Festival Report: Sled Island in Calgary, Alberta

Daniel Ralston

By Daniel Ralston

on 06.24.14 in News

I had a vague picture of Calgary in my mind; Western wear, cattle, a hockey stadium shaped like a saddle. Sled Island, a five-day music, comedy and arts festival exists to dispel that image, as well as to bring some focus to the less cattle-driven parts of the city. This year’s lineup, featuring St. Vincent, Spiritualized, Neko Case, Killer Mike, Araabmuzik and 200-plus other acts was a conscious push by the festival organizers, who are looking to make Calgary less of an “Island.” Oh, speaking of that whole “island” part (deep breath):

Last year Sled Island was cut drastically short by a crippling flood that left the city in disrepair. Entire parts of Calgary were underwater and the city is still very much in a rebuilding mode. I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing coverage marking the one-year anniversary of the flood and everyone I spoke with had great stories of the impromptu house shows that popped up after the festival was officially cancelled.

OK, that’s all the heavy stuff. I spent three full days at Sled Island last weekend, trying to get a feel for Calgary and the festival itself. Also, I have opinions about which bands were good and which were terrible.

Day 1: Thursday, June 19

My first morning was spent at the Polaris Music Prize Long List announcement ceremony. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the mayor of Calgary read the words “the next nominee is White Women by CHROMEO,” this was the spot to do that. The announcement featured a short set from Polaris Nominee Basia Bulat, who managed to make a press conference one of the most intimate and engaging moments of the festival. She’s an incredible singer and she turned the coffee-and-danish affair into something memorable. [We took a cab ride together, in which she answered some questions.]

One of the advantages Sled Island has on almost any other festival is that the wonderful and weird venues are scattered around Calgary. Every performance seemed to take place in venue that would be a signature spot in most other cities. The most charming was the Royal Canadian Legion #1, which is like a 1950s time capsule with a Twin Peaks vibe. The Legion’s Thursday-night show featured the Wire-esque Fountain from Victoria, British Columbia, who was the highlight of the first day. I was also impressed with Calgary’s Lab Coast, who filled a Creation-shaped hole in my heart.

Day 2: Friday, June 20

Calgary is home to the National Music Centre of Canada, which houses a truly astounding collection of keyboards, pianos and synthesizers and electronic music equipment. I took a tour of the collection in the afternoon and dear lord just look at all this stuff!

Elton John piano

The piano on which Elton John wrote his first four albums

Shakespeare-era instrument

An instrument that was built while Shakespeare was alive

Old drum machine

One of the oldest drum machines in the world

TONTO modular synth

A TONTO, a modular synth that helped make Stevie Wonder sound like Stevie Wonder

The festival took a pretty significant blow on Friday when the night’s headliner Neko Case canceled day-of for undisclosed reasons. The festival was good enough to refund ticketholders (even though they didn’t have to) and Canadian singer/songwriter Joel Plaskett stepped up and played the headlining slot.

Plaskett is really popular in Canada. Like, “girls screaming outside his hotel” popular. Both he and the festival deserve immense credit for making the best of a really bad situation.

Late Friday night I went back to the Canadian Legion to see Dan Deacon, whose weirdness neatly matched the venue’s. Deacon’s exuberantly nerdy energy was a good fit for the festival’s “Hey, let’s put on a show!” attitude.

Day 3: Saturday, June 21

There isn’t much I can tell you about White Lung that you haven’t read on this website or every other music website. It was pretty great watching them play outside in the middle of a sun-soaked afternoon. They are a tremendous force live and didn’t get swallowed up having to play in the middle of the giant Olympic Park. That’s no small feat for a band custom-built for punk shows.

Olympic Park was also home to Spiritualized’s sweeping and airtight set. They hit their stride just as the sun was setting (the sun sets late in Calgary) and it reminded me just how great and unique a band they are. Nobody does orchestral and spacey like Jason Spaceman. The hugeness is never played for “quiet-loud-quiet” cheap thrills and it’s always centered on great songwriting.

The melodies were there for St. Vincent but the feelings didn’t quite match up. Annie Clark’s live show is built on precision. The complex changes, the maze of pedals and the metronomic drumming are all working against the process of connecting with the listener. It was precise but not perfect. The show took place in a giant bar/performance space entirely dedicated to the Calgary Flames, which might’ve added to the disconnect.

A quick note: Annie Clark has cornrows now. I wasn’t going to mention it because I think talking about what a woman looks like on stage is a dumb thing to do, but if Jason Spaceman had shown up in cornrows I’d be telling you about that too.

I capped off the night at a small club called HiFi where Araabmuzik (aka Abraham Orellana) was doing his trademark incredible things on his MPC. The songs rose and fell in intricate patterns and the packed room swelled and moved with him.

A city like Calgary gets few opportunities to stick its flag in the ground and make a statement of intent. Sled Island is doing just that. It showcased the strength and weirdness that grows in towns that get skipped when bands route their tours. It took the charms of the city and made it the festival’s defining characteristic. Given the perils of last year’s festival and Neko Case’s last-minute cancellation this year, Sled Island proved itself be a vital and deeply resilient.