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For years, it was the summer concert calendar’s best-kept secret. Well, thanks to some savvy programming, good timing and a couple of red-hot buzz bands, the secret is clearly out about the annual Hillside Festival (we should mention The Varsity’s been in on the secret all along, bringing you full coverage the past three years running!).

The three-day event, held each July on Guelph Lake Island, is a remarkable example of what a community can accomplish-over the past 22 years, Hillside has grown from a small local folk festival into an eclectic celebration of music, spoken word and dance that runs on volunteer power, green principles, and plain old good vibes.

Thanks to two Montreal bands on the rise-everyone’s favourite group du jour The Arcade Fire and the similarly beloved Stars (not to mention the last-minute addition of local indie supergroup Broken Social Scene)-this year’s Hillside was a sellout weeks before the event.

What has always set Hillside apart from other summer music festivals is its fiercely grassroots spirit that shuns corporate intrusion (instead of overpriced fast food, local restaurants sell everything from pakoras to dumplings at the international food bazaar) and treats festivalgoers as cultured adults instead of mindless cattle.

But hitting the big time comes with its own growing pains-though an agreement with the Guelph Lake conservation area caps attendance at 5,000, the sellout brought with it the sort of long lineups and minor headaches often found at outdoor festivals that Hillside had managed to avoid to date.

But the invasion by the city-slicker indie-rock crowd was bound to happen sooner than later-artistic director Sam Baijal has been booking the best bands around for years now, including, yes, the Arcade Fire, who played the festival last year as a relatively unknown commodity-and watching the upturned, ecstatic faces of the massive throng as they watched Stars and the Arcade Fire go supernova was enough to reassure even skeptical festival veterans that the kids were all right.

While Canadian indie-rock’s rising star has clearly helped raise the festival’s profile, Hillside’s success has always come from Baijal’s uncanny ability to program just the right mix of cutting-edge hip and rustic roots. There was plenty of both sides on offer at this year’s edition. Some highlights:


Apostle of Hustle
5 pm, Island stage

Toronto indie label Arts & Crafts was all over Hillside this year, its centrepiece band Broken Social Scene and all its various splinter acts popping up in nearly every timeslot throughout the festival’s three days.

BSS guitarist Andrew Whiteman may not be the best-known member of the A&C constellation, but his own band, Apostle of Hustle, has come into its own of late, particularly with its dynamic live show.

Whether the Island stage tent was jam-packed due to Whiteman’s BSS connection may have been very well beside the point following Apostle’s tremendous Hillside set, which played out much like a BSS show, replete with a full horn section and members of Stars, Metric and The Stills all showing up on stage to lend a hand.

Stars’ singer Torquil Campbell ably handled the backup vocals sung by Feist on the album version of the sultry “Animal Fat,” which benefitted from the addition of stately violin.

Whiteman basically summed up his entire set when he sang, “Everything’s in place/It’s on.” Though this veteran of the Toronto indie scene clearly owes a debt of gratitude to BSS for expanding Apostle’s deep, languid sound into something a bit looser and spacier, he’s clearly carved out his own fascinating niche within the Arts & Crafts family.

Sarah Slean
7 pm, Main stage

“My favourite and yours,” was the way artistic director Sam Baijal introduced Toronto singer/pianist Sarah Slean, and indeed, the cabaret-influenced songwriter had the mainstage crowd in the palm of her hand from the moment she sat down behind the piano bench and let her rich soprano fly.

Slean’s material has become increasingly pop-oriented in recent years, and as such her live show is more of a full rock band affair than the demure piano recitals of old, but often the band tends to overshadow the more ethereal aspects of her sound.

That said, the upbeat “Lucky Me” was a total romp, the band firing on all cylinders behind Slean as she bashed out the ridiculously catchy melody on her keyboard.

But Slean’s beautiful songs are best experienced when it’s just her and the piano, and her note-perfect reading of the wrenching “Your Wish Is My Wish” stood miles apart from the overly melodramatic latter part of the set, during which she stepped out from behind the keyboard and took centre stage. While it’s interesting to watch Slean throw herself into performing the songs, the material is already inherently dramatic-it doesn’t require any additional frills to move the listener.

8:15 p.m, Main stage

While the festival’s main draw was surely The Arcade Fire, it seemed nearly as many were there to see fellow Montrealers (by way of Toronto) Stars, and for those who have followed the band from their beginnings as purveyors of Smiths-obsessed synth sounds to their current role as torchbearers of epic romantic indie-rock, to see them finally getting their due is sweet indeed.

Yet another Arts & Crafts outpost, Stars fit in nicely with the A&C ethic of fast friends piling together on stage to play expansive rock, yet their sound is far more honed and distinct than that of their Broken brethren.

Plus they’ve got that wonderful boy-girl singer thing going on-Torquil Campbell (the best frontman in Canada-every band should take lessons in stage banter from this man) and Amy Millan sound like they were born to sing together, his arch sneer and her cherubic tones the perfect contrast as they trade off verses.

The septet (fleshed out by BSS’ Whiteman on guitar and Kevin Drew on vocals), took Millan’s anthemic “Ageless Beauty” to new heights, the shimmering guitars building up to a frenetic climax before crashing back down to earth.

