This year’s Sled Island was one of the most bizarre times in recent memory. Not only for the festival, but also for the city of Calgary. On the Thursday of the fest it was announced that there was a state of emergency in our city. Usually when these kinds of warnings happen, it seems premature. This time, it was serious. The Elbow and Bow rivers had flooded, spilling over into many areas around the city, including the downtown core and many central areas where the festival housed most of its events. It was announced later on the Thursday evening that many homes and business had to be evacuated, and a lot of the venues for the fest were being shut down. It was later announced on the Friday morning that the festival had been completely cancelled. The city was a complete mess, and we are still trying to rebuild and get everything back to its normal state. Who knows how long that could take? But with major events like the Calgary Stampede and the Folk Festival quickly approaching, the city needs to rush to get ready for these big tourist attractions.
It was very unfortunate for Sled Island to cancel the festival, but overall, it was for the best. Some of the venues didn’t even have power for days on end, and a lot of out-of-town bands had tours that needed to continue. People were stuck in different quadrants of the city, and many of them who were displaced were staying with friends, family, or just a generous host until it was safe to go home. But wherever you were, bands managed to find places that would host a show. Many of these were littered around the city after hearing about the festival cancellation, with donations going to the touring bands and/or flood relief funds. Despite all of the crummy water bringing everyone down, the spirit of camaraderie and DIY shows throughout the whole mess made everything a hell of a lot better. I managed to check out Jay Arner and the Ketamines at a house party six blocks from where I was staying on the Friday night, and my friends at Weird Canada managed to put together a last minute rager at Tubby Dog, which was one of the venues fortunate enough to stay open during the whole ordeal. They managed to keep live music going throughout the night, which is just one more reason to love that place.
The first couple of days before the storm were still a lot of fun, so I’d like to tell you about that. The opening show on the Tuesday was at the Commonwealth, which had two floors of bands playing, including Teledrome and Gold, who I’ve mentioned in previous articles as local favourites of mine. Teledrome have a nice mix of synth pop/punk that can become a huge earworm if you aren’t careful. The synth pop thing may be a bit on the goofin’ side, but having a guilty pleasure is always a-ok. Gold played a fantastic set of fuzzed-out pop jams oozing that sort of jangly guitar tone (think Johnny Marr) that makes you want to grab a jumbo Mr. Freeze.
Wednesday was a special treat. It started off again at the Commonwealth, where saxophone sorcerer Colin Stetson was headlining a fantastic show. The night started off with another great local band, New Friends. Heavy drones poured from a strange pyramid box on stage, with primitive haunted caveperson grooves. It was the perfect creepy chill before seeing Bitter Fictions, with a pedal-on-pedal solo guitar sandwich. I would stuff this one in the shoegaze category, considering I was watching his feet move around the whole time. A powerful sound from a single soul.
Astral Swans, the solo project of Matt Swann, was another nice surprise. It was a nice bit of folk, and often quite minimal. The whole show was beginning to feel like an eclectic mixtape. After these opening acts, the venue began to fill up. It was so packed, but once Colin Stetson came on, I forgot where I was. This set was an amazing thing to witness, and his repetitive honks and circular breathing techniques put me in a trance. If it weren’t so busy, I would have stretched out on the floor.
After that insane show, I wandered over to Tubby Dog, where Hex Ray was just about to play. This is another local favourite of mine. They’re like a prog/garage/jam combo with funny lyrics about saxophones. The jams are tight and, ultimately, it’s a positive experience all around. I can’t recommend this band enough. The act that followed, Catgut, were a pretty intense group of dudes who played high-energy slacker jams (does that make sense?) reminiscent of the sloppy rampager romps that Dinosaur Jr. used to kick out. A pretty loud ending to my evening.
Thursday was when all of the weirdness began. There was supposed to be a show on the patio of Broken City, but was moved inside due to the ominous weather. Viet Cong started off this afternoon show with a pretty bonkers set. They are definitely the champs of music, with dueling guitars blazing right out of the gate, tired guy vocals and a rip roarin’ overall groove. Feel Alright followed with some nice summer flavours to savor. Great classic pop hooks, and a song with some serious falsetto. There was another one that reminded me of Elton John. All in all, a good time to be alive!
From here, I made it down to the Palomino where Jessica Jalbert was playing. She is a great singer/songwriter from Edmonton, who was one of the major surprises during the fest. I had only heard a single song from her bandcamp page, and thought, “this could be alright.” Every song was excellent, and I hope I get to see her play more in the future. After this show, the rain started to pour, and people started receiving messages about their areas being evacuated. A friend had told me that a large block party down in the East Village had to be shut down, and things started to sound a lot more serious.
Nonetheless, the comedy show still went on in a room at the Palliser hotel. It kind of looked like one of the rooms that could have been blasted by the Ghostbusters when it was haunted! Because of the storm, the power was pretty finicky, and the lights weren’t cooperating at their regular capacity. Most of the comedians made jokes about this, which helped shed some light on the situation (haha). All of the comedians were fantastic, but Johnny Pemberton and Brett Gelman stood out. Gelman yelled at an audience member at one point for looking at his phone in the front row, but was quickly told that the audience member was checking to see if he was evacuated. There were a few tense moments like this during the show, but it was extremely funny. Once again, Gelman ended up yelling at some idiotic audience members for a long time, which was so uncomfortable that it became one of the most surreal, hilarious moments of the evening.
Superchunk had moved from the Republik to Flames Central, where huge men give huge pat-downs upon your arrival. The ‘Chunk were in full-form, playing all of the hits, including classics like “The First Part” and a bunch of the poppy new jams from Majesty Shredding. I was expecting to see more pogoing, but I think most of the audience was too tired (or old). It was a really fun show, and I was happy to see one of my favourite bands.
On Friday, it was officially announced that Sled Island was cancelled, which was very sad. Yet those first few days were amazing and I had no complaints. I was looking forward to a lot more, which did happen regardless. A lot of bands were stuck in town or were still slated to play shows, so people hosted their own. Despite all of the craziness, there were still things to do. Venues like Commonwealth hosted major fundraisers that really helped out the city. The Ship and Anchor gave out food for volunteers and victims, and took donations for flood relief. A lot of people have been helping out and keeping things going, regardless of the situation. It’s nice to see. Hopefully Sled Island can continue next year, and the city can be recognized as one that keeps on chugging out the jams, no matter what happens.