.
Thus ended the three day ritual of sermon and sacrifice (of showering and good liver health). The yearly rapture of sound still ringing politely amongst my ears was a pleasant reminder that there’s always time for fine food, good music and even better people.
To any future Hillsiders, I say, come for the music, stay for the company. The food is worth of admission alone. The vendors have some of the most unique fare and product this side of Speed River and the staff is just as friendly as their patrons.
To any re-offending Hillsiders, nothing has to be said. I’ll see you again next year, even if my memory of you is a bit fuzzy.