Thursday, April 21, 2011


Guelph's Hillside Festival started in 1984 and is now not only one of the most popular festivals in Ontario, but also a venue for up and coming stars.  It continues to grow and many of its featured stars are now making headlines.  I was the Hillside Festival's official photographer in the year 2000 and the memory is still fresh in my mind.

Through fields awash with Queen Anne's Lace and chicory, pink vetch and white daisies, the old school bus, our transport to the festival, pauses for a moment beside an opening in the trees framed by sunlit leaves. Across the water; the “city” of Hillside where huge blue spotlights illuminate a giant stage and the heavy thud of drums and song reverberate across the lake. The celebration is already in full swing.

“Hillsiders” in sarongs, long-flowered Indian skirts, Turkish balloon pants, and others in more conventional baggy khaki shorts and t-shirts with head wear: straws, tie-dyed cotton and wildflower wreaths, part like the waters of the Red Sea as we trundle by.

In the campsite huddled close to the ground are dome tents, a far cry from the staid squares of my day. Dotted between them the more elegant lines of an eastern shape; tall, slim-waisted with brightly coloured conical hats requiring only a pennant at the pinnacle to place it at the battlefield of King
Henry V.

Early arrivals at the Hillside Festival settle in. On a low canvas chair a bearded youth plucks at the strings of his guitar and hums softly to the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz of bees – and the ever-present mosquitoes of Canadian camp grounds. Blow cool winds, blow. Making bumpy progress through the grass a car emblazoned with stickers from rock festivals past, searches for its weekend's resting place.  Close-by, a couple dripping and cool, emerge from the still waters of Guelph Lake.

“Doin what comes naturally”, that's Hillside. Be it strolling topless, losing yourself in the rhythm, arms up and weaving, body swaying sensuously, or merely slouching on a stool reading a book in the middle of a roaring crowd as an up and coming pop singer Hawksley Workman belts out a melody with lyrics about tarantulas.

One exuberant small boy jumps on a green plastic blow-up couch with its already seated owner who shelters from the sun beneath a Chinese sunshade. Over they go, backwards, legs flailing over green plastic.

From the stage-front, as I photograph the performers, I turn and there behind me is a sight of equal if not more entertainment. A vast sea of dancers, eyes closed and swaying as they savour the moment. Weaving their way through the dancers, a couple waltz by their arms about each other in the old way. One-two-three, one-two-three, the giant cage-like baby carrier on Papa's back sways to the rhythm. Blonde infant with eyes big, round, and blue like cornflowers, swings her head from side to side watching the crowds as her parent dance by.

In the catering shelter the aroma of Lebanese, Jamaican and Asian cooking mingles with the sweet scent of chocolate brownies and the slightly charred smell of corn roasting on a barbeque. The “Sausage Brothers” do a roaring trade in the sun.  And when it rains the servers don souwesters that drip with a loud fizz onto hot coals.

A tall willowy woman serving pakoras to a queue that stretches from one end of the shelter to the other calls for assistance. “Give me a hand Mahommed.” A mischievous Mahommed yells back, “Come on folks, Gill wants a hand”, and the whole shelter explodes in a riot of clapping. Then, when the patrons are satiated and the night is almost done, a wilting Lebanese caterer flops in a chair with his guitar and teases his Jamaican neighbours with a loud rendition of “Day Oh, I want to go home”.

The “Burning Spear” is performing in the Island tent. So off I go to make pictures. Unbelievable. The crowd is huge and loud, packed like sardines in the darkened space. But no problem ... I make my way around to the performers entrance. Into the darkness I plunge, and eventually I stand directly in front of “Burning Spear”. As I watch and photograph, his hands beat a staccato rhythm on the ruby-coloured drums in front of him. His head, a mahogany sculpture with Rastafarian locks trapped in a large hat moves in time to his music.

Just an hour or so before I experienced the same crowd excitement. In Ubaka Hill's Lake tent the crowd went wild as she pounded her drums and sang....powerfully and with great beauty. Obviously exhausted, streaming with the efforts of her labour, she smiled willingly as I photographed her. As she stepped from the stage a man who had been beside me throughout leaped forward. “Do one of the two of us together ... please.” And I did.

For those unfamiliar with Hillside, one imagines that an event such as this is for the young alone, but no so. Men in their 60s kneel on the floor drumming for dancers in the drumming circle. Another musician, salt and pepper beard flowing almost to his waist, drums as energetically. White-haired grandfathers in shorts and Tilley hats duck and weave with the best of them, and women, many of them 60s and 70s stunners, dance as energetically as any of the young. Like me, they close their eyes and remember those halcyon days of youth.

Sticky, hot, humid, a light but bright cloud cover with a sky, dead white. Perfect for the deep saturated colours we photographers crave. Sometime, before the end of the festival the rain will come. Until then ...

A selection of Stars of the past: Barenaked Ladies, Burning Spear, Constantines, Cowboy Junkies, Sarah Harmer, Hawksley Workman, Loreena McKennitt, Sarah McLachlan, Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Posted by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 21st April
Text: Hillside 2000
Photos: Hillside 2010

Photos copyright Anne Gordon


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