Ora Cogan, WHOOP-Szo, Mbongwana Star, Duchess Says @ Hillside Festival 7/14/2017

In its 34th year, Guelph’s Hillside Festival boasted a diverse, well-rounded line-up for music fans and attendees of all ages and preferences. Ranging from punk and soul to more traditional folk and bluegrass, which the festival is typically known for, fantastic musicians from around the world gathered across three stages, offering a wide array of sounds and styles to enjoy.

Having unfortunately missed the opening festivities and workshops, my happy Hillside weekend begins at the Lake Stage with Vancouver’s Ora Cogan. Touring as a trio with a drummer and keyboardist, Ora’s brand of dark, psychedelic folk worked great with a lean, minimal live outfit. Filling the tent with deep, woozy synths and driving electric guitar, the band presented many tracks off the new album to be released in October including title track “Crickets,” which was particularly brooding with its hypnotic piano line playing under a heavy beat and Ora’s soaring vocals. The set proved to be a great teaser towards what should be an impressive fall release.

Next up over at the Island Stage was WHOOP-Szo who begun their set with the captivating instrumental piece that kicks off their latest record “Citizen’s Ban(ne)d Radio.” Though their recordings are difficult to categorize with folk, noise and punk influences running throughout their songs, the five-piece’s live set is especially heavy, leaning more towards the chaos and spirit of punk.

Only catching half of WHOOP-Szo’s set, I made my way towards the Main Stage for what ended up being my Friday night highlight: Mbongwana Star. As their 2015 album states, the Congolese act “From Kinshasa” provided a large crowd of all ages the rhythm and energy to dance and clap along to their ridiculously fun mix of urban Congolese music, reggae, funk and rock. Encouraging audience participation at every moment, the highly energetic group builds danceable grooves from relentless upbeat rhythms and shredding guitars. In a live setting, Mbongwana Star shares their native music as a gift to all listening in a joyous, euphoric group collective – a musical communion transcending any language and cultural barriers.

Capping off my night at the Island Stage, I witnessed the power and riotous thrill of Montreal’s Duchess Says. For those who haven’t seen their wild 80s-inspired electro punk, the group’s thrashing drums and buzzing synths, along with frontwoman Annie Claude’s screams and vocal acrobatics proved to be just as effective in a small club as in a tent. Save for some crowd surfing and piggybacking a security guard, Claude’s typical onstage antics were tamed due to the physical restrictions from the security controlling the mosh pit. Regardless, the group still made a family friendly festival feel like a dirty DIY basement show with everyone present in for the ride.