Hillside is a truly special little bubble that has few parallels in the world of summer folk festivals.

This past July, I had the pleasure of playing the Hillside Festival for the first time in my 10 plus years of being a professional touring musician. I can’t believe it has taken this long for me to get there, but I finally made it. Hillside is a truly special little bubble that has few parallels in the world of summer folk festivals. I’ve been touring with acts including Jill Barber, Royal Wood, Doug Paisley, and David Myles over the last 10 years. In that time I have played most of the major summer festivals in Canada, and many of the smaller ones. The large festivals are great but, they are… large and impersonal. Which brings me to the lovely weekend I spent in Guelph.

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Guelph is a small vibrant town about an hour away from Toronto. The Hillside Festival has been happening for years on a small island inside Guelph Lake conservation area. The experience starts as soon as you arrive. Performers are brought to the artist entrance on a small boat that crosses a short stretch of lake. Upon arrival you sign in and there is an instrument lockup. Being in a conservation area, the organizers of the festival are extremely environmentally conscious. Everything is reusable, and they provide clean tap water in trucks all over the festival site.

I played the Mainstage with Donovan Woods at 7:30 pm on Saturday night just as the sun was setting. The stage is oriented so that performers are looking right at the sun. Had we performed an hour earlier the light and heat would have made this pretty brutal, but luckily we had our set at the perfect time, magic hour. Everything was golden and all of the trees had halos around them.

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I recently got the Boss DM-2W analog delay and tried using it with a long feedback time to build up a series of layers and it worked like a charm!

Working out the arrangements for these tunes with Donovan in rehearsal presented a few technical challenges. In the recording of the song Do I Know Your Name, the middle section of the song has a texture that we created by recording multiple layers of polyrhythmic interlocking piano parts. It is a pretty challenging part to recreate live because of all of these layers. I recently got the Boss DM-2W analog delay and tried using it with a long feedback time to build up a series of layers and it worked like a charm! The delay is super easy to use and it sounds really warm and clean. The tune sounds just like the record and the pedal is now an essential part of my touring rig with Donovan.

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Back on stage… We had 10 minutes to get our gear into position and another 10 minutes to line check. The stage hands at Hillside were great and made the setup painless. My stage rig for the band consists of a keyboard going through a big pedal board, and there is also a vibraphone. Having a pedal board with lots of connections means when something goes wrong, and it will, troubleshooting is difficult. When it came time to line check the keyboard there was no signal. I was rushed by 4 stage hands trying to sort it out while the stage manager kept shouting 4 minutes… 3 minutes…

Super helpful.

It’s a rush to play in front of a big audience, but when in an idyllic beautiful setting it makes me realize how lucky I am to have this job.

I was naturally worried that it was something in my pedal board and checked all of the connections repeatedly. I started removing pedals, and then the sound tech tested the DI’s directly. Thankfully it was the DI’s and not my pedals. Couldn’t afford to lose the Dm-2w at this point. I must say, the Hillside team really killed it on the stage sound. In fact, all of the performances I watched sounded killer in front of the stage too. The crowd was huge and everyone enjoyed the music. It’s a rush to play in front of a big audience, but when in an idyllic beautiful setting it makes me realize how lucky I am to have this job.

All in all playing Hillside was certainly a highlight of this summers festival roster. For a working musician its these little gems that make up for all of the bad sounding nights that we have to endure.

Contributed by touring keyboardist Robbie Grunwald for Roland Canada Blog