A Brief History of Hillside (With a Chance of Doom)

The year was 1984. A generation of young people were given the eternal answer to “Who you gonna call?”, Cirque du Soleil redefined just how far you can make certain body parts bend, and John Turner began an epic three-month ride as Prime Minister of Canada. Meanwhile, here in Guelph, a small community music festival was launched that more than three decades later endures as a summer destination that’s synonymous with the Royal City.

Hillside was the brain child of a number of Guelphites, including Sue Smith of the Bird Sisters, community organizer Sue Richards, and, of course, singer/songwriter and present Ward 2 city councillor James Gordon. Gordon would serve as the festival’s initial artistic director, while Dorethea Bienzle, Bryan Grayson, Dy Mass, Barry Randall, John Timmins, Jude Vadala formed its founding board. The mission, as articulated by festival to this day, is to “celebrate creativity through artistic expression, community engagement and environmental leadership.”

Interesting to note then that Hillside got its name for its original setting, Hillside Farms, which is off Highway 124 on the Guelph/Eramosa border. A last minute decision though moved the inaugural ’84 festival, which according to the single-sided photocopied program promised an “11 hour music celebration for all ages – noon-11 pm,” to the bandshell in Riverside Park. Admission was free, but attendees were invited to make a donation.

Harri Palm, whose fingerprints are on many of Guelph’s artistic institutions including Ed Video, was part of those early Hillsides, first as a performer and then as an organizer. “The mandate was that we would bring in some big name acts, but we would always also have local stuff,” Palm told the Guelph Mercury in 2013.

“Maybe what has changed is it was very folkie at first, but even in those early days there was a bit of a divide,” Palm said of the festival’s musical style. “You had the folkies and the rockers. That was always a bit odd, and I think people didn’t quite know what to do with that. But I think what has happened now is they have come to an understanding. Now it’s cool.”

Year two of Hillside faced tough competition from Live Aid, but seven local acts – including Common Ground, Tamarack, and the Reverbs – took part. By year three in 1986, Hillside had a name, a brand, a board of directors, and it was already looking to expand. Hillside moved to Guelph Lake for the first time in 1987, and camping, a beer tent and a downtown shuttle bus came with it.

Palm, as technical director, over saw the transition, and pushed the festival for maintaining a technical excellence as it expanded. “I kept saying it’s got to sound good, because if it doesn’t sound good, it’s no good,” he said. “I think that was the beginning of the festival really growing. After that, it just exploded, every year it was just bigger and bigger.”

By the end of the decade, Hillside was receiving grant money from the City of Guelph and the Ontario Arts Council, the number stages expanded, the city provided blue boxes for recycling, and the water and electrical infrastructure on the island was upgraded. On Saturday July 21, 1990, Hillside sold out for the first time as patrons caught Big Smoke, Celtic Blue, Faith Nolan, Gwen Swick, Jackson Delta, John Batt, Magoo, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Monkey Wrench Gang, Purple Dragon Puppet Troupe, The Jolly Beggars, and more.

A spoke word line-up was added to Hillside in 1991, and the main stage went solar in 1992. By the time the festival celebrated its tenth birthday, it was an enterprise that required the support of over 450 volunteers and a budget of nearly $200,000. And then came the accolades; Acoustic Guitar ranked Hillside as one of the top 25 festivals in North America in 1996.

At the turn of the millennium, Hillside was completely entrenched in the Guelph psyche. It’s community and environmental acumen were now tradition, and plans for a new permanent stage begin as the festival headed towards year 20. At that 2003 festival, the Barenaked Ladies, who were Hillside artists in 1991 right before their debut album Gordon became a chart-topper, played a special Thursday benefit to pay off the cost of the new Main Stage. By this point, Hillside had managed to sell out its weekend passes and now had over 1,000 volunteers to its credit.

Then there was Arcade Fire. The Montreal indie rock band were on the cusp of fame, and their Hillside show in 2004 put them over the top. The next year, Hillside weekend passes sold out in under a week, and that began a decade-long reign of Hillside being not just a fun community festival, but a taste maker, and appointment jamming on the annual music calendar.

But things aren’t as bright and shiny on Guelph Lake Island as they used to be. A dark cloud has formed overhead. A cloud in the shape of competition.

Specifically, the WayHome Music and Arts Festival. Taking place on the same weekend as Hillside, and situated just a hope, skip and a jump away between Barrie and Orillia, that festival, in its second year, is hosting much bigger bands including Third Eye Blind, X Ambassadors, The Killers, M83, and past Hillside headliners Arcade Fire. The gravitational presence of WayHome on the local scene has definitely been felt.

As noted in a recent Popsmacked column by Joel Rubinoff in the Waterloo Region Record, the arrival of so many new festivals started with readily available grant money from the government, plus eager bands looking for touring funds to make up lost album sales is creating festival over-saturation. “[T]he truth is, it’s not working. Nobody’s selling out anything. The bubble is bursting,” Hillside artistic director Sam Baijal told Rubinoff.

The bubble is certainly busting for Hillside which saw a loss of 12 per cent in sales last year and is seeing a dip of 10 to 15 per cent for this weekend’s festival. A few weeks ago, Hillside began offering group rates on day and weekend passes, a concession to the changing festival landscape, but a move sold as an extension of Hillside’s sense of community. “I guess that [sales] is part of it, but it [the group sale offer] is also to encourage people to come together,” executive director Marie Zimmerman told the Guelph Tribune.

Still, Hillside has a lot to be proud of. Festivals and Events Ontario listed it as one of the 16 Must-Attend Summer Music Festivals in Ontario, and it was awarded Level of Distinction by the FEO for its “broad artistic vision that emphasizes diversity: of culture, of musical heritage and style, of age, geography and influence.” Hillside Festival was also the FEO Award Winner of the “Best Greening of a Festival,” acknowledging Hillside’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

“We’ve historically been a festival about people coming and embracing artists that they don’t know,” Baijal told CBC-KW. “That’s kind of our story. The path we’ve been on for many years is starting to turn and we’re feeling it.”

Hillside happens again for the 33rd time this weekend at Guelph Lake Conservation Area.

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