Lost Cousins, The Turbans, Communism, The Luyas, Sarah Harmer, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry @ Hillside Festival 7/16/2017

The last day of this year’s Hillside festivities brought storm clouds and intermittent rain throughout the day with the chance of a thunderstorm threatening to postpone the entire festival around midday. Though many families with their own tents and umbrellas stuck it out by the main stage, the tents remained consistently full for obvious reasons of staying nice and dry. Fortunately near sunset, the clouds broke and a beautiful skyline closed off the night on the lake.

After an opening workshop, Kingston’s Lost Cousins started the day at the Island Stage with a poppy punch – catchy hooks, nimble bass and propulsive grooves captivated a good portion of those hiding from the rain. Trading vocals, the bass and drums were locked in as trumpet and saxophone licks provided welcome sonic detours from the group’s familiar indie rock sound.

What was first a spontaneous trip to the Main Stage quickly became my Sunday highlight as The Turbans took the stage around mid-afternoon. Luckily, the rain had stopped for the next few hours, which meant a significant crowd gathered around to sing, dance and clap along to this international musical collective’s wild mix of eastern-European sounds and psychedelic gypsy folk. Like Mbongwana Star on Friday night, the group’s native melodies and rhythms were made modern and accessible, encouraging a collective union and spirit through their live set. The group even went further by randomly (and I do mean randomly) inviting a member of The Luyas and Boogat on the stage to join in a free jam.

In total contrast from their music to the name, Communism played a tight 40 minutes of good-hearted rock n roll for the Island Stage. Incorporating shuffles, 50s ballads and a touch of post-punk in their instrumentation, the tunes were all about getting along and sharing peace with one another.

Just before the evening, the rain came again and persisted for most of Montreal’s The Luyas. Starting late due to technical difficulties and a thunderstorm warning prefacing the set, the quartet treated the Lake Stage to a short set of moody, nocturnal and electronic-tinged indie rock. The array of interesting guitar and synth effects didn’t translate as well live as they do on record, but set standout “Self-Unemployed” made the most of a noisy intro and the hypnotic bass/drum interplay.

Heading to the Main Stage for the final two acts I would be able to catch that day, the rain stopped and the clouds suddenly broke for a gorgeous sunset as Sarah Harmer delivered a satisfying career-spanning set. Fans lined the front of the stage, cheering as Sarah played oldies like “Almost” and “Don’t Get Your Back Up” among many others. Making the large stage and festival crowd resemble the intimacy of a small club, Sarah prefaced each song with a quick backstory for the inspiration behind the lyrics, which had the effect of making each song both personal to Sarah and universal to all.

Next up, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took the stage for what could only be deemed half live performance, half history lesson as they took folk music back to its origins and dusty past. Taking a minute or two between songs, Billy and Joe would set a scene of America’s old West: small towns dependent on the railroad for transportation and economy, much of the country relying on freight trains to travel across the country and American folk music as a “revolution” or cultural statement. From the likes of Leadbelly to folklore classic “John Henry (The Steel Driving Man),” the two contemporary folk icons brought the American past with them to reflect on the current sociopolitical climate. In all honesty, the set was a bit of a downer to what was mostly a fun festival weekend, but still left a calming mood over the Guelph Lake as I bade 2017’s Hillside Festival farewell.