Celebrating five years with yet another jam-packed lineup, the Sled Island music fest continues its bender and buffet of wicked riffs. Words: Jeremy Curry
Sled Island is a festival put on once a year in the dregs of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. For most of the year, the city is a big pile of garbage with tiny pockets of interesting and noteworthy things to do. It is a city I have lived in my whole life. It is the reason I love and have to drink. Sled Island not only opens up these pockets of the city to a larger crowd, but it manages to bring in some amazing musicians and comedians who would usually skip over this town. In past years it has brought bands like Yo La Tengo, the Boredoms, Les Savy Fav, Cave, Anti-Pop Consortium and so much more. It also showcases many local acts and artists. It is basically one big bender of great music.
With over 200 bands in four days, this year’s lineup proved a challenge for me to see as much as I possibly could without getting too sloppy and forgetting what had just happened. I consider my personal time only a minor success. There is only one of me, and covering a four-day festival by yourself is kind of hard. Especially when you’re as lazy as I am. I think about naps and snacks about 90% of the time, so wandering around the city on foot was pretty tiring. But who am I to complain? It was just an overload of cool junk I had to deal with. Boo hoo.
This year the set up was pretty similar to previous years. Many of the same venues were involved, and those disgusting Factory Parties that used to go on are no more, so that was nice. Show up late to the Legion and you won’t be able to get in. The Distillery is still a disgusting hellhole. Central United Church is still the greatest place to see a show. Tubby Dog always caters to the all-ages scene with free shows and great bands, not to mention amazing hot dogs. It was all so familiar, but for some reason, the whole thing was kind of off its axis.
I started the whole deal off on Wednesday, after a quick power nap. I managed to get to Tubby Dog in time for Sans AIDS and Pat Jordache. Sans AIDS reminded me of what I thought that Cameron Crowe movie Singles was going to be like: A bunch of slackers rocking out in the laziest way they possibly can. Unfortunately, Singles was a horrible movie with shitty music, and not like that at all. Well Sans AIDS, you made the version of that movie I wanted! Thanks! They were the perfect band to watch after a power nap. Pat Jordache followed with tight playing and some great “jangly pop” riffs. I put jangly pop in quotes because I hate when people use that term in music writing, but it was really the only way I could explain it. So jangly. Jangles all the way. One of Pat Jordache’s songs reminded me of a U2 song, but a song they would have wrote if they were a GOOD band. It was strange, but ultimately enjoyable.
Unfortunately I had to leave the show early to catch the Dum Dum Girls and Blonde Redhead at that excuse for a venue, The Distillery. The only good thing about this show was the doorman. He was friendly. That’s about it. The Dum Dum Girls were on stage as I arrived, and they sounded awful. I don’t blame them. The sound in that place is so terrible that the whole thing just sounded like the same sound in one big blob. Like one continuous power-pop song, distorted into a big pile of shit. The girls themselves were bobbing back and forth, rocking on their guitars. It was kind of cute, but cute can’t get you everywhere forever.
Blonde Redhead were up next with one of the most boring sets I have ever witnessed in my life. They sounded like a terrible Phil Collins cover band. If anybody knows me, you would know this hurt my feelings. I love Phil Collins! It was all synthesizers and “cooing” vocals that put me in a daze. I left early and went to bed. What a disgrace! To be fair, I heard that the last five songs they played were more exciting, and more focused on their back catalogue. I didn’t see it, so I won’t believe it.
Thursday started off right with a fun house/pool party in Bankview. Their were a bunch of great bands playing but the basement was tiny, so I only managed to catch Feel Alright. Great summer slob-pop from these guys! I needed a popsicle and a pool noodle for full effect. Kind of skuzzy sounding, with a shitty cassette vibe. In a good way! The highlight was when a bunch of dry ice was thrown into the pool, and it turned into the largest witches’ brew I have ever seen! Everyone jumped in afterward. Good times.
After that gong show, it was time to head over for Lee Renaldo, Zola Jesus and Pierre Laporte at the Central United Church. The first band, Pierre Laporte, were a band consisting of a bunch of high school kids. I am already being unfair in writing about them, because they are just a bunch of kids, but their music was kind of a blend of swashbuckling sea shanties, hardcore, and prog rock. I can’t say I liked the vibe of any of that.