By the time the group concluded with the so-lovely-it-hurts “Calendar Girl,” you wanted to just grab the person next to you and ask them to waltz. And one got the sense that Stars, ever the hopeful romantics, would probably have loved it if we had.

The Arcade Fire
9:45 pm, Main stage

When the hype is so huge that it’s nearly deafening, the only way to cut through the noise is to deliver the goods. And if the Arcade Fire is known for anything, it’s their wild and wonderful live show, which they brought with them to Hillside, their only Canadian date this summer (the band agreed to play the festival even though they were slated to be in Chicago for Lollapalooza the very next day).

The Arcade Fire must be seen to be believed. And if the worshipful throng packing the entire surface of the island as far as the eye was any indication, then the band’s recent purchase of a church in Quebec might just be prophetic.

Husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Regine Chassagne are a fascinating study in contrasts-his blond giant to her brunette pixie-all the more heightened by the band’s penchant to dress in black-and-white formal outfits on stage. The effect works well with their songs, so lyrically bleak but rendered into joyous anthems onstage, Butler’s brother Will and multi-instrumentalist Richard Parry beating on anything they can find (whether it’s the stacks of speakers or each other) while belting out the choruses whether they were anywhere near a microphone or not.

The Arcade Fire are aptly named-they play with such burning intensity that it’s almost a cavil to point out their one weakness-their set tends to come to a complete halt between songs due to a lack of interaction with the crowd. Frontman Butler made more of an effort than he usually does, mumbling his thanks and introducing the band, but it would be nice to see someone in the large ensemble master the art of banter.

The one-two punch of recent hits “Power Out” and “Rebellion (Lies)” would have been the pinnacle if it wasn’t for the magical finale to the set-returning for their encore, Butler cited the nightly curfew and suggested the band play unplugged. Grabbing their instruments, the band filed off the stage and straight through the crowd, all eyes glued to the procession as everyone-from the hipster teens to grey-haired folkies alike-sang along to the wordless chorus as loud as they could. A sublimely powerful ending that, in bridging the usual divide between band and audience, summarized the community spirit of Hillside perfectly.

SUNDAY, July 24

Crescent and Frost
2 pm, Island stage

Sundays at Hillside usually tend towards the folkier end of the scale, and after Saturday’s bracing dose of indie-rock, some rootsier flavours were more than welcome. Brooklyn folk/bluegrass act Crescent and Frost always get such a good reception north of the border that they’ve taken to proclaiming their desire to be Canadians at any given opportunity-as such, their Neil Young covers in the noon-hour ‘gospel jam’ (“It’s the Canadian gospel!” guitarist Daniel Marcus quipped) was probably a given.

While the indie kids opted to take in the Sarah Slean/Buck 65 workshop on the other end of the island, there were still plenty on hand in the packed Island stage tent for C&F’s honeyed acoustic balladry, made even sweeter by singer Maryann Fennimore’s pitch-perfect tones.

Whether wrapping her twangy soprano around a clever lyric (“I’m the kind of woman who knows where to go/When I can’t have the man, then I steal the show”) or engaging the crowd with her adorable between-song banter, Fennimore was the front-and-center focus throughout C&F’s engaging set, which nicely alternated between their more countrified numbers and folk/pop-influenced songs from their two albums.

That said, every jewel needs a good setting, and luckily the rest of C&F-acoustic guitarist/harmony vocalist Marcus, electric guitarist Rich Hinman, and actual Canadian Jason Mercer on upright bass-was more than up to the task, providing a rich, warm base for Fennimore to sing over.

Smart move pulling off a show-stopper ending: a cover of ’80s nugget “Stop in the Name of Love”-turned into a plaintive country lament, no less.

Broken Social Scene
8:15 pm, Main stage

Yeah, we know ’em, we love ’em. But the best thing about the multi-headed beast known as Broken Social Scene is that you’re never gonna get the same spectacle twice. And what a spectacle it is-the expanded version of BSS, complete with members of Stars, Metric, and The Stills, was out in full force at Hillside, led as always by ringleader/mastermind Kevin Drew, who gets more emo by the day (in a good way, mind you).

Busting out numbers from their highly anticipated upcoming eponymous release (due Oct. 4), BSS did what they always do best-which is to say, they make playing in a band look like the most joyous thing in the universe.

Stars’ Amy Millan, sporting an oddball fedora-and-summer-dress combo, sang and shimmied on practically every tune. Metric’s Emily Haines spurred crowd worship when she appeared for her BSS classic “Anthems for a 17-year-old Girl.” Whoever was onstage quickly joined the horn section, belting the brass on infectious new songs like “Shoreline” and sending them straight into the stratosphere.

Leave it to BSS to close out Hillside with an unforgettable moment-rapper k-os, who appears briefly on the new BSS record, sauntered out onto the stage, beer cup in hand, threw down a few haphazard freestyle verses that shouted out most everyone on stage, and then, much to the delight of the crowd, stage-dived into the audience and crowd-surfed before disappearing as quickly as he came, leaving all to shake their heads and contemplate what they’d just seen. Awesome.