Sled Island Music Festival 2018
@ Calgary, Alberta
June 20-24, 2018
Sled Island carries an eclectic load. The Calgary based music festival has grown to become one of Canada’s most notable and peculiar music festivals. Now celebrating its ninth year, the city of Calgary has fully embraced the event as one of it’s premier showcases of artistic culture, not only for the prairie provinces but for all of western Canada.
Built around a SXSW (or NXNE!) urban multi-venue format, Sled Island takes over much of Calgary’s downtown core for almost a week of non-stop music, visual art and community-oriented activities. For a downtown venue oriented music festival, Sled Island offers accessibility that festivals in Vancouver and Toronto can only dream about. Cowtown’s downtown core includes a large number of respectable and interesting musical venues with several of the establishments hosting dual stages. Palomino, the Dickens, Broken City and Legion #1 all serve as hardworking music dives. Many of the venues even include dual stages allowing for a more varied and adventurous festival experience.
Calgary, the most socially conservative major city in Canada, packs a surprisingly heavy artistic punch. Sled Island is not only one of the premier showcases in western Canada country for young up and coming folk, rock, pop and electronic artists but also includes an annual guest curator, a process which has brought unusually artistic results. Sled Island’s surprisingly impressive avant-garde artist selections are one of the festival’s most compelling aspects. 2018’s guest curators, the eclectic and progressive San Francisco based group Deerhoof, organized a sonic spread that did not skimp on music of the imaginative, minimalist or eclectic variety. Sled Island’s shift from major outside venues such as Olympic Park proved to be well founded as Calgary’s notoriously unpredictable weather would have hampered the festival.
Festival headliners the Flaming Lips bombarded an audience at the University of Calgary with their highly renowned, visually overpowering live performance show. Mahogany Frog, a spaced out four piece played a half hour of thick analogue synth tones and progressive instrumentals in perfect tone with the impending Flaming Lips, who champion weird things in all of their glory. Supported by confetti cannons, giant balloons, laser beams and an intense, always moving video screens, it is not a stretch to say that the Flaming Lips, with their gigantic, customized lighting rigs, fog-powered giant balloons, lasers play one of the most incredible rock and roll shows on the planet. From the opening notes of “Race For the Prize” a high spirited crowd continued dancing after the show until being ushered out by security.
On Friday, Calgarians were lined up at the door to attend a showcase at Studio Bell, a giant building with beautiful curved architecture dedicated as Canada’s national musical centre. Housing the world’s largest collection of synthesizers, Studio Bell also made a luscious and ornate setting for Sled Island’s most ambient artists such as Portland based Grouper; rarely does a setting pay such respect to such low-key musical ambience. Performing solo to a sold-out, extremely quiet and respectful audience, Grouper delivered a set of highly ornate soundscapes.
Festival curators Deerhoof, once humble Sled Island artists, played a jam-packed show at Legion #1 in the Calgary downtown core. With the hall tables stacked and pushed to the side of the room, Alberta music fans were evidently out in numbers as the show reached its capacity before the evening’s headliner. Deerhoof executed a passionate set that did not differ largely from their largely lauded Live in Japan album and broke out hits like “Girls” early on in their set. Deerhoof are a band that brilliantly blends the worlds of the avant-garde and pop music.
Broken City’s Saturday showcase included packed punches from a variety of unexpected hitters. Toronto’s Hot Garbage performed a tight, psyched out rock and roll set. Saskatoon’s strangely named Ancient Pig cranked out an immediate, impassioned punk-rock set, largely driven by frontman Peter Henderson’s enthusiastic performance despite wearing a cast for broken ankle. Obviously exhausted and in visible discomfort, Henderson gasped in agony as he switched his amp off after Ancient Pig’s particularly meaty and energetic set, exemplifying that punk rock is alive and well on the Canadian prairie.
By the time Los Angeles based rock outfit Wand took the stage, the stage had been well primed with edgy Canadian rock and roll. Crushing into the thick riff, guitarist/vocalist Corey Hanson led Wand through a vivid cover of “Cinnamon Girl” and no doubt converted a few Albertan Crazy Horse fans with their loving homage to Neil Young, a great Canadian rocker. Hanson’s guitar work and melodic shifts were especially enticing in the ultra packed, completely sold out Broken City downstairs.
Sled Island offers an intriguing, original festival experience that is embraced by the city and province with a particular light on the substantial prairie musical talent. Sled Island has picked up speed to become one of the most interesting and distinct festivals in Western Canada. Everyone can expect a good time during sled-season.
(Photography by David Lacroix)