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- Posted on Jul 26th 2010 6:15PM by Tabassum Siddiqui
If there was an artist who embodies both the musical and philosophical approach of Guelph's Hillside Festival, singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer would fit the bill. Returning to the festival on the heels of the release of her new album, 'Oh Little Fire' (her first in five years), Harmer received a homegrown heroine's welcome from the capacity crowd spilling across the grassy island on the second evening of the three-day event.
It was clear Harmer's return to recording and performing has been eagerly awaited, and her blend of pop, rock, folk and country is in keeping with Hillside's eclectic programming, which eschews the traditional folk festival format for a wider umbrella that encompasses a range of sounds. Judging from the diverse crowd -- hipster college kids, parents with babes in arms, older folk-music fans -- Harmer's ability to bridge the gap between genres has afforded her a crossover success like few others.
That virtuosity was on display from the opening notes of her loose, exuberant set that proved to be one of the highlights of the festival -- kicking off with effervescent first single 'Captive', Harmer and her skilled four-piece band made their way through a surprisingly thorough sampling of songs from throughout her decade-long solo career. Given that she's working a new album after several years away from the spotlight, nobody would've begrudged Harmer for simply sticking to the new material -- that she didn't showed a real generosity of spirit and also served to highlight how she's developed into one of Canada's strongest singer-songwriters.
As the sun began to set following a day of erratic weather (this year's Hillside saw everything from sunshowers to torrential downpours to bright, blazingly warm stretches over the course of the weekend), the clarion-voiced singer launched into old bluegrass-tinged nugget 'Around This Corner', which benefitted from a punchy, muscular treatment with staccato percussion and keyboardist Julie Fader's warm backing harmonies. The juxtaposition of Harmer's newer, poppier songs with some of her earlier countrified tunes was an interesting one -- with her, the switch between styles manages to sound effortless instead of calculated, as if she's just displaying her full range of musical colours rather than trying them on for size.
While she may be known for her political and environmental activism (which lines up with Hillside's eco-friendly outlook), Harmer was anything but sombre during her performance, bounding around the stage in striped socks and beaming into the crowd. Picking up a whiteboard with instructions scribbled on it that had been lying on the stage, she held it up and quipped: "Our game plan is to conquer -- with love."
And hers are indeed songs of love lost and found -- and all the little moments in between. Both newer numbers like the buoyant 'One Match' and older favourites like the gentle 'Dandelions and Bulletholes' (a Hillside anthem if there ever was one -- what other summer festival sells out of dandelion-flavoured ice cream every year?) seemed to resonate with the adoring crowd, and served to remind listeners of the luminosity of Harmer's songwriting.
A note-perfect sound mix -- not something that always happens at the sizable main stage at Hillside -- helped ensure that her evocative lyrics rang out loud and clear: "All the words that I held too close to my chest/Are calling on me now/To get through," she sang on the melodically upbeat but lyrically contemplative 'Careless', which featured some lovely Wurlitzer-type keyboard melodies by Fader.
While it's nice to hear Harmer return to the rockier edge that marked her earliest work in '90s-era band Weeping Tile, even her softer older material was given a lively bent by her new backing band, all veteran players who are clearly having a blast performing together and aren't afraid to give a bit of a new spin to old fan favourites like the wistful 'Uniform Grey', which benefitted from a sunny, almost Latin-flavoured guitar solo by Dean Drouillard.
But any band is only as good as its chieftain, and Harmer has grown into the role of leading lady with grace and verve. By the time she closed with driving new track 'The City', the perfect forceful cap to a firecracker set, the tune's refrain said it all: "And now it's somebody's story/And I'm not sorry/That it's mine." She may have been away for a while, but if her Hillside set was any indication, Sarah Harmer has plenty of stories to tell yet.