We Got a Taste of "Calgary Nice" at Sled Island, an Extremely Nice Festival
Three years after the worst flood in Calgary history, the festival is healthier than ever, and the city’s close-knit music community is largely to thank.
Kaytranada / Photos by Philip Cosores
Hold your breath for this bombshell, but: Canadians are pretty friendly, and spending the better part of last week in Calgary for the tenth annual Sled Island festival gave me a firsthand look at how Canadian goodwill emboldens the artistic community.
To wit: during Sled Island’s 2013 installment, Calgary experienced the worst flood in the city’s history, affecting 110,000 residents in 26 communities. With an estimated $1.7 billion damage cost, the flood was the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history—so Sled Island was also effectively shut down, with a few diehards left downtown trying to ensure that the show(s) went on. In the wake of the catastrophe, many were unsure of Sled Island’s future; but three years later, the festival is healthier than ever, hosting a wildly varied array of acts from both near and far.
The first fest set I caught on Wednesday evening was singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, and in the spirit of paying the aforementioned Canadian goodwill forward, I left after only a couple of songs. I had been awake for nearly 30 hours, and I smelled like a wet bag of rotting Spanish onions. Thanks to the venue’s lack of ventilation and the packed house for Olsen’s first-ever Calgary appearance, I was sweating profusely, so when the young woman seated next to me abruptly left after Olsen’s third song, I got the memo. This was a shame, because Olsen sounded terrific. Between her band’s gentle, rootsy roll and the kaleidoscopic hues from the church’s stained glass, the set felt like an uncharacteristically blissful evening at the Spahn ranch.
My Thursday evening started off with Julia Holter at the the large, boxy Theatre Junction Grand. I like Holter’s records a good deal, but for some reason, her set was surprisingly lifeless. What usually comes off as transportive felt tedious, as if she were trying to will her songs back from the dead and failing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was guest-fest-curator Peaches’ showcase at the Commonwealth. I caught Baltimore-via-Florida performer TT the Artist, who, makes ridiculously fun dance music informed by both Baltimore club and Miami bass. More of one-woman hype-team than an MC proper, TT brought a dirty-minded sex-positivity to the rowdy, crowded venue, sharing most of her stage space with turnt, twerking revelers.
TT proved a hard act to follow, but the crowd was still excited for NYC's Junglepussy. Rapper Shayna McHale is a commanding live presence, but unfortunately her set was marred by sound issues. Across town at the #1 Legion, however, there was no fault to be found with Hunx and His Punx frontman Seth Bogart’s one-man show. Like a speed-damaged version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Bogart interacted with pre-recorded mini-movies that synced-up perfectly with his cheeky, hooky brand of garage rock. Despite several costume changes, Bogart never missed a beat, often “interacting” with the people and things on screen to hilarious effect. If you’ve ever dreamt of living inside a John Waters movie, Bogart’s live show is the next best thing.
Things started to get going a little earlier on Friday, but rainstorms kept crowd sizes modest—especially at outdoor venues like the one that the Local 510 constructed in their parking lot. It was a bummer to see Montreal band Year of Glad’s set under-attended, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to A.P. Bergeron and his band, who make a stirring, hard-to-pin blend of experimental, folk-informed post-rock. Bergeron performs like a tent revival preacher in the presence of the holy ghost, eyeballs rolled back in his head and screaming into a mic roughly two feet from his mouth. They were such a good find that everyone in the small crowd happily endured the rain.
Afterwards, I headed to Bamboo to see the impossibly heavy, Seattle-based funeral doom duo Bell Witch, who made one of my favorite metal albums of last year, Four Phantoms. Seems like I wasn’t the only one who though to take refuge in the small club, as I stood crammed in towards the back, seeing only a sliver of a guitar neck the whole time I was there. This was a blessing in disguise, because it offered a needed air of mystery to their performance, which was better felt—the bass literally shook me dry—than it was seen.
My final stop of the night was at super-hyped producer Kaytranada’s sold-out gig at the super-douchey Flames Central Theatre. Being inside the Theatre felt like being inside a B-list casino, but after Kaytranada dropped excellent remix of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” and the super-wasted, super-upbeat crowd went nuts, not much else mattered. Kaytranada’s top-notch debut 99.9% is one of the better, more forward-thinking releases of the year, and he seemed more keen to lean on its dancier, Neptunes-y cuts for the Friday night crowd.
At one point, a skinny kid made his way onstage to bust a sloppy move or two, but was quickly whisked away by security. As a very large bouncer escorted him out past me, the kid was already in the bargaining stage of his grief. “Can’t I just slip you a $20, man?” he whined. About five minutes later, I saw the kid and the bouncer re-enter the venue, both sharing a quick smile and a knowing nod before going their separate ways. Canadian justice is a beautiful thing to witness.
Saturday was my last day at Sled, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had mistakenly thought my flight was on Monday instead of Sunday morning, and by the grace of the Festival Gods, I realized just in the nick of time to make my flight. After a trip to the laundromat and some beers with new friends I’d made at the festival, I headed to see Guided by Voices in the city’s beautiful Olympic Plaza (Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics).
At this point, if you’ve seen GBV do GBV in the past couple of years, you know what you’re in for. Not to say there were no surprises— they sounded appealingly heavy this time— but for a band that’s been doing their thing this long and playing favorites to grateful fans, it goes without saying that they have it down, and they still rule. It was especially nice watching the older-leaning audience rock out with their neon isolation-headphone-clad toddlers.
It goes without saying that there were no toddlers at my last show, Deafheaven, back over at the Legion. And the babies missed out, because Deafheaven were probably pound-for-pound the best thing I saw all week. Their marathon set was an example of a band playing at the peak of their abilities, with a might and passion that’s both inspiring and frightening. “Somebody turn those fucking lights off!” frontman George Clarke instructed after the house lights went up to cheers that only got louder as the band encored with a lengthy, transcendent version of “Dreamhouse.”
Before Deafheaven, I made a pit stop at the Palomino to check out hometown heroes Chron Goblin, whose members I’d met the night before. Fun, fast, and surprisingly slick, the band blasted their weirdly radio-friendly brand of stoner metal to a crowd filled with locals and old friends. It was the closest I got to a local basement show all week, a warm and more than fitting sendoff any guest could ask for.
After getting back home to the States, I got in touch with their frontman Josh Sandulak, who was more than eager to offer me some perspective on where the Calgary arts community stands today. “We haven't always had people paying attention to our arts and music scene, but regardless, we've continued doing our own thing. With no real prescribed expectation of what each scene should or shouldn't be, it's become this organic thing of musicians and artists working on their own projects and creating what they want, with the community coming together to respect and support those efforts for what they are,” he texted me.
“That's fostered a lot of camaraderie and love for one another within the arts and music community,” Sandulak continued. “When people succeed in their efforts or have their vision realized, it's hard not to be happy for them ‘cause there's a real desire to see our arts and music scene flourish. Now it seems with the international community paying more attention, there's this group of extremely talented artists and musicians that are able show that Calgary is a lot more than what was traditionally thought.”
Philip Cosores is the deputy editor of Consequence of Sound. Follow him on Twitter.
Zach Kelly smells OK now, thanks for asking. Follow him on Twitter.