Zola Jesus put on an interesting and surprisingly energetic show, considering it was just her and her pal on synthesizers/electronics. She was dressed like some sort of half mummy, half witch and hopped around the church while belting out heavy gothic tunes. The electronics were a mix of industrial and new wave beats. That description does not sound very fun but I assure you, it was excellent.
Lee Renaldo came out wandering around the church holding up his jazzmaster guitar, while he droned on and on, picking up different frequencies and tones from around the church. Wild samples of chants, drumming and spoken word played in the background while Renaldo hooked his guitar to a rope hanging from the roof and swung it around. He hardly touched the strings without a bow, a recorder or bells. In the background, a video played on a large screen of what appeared to be some primitive cavemen. Needless to say, it was a memorable performance.
Next, I walked on down to the Broken City social club to see the Weird Canada showcase. Made it for Vancouver’s Role Mach, who are a very excellent band I hope to see again. Sort of a post-punk scene with swami horns and insane, jittery vocal squelps and rippin’ riffs. I am glad the alternative use of horns is not just for ska bands anymore. Extra Happy Ghost came on afterwards with some slower night time tunes that were at points reminiscent of Songs: Ohia. A slow burner, but a nice burner for sure. I had to drop out after that.
Friday! A long day ahead. First up was a rad show at local 510. The Spreads opened the show with some pretty angry punk jams. Two girls yelling, “fuck you!” at the same time. I don’t know why, but that is the best! It was pretty fast paced, primitive stuff. Crow Eater played next. They were having a lot of problems, but they are a pretty exciting band that I look forward to hearing more of. Two Calgary hardcore titans on vocals with some of the better musicians in Calgary, shredding the shit out of life. A truly devastating combo. Dead Meadow was the band most people packed the bar to come see. Their only other show in the city was at an after party at 3am, so this was prime time. They played some pretty sludgy jams, but an hour of that can get kind of tiring. Especially when their last song was a 20-minute jam with about a trillion solos. It was alright, but I have no idea how anybody could survive that at 3 in the morning.
Made it to Broken City for another daytime extravaganza. When I arrived, Bare Wires were just finishing up their set. They’re another power-pop band, but these bands are hard to describe because they all sound the same! This year at Sled Island was the year of power-pop. I don’t understand because there is nothing new and innovative about this genre. It reminds me of a lot of local bands I would see at high school punk shows. I can understand these bands are fun to listen to, but booking a festival with most of these bands and the skyrocketing popularity of such a blasé genre? Gimmie a break! ANYWAY, Bare Wires were alright, but Times New Viking were who I came to see, and they killed it. The trio pumped out blaringly loud, fuzzed-out quirky pop tunes. They could go on forever and I would be okay with that.
When that was all over and done with, it was time to mosey on over to the main stage at Olympic Plaza. The main stage has always been hard to get into, as outdoor concert sound usually sound kind of junky. When I arrived, Bison B.C. were playing some heavy metal stuff… beards and hair flying all over the place and the word “fuck” littered throughout stage banter. Wasn’t really into these dudes, but I am not really into that genre at all. They seemed like good enough musicians.
The Buzzcocks came on after and I was very excited to see them, considering I missed them the last time they played in Calgary and everybody said it was a good show. Sadly, this set was nothing special. They played all the hits, but it was kind of boring and kitschy. The Sword came on after and sludged it up, C.H.U.D. style. It was alright, but still so hard to enjoy in an outdoor setting. I wanted to see Sleep, but had to mostly miss them in order to catch Wild Flag at Twisted Element.
Made it in time for the opening band, The Intelligence. They were a great surprise, playing bizarre, somewhat charismatic post-punk dealing mostly with outer space. I was itching to see Wild Flag though. Pretty much the craziest supergroup that I’ve heard of in a while. The lineup consists of Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and Rebecca Cole from the Minders. They were pretty much perfect and got into the long jam parts at times, but still managed to hold everybody’s attention. The vocals were catchy and they had me really close to hopping up and down many times, but I resisted. They don’t have an LP out until September, and I really cannot wait.
