Hillside Moments: Of Love and Community and Music and Memory

by Chris Tiessen, with a little help from his friends

I remember my first ‘Hillside Moment’ — those enchanting, magical bits of Hillside that give life a sudden luminosity. It happened some years back on a Hillside Friday while my oldest son Dylan and I kept watch over the festival’s sacred fire.

Our task as fire keepers was to make sure the flame remained healthily ablaze, and to ensure that those who wanted to enter the fire’s circle followed proper aboriginal protocol. So we sat by the entranceway of the circle committed to fulfilling our role.

Folks came and went. Some stayed by the fire only briefly while others lingered. As the last bands finished their sets on the festival’s four stages, the fire’s circle served as a space of refuge amidst the sea of thousands of exuberant festivalgoers hustling back to their campsites, or to ‘Volly Village’ (the tent city that houses many of the festival’s 1300+ volunteers), or to the fleet of buses waiting to return these merrymakers downtown. I recall the laughter, yelling, and barely controlled chaos of the crowds creating a stark contrast to the tranquility of the circle and those sitting cross-legged, kneeling, or crouching silently by the fire.

And then, as if by some sort of magic, there was calm. The distant chanting, yipping, and laughing from Volly Village became barely audible, and, finally, uniquely comforting. Except for a couple meditating by the fire, Dylan and I were alone. Under the clear night sky. With a cool breeze breaking the day’s oppressive heat. And the flames flashing low and constant. It was an entrancing moment. And it was good.

Each Hillside since, Dylan and I have taken up that same Friday night shift as keepers of the sacred fire. And each year is different. There have been downpours. And clear skies. And heat. And cool. And, unfailingly, magic. We’ve come to covet our sustaining memories and nostalgia for the festival’s precious, unexpected Hillside Moments — whether at midnight by the fire or at other times throughout our Hillside weekends.

Long-time Hillside Artistic Director Sam Baijal has no shortage of Hillside Moments. He fondly recalls the Arcade Fire performance that closed the Main Stage set in 2005.

‘While they were ending their epic performance with an encore of their anthem Wake Up, the band walked off the stage with their instruments,’ Baijal recalls, ‘and the mesmerized audience marched with them, over to Volly Village and into the warm summer night.’ Indeed, Sam’s penchant for billing emerging acts before they’ve ‘made it big’ — including The Arcade Fire (in 2004), Metric (in 2003), Feist (in 2000), Serena Ryder and so many more — has become a signature component of the festival. And has made for many memorable ‘first shows’.

Current Hillside Board Member Murray Short, for instance, remembers seeing Serena Ryder play Lake Stage in 2002, when she was just 19, before many folks knew who she was.

‘It was one of those performances that started out sparsely attended and ended with a packed tent of Hillsiders screaming and whistling and going crazy … That dazzling 2002 set continues to stand out above her more recent mainstream sound.’

City of Guelph Senior Communications Officer (and long-time Hillside emcee) Stacey Hare recalls ‘swooning at the sight of Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen’ before she’d ever heard him sing. As she notes: ‘My crush is ongoing.’ Meanwhile, Wellington Brewery’s Paul Aquilina remembers seeing Warsawpack play Island Stage in 2003 — ‘an energized set complete with horn section’ that to this day remains one of his all-time favourite shows.

Meanwhile, Hillside staple Tom Klein Beernink fondly recalls ‘seeing Michael Franti wade joyously and fearlessly into a huge appreciative crowd and feeling an overwhelmingly powerful sense of love and gratitude for this beautiful festival. Everything Hillside has always aspired to be came together in that moment.’
Vignettes from past festivals, including (bottom right) a memorable set by BadBadNotGood at the 2013 festival

Downtown Guelph Business Association Executive Director Marty Williams was transfixed by a moment in this year’s festival, when Poor Man’s Whiskey did a rendition of Paul Simon’s Graceland. ‘I remember standing in the crowd at Lake Stage listening to the band’s interpretation of this great album. An homage. And the best thing about it was seeing people who weren’t yet born when Graceland was released singing along to every song. Through them I was received into a graceland of my own.’

Ontario Co-op’s Peter Cameron also remembers Poor Man’s Whiskey — from 2013 when they played their rendition of Dark Side of the Moon at Lake Stage. ‘They dressed up as characters from the Wizard of Oz and when they cut into ‘Wish You Were Here’ the tears just started welling up for all my wonderful friends who had passed away and used to love Hillside … . It was so sad but also an oh so joyous moment!’

Peter’s wife, former Mayor Karen Farbridge, observes fondly that Hillside ‘remains a constant source of happiness’ for children. Make your way around the island and you’re sure to find kids having their own Hillside Moments: making friends on hand-made carousels, splashing in the water on festival beaches, captivated by children’s performers at the Kids’ Stage, or dressing in costume and marching around the island in the annual Children’s Parade.
Indeed, Hillside makes children of us all. As film producer Erin Young recalls of Fred Penner’s performance at this past Hillside: ‘His children’s tent performance was more packed with parents than kids.’ She adds: ‘It brought back memories from my childhood — and created new ones for my young family too.’

These exquisite Hillside Moments are enchanting when they happen, and they never dissipate completely. Instead, they continue to grow over time — enriching our memories and warming our hearts.

We truly are blessed to have such an incredible festival of love and community and music. To enjoy and remember for years and years (and years) to come.

A sky filled with CDs at this year’s 2015 festival
F*cked Up play the 2013 festival (I think)

This article appears in col.lab.o.rate Issue 6, released late summer 2015.

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