I tried to get into the Legion afterwards to see Moon Duo and Kurt Vile, but that venue was at capacity. Instead, I headed down to Vern’s for The Soft Pack. They were another great end to my night. Lazed-out surfer pop that had so many great hooks I was humming them all the way home. Surfing is not that lazy, for the record. It is difficult. There were after-parties every night at Undermountain, in the Emmedia area. I went to one, but it is difficult to report on something that is so late and so many beers have been consumed. Got to see the Moby Dicks (finally) and from what I recall, they were great. Hunx and his Punx were playing, but the dude from that band was in the old Kill Rock Stars band Gravy Train!!! and I will never forgive him for such a travesty. What a horrible bunch of garbage that was. Stinking up the music scene. I left pretty much after the Moby Dicks, knowing it could possibly go downhill right after.
Saturday was another eventful day. It started off right with a delicious free breakfast at 510, followed by a slow walk over to the Palomino to watch C’mon. Usually these kinds of bands give me a headache, but Ian Blurton and co. do the rock ‘n’ roll thing right. The jams were wild, and the solos were piled on. It was a buffet of wicked riffs. Oh, they also had a free BBQ buffet going on there, too!
The Main Stage was next, mostly because there was nothing better to do. I made it to Twin Shadow, which were nothing to write home about. What is that music anyway? New Age for the hip youth? I don’t know, but I needed to kill those vibes with beers. Because I was drowning my soul in alcohol, I missed most of the Raveonettes, who actually sounded pretty cool from afar. This is the only thing I regret during the festival. Usually I have a lot more regrets, but it was a special weekend in that regard. The Mayor of Calgary introduced Chad VanGaalen, which I thought was pretty special. What other Mayor would do that? He seems like a pretty cool dude. Chad VanGaalen is sounding more like he’s pulling off those wiry Sonic Youth riffs, especially on his new LP. Not bad!
Went across the street after to the Auburn for a comedy show. I had heard that some insane lunatic punched Neil Hamburger in the face the night before, so I was afraid he would have skipped town. Nope! I made it in time for Brody Stevens who went on insane rants and yelled a lot, but it was mostly pretty enjoyable. Tig Notaro was wonderful with her deadpan vocal style and amazing story of running into one of her favorite musicians many times and giving her the exact same compliment each time. She also did a great impression of an audience member that sounded like a bird. BUT! It was Neil Hamburger who stole the show with filthy jokes and wonderful audience participation, getting everybody to yell out “cranberry sauce!” in unison. So many gut-busters.
The last show of the night was at the Legion. Most of the bands were pretty forgettable until this band The Greenhornes went on stage. Instead of being forgettable, they bored me to death. It just sounded like jock rock jams. I was quickly falling asleep! A friend of mine told me that the band after, Deer Tick, would be good. He was so WRONG! It was just some boring alt-country trash that I could care less about. It seemed like I was at the wrong festival. I was getting more and more tired, and I wanted to leave. I couldn’t though, because WILD FLAG were playing once again! When they came on, they played another great show, with a lot of familiar faces in the audience from the previous night. They definitely made an impact. Tried to get into another one of those after parties after the show, but there was a massive line-up, and the cops showed up! The jig was up. No more fun.
Sunday is supposed to be the cherry on top of this already sloppy, frost-filled blowout, with one last hurrah at the Republik. Thee Oh Sees, The Bellrays, Bare Wires, Cheeseburger, and Demon’s Claws were all playing this show. There was a pig roast too! I missed it because I fell asleep for the majority of the day. It’s too hard covering all of this by myself.
Overall, I enjoyed my time. There are always going to be a few stinkers at a festival featuring over 200 performers. It seemed like I got stuck at more than I should have in order to see something good. One of my other qualms is the variety of genres of music. There used to be more of an experimental aspect to some of the shows, and now there seems to be more of a focus on one genre than others. It’s not as diverse. A lot of the shows were packed though, so what do I know? I might just be an old crank. I haven’t embraced the garage/power-pop scene like many of the people in the city. Sled Island will always be an important festival, as long as it continues to support local acts, local businesses and local artists. The audiences were mostly quite friendly, the volunteers were helpful and most of the venues were hospitable. Except for the Distillery. Fuck that place. I’m curious to see what will happen with next year’s festival.