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Sled Island Festival 2012: Report Card

A Showcase For Canada's Musical Diversity

: Sled Island Festival 2012: Report Card

Photo Credit: Arif Ansari

Last month, the sixth annual Sled Island Festival touted itself as an eclectic four-day musical event inspired by Austin's SXSW and San Francisco's Noise Pop. Flyers around Calgary, AB advertised 246 bands, 11 comedians, 11 film screenings, 22 art installations, and 9 special events taking place in 40 venues (and makeshift venues) across Cowtown. Many Calgarians were ramping up for the annual Stampede event, so the streets were bustling with activity despite snatches of inclement weather. This year Sled (that's the festival's slick nickname) also unveiled its first annual East Village Block Party, which focused on electronic and DJ acts. 

The festival organizers said this year was the festival's biggest turnout to date and it made sense with such a stacked musical deck. Headliners (official or not) included homecountry hero Feist, beer-soaked rockers the Hold Steady, indie-rock outfit Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Tokyo's experimental metal kings Boris, indie lynchpins Archers of Loaf, party fiend Andrew W.K., Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Toronto's soundscapers Timber Timbre, Chicago post-rock adventurers Russian Circles, experimental Seattle rappers Shabazz Palaces, and a reunited Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.

One of the main aspects that sets apart Sled Island from the usual string of summer festivals in the U.S. is its sense of place and community. There were many Canadian bands on the bill and they were given just as many gigs (or more) as as the marquee acts from out of town. The aforementioned rainy weather proved to not be much of a hindrance since many of the venues in the downtown area were a hop, skip, or jump away from each other. Another journalist covering the event joked that "only Moses would call Calgary a walkable city," but this event would not be possible in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Umbrellas, boots, and jackets were plentiful over the weeked, but the variegated venues kept you hunting down new tunes. 

Sled Island continues to grow as a cultural event and Prefix was glad to be there. We wanted to take a closer look at this festival as it grows out of its fledgling years and becomes one of the most attractive and welcoming events in the summer concert season. Here is our report card of the proceedings. 

Bands - A-

This year's musical lineup was curated with quality over quantity in mind, as evidenced by the fact that many local artists performed more than once or twice during the festival. This was a boon to Canadian music newbies such as myself. Artist such as B.A. Johnston, Bend Sinister, Shotgun Willie, GreyScreen, and NEEDLES // PINS were delightful surprises. I saw multiple sets because I was so impressed with their first performance.

An emphasis on rock-centric acts was understandable since Calgary is known for its affinity for punk. (Also, guest curators included Andrew W.K. and te Dudes' frontman/Calgary champion Danny Vacon.) That being said, it would be nice to see some more hip-hop acts during the mult-day event. Bonjay, Shabazz Palaces, Ricca Razor Sharp, Too High Crew, and others were a nice start.

Photo Credit: Arif Ansari

Here are some of our favorite acts from this year:

Archers of Loaf cemented Sled Island as a must-go event on its final night. (It's not like my mind wasn't made up before their blistering performance at the former gay bar, Republik.) They played most of the classic songs from Icky MettleVee Vee, and All the Nations Airports. Seek out Merge's excellent reissues now. This band demands your attention and the Republik's multi-tiered venue assured that even latecomers had a clear view. (No props to the dude that spilled his beer on me during "Wrong.") Rocking out next to The Hold Steady's Craig Finn while nursing my wounds from a chaotic, Bacchanalian week was a fitting conclusion to the week.

B.A. Johnston proved to be my favorite surprise from the whole festival. Although his Casio-toting musical skills are not exactly top-shelf, his comedic timing at Broken City was excellent. The best part was the encore when he packed in as many fans as possible into the grimy women's restroom (or washroom for the Canucks). The simple acoustic guitar song, "You Will Miss Me When the Zombies Come," was perfect for the sweaty, communal mood at Broken City. Johnston ultimately stripped down to no shirt during the course of the set and sang to people passing on the street. It was hilarious through and through. A co-headling tour between Johnston and Dan Deacon would melt a lot of hearts. I'm glad this guy drove his beat-up car across the Canadian prairie. A burgeoning comedic talent like his shouldn't be hid in the basement of his mother's house. (Side note: B.A. wasn't the best at serving hot dogs at The Area's BBQ. He really messed up my buns. Nice try, though!)

Bend Sinister was another group I had no clue about before the festival. Immediately after my first dosage of their prog-pop genius I set up a Spotify playlist and texted my friends. I saw these Vancouver, B.C upstarts a total of three times and each one was worth it. Even when I had to rush to larger acts a few blocks away, I stayed for the last blast of '70s-styled rock. These guys put on a party wherever they landed and Sled Island should definitely have them appear at their opening night party every year.

Boris ended the first night of the festival with a secret headlining set at the glorious basement of Dicken's Pub. The Japanese rockers created a thunderous clamor with their droning psychedelic tunes. It's not for everyone, but such a bold headliner proved that the Sled Island organizers were not screwing around. Atsuo (drums/vocals), Wata (guitar/vocals), and Takeshi (bass/vocals) have thrown a lot of curve balls since forming in 1992 and their self-mythologizing strangeness leaks into their stentorian stage presence. Well done.

Feist was the big headliner for the week. It was sad that her homecoming was slightly muted due to the rainy weather. The Olympic Plaza is a beautiful and cental venue for such an artist, but sadly the area in front of the stage filled up with water. I stuck to the hill above the stage and enjoyed her midtempo indie-pop. Her new and old tunes received an extra layer of guitar grit that helped the soggy fans that stuck it out when they could be drinking in a cozy bar venue.

GreyScreen was another surprise once I actually found Undermountain. I had the same problem while locating Theatre Junction Grand. Anyway, GreyScreen is the Power Glove solo project of Calgary geek Kevin Stebner. His 8-bit Gameboy tunes hit like a punch from Donkey Kong and the small crowd assembled for his show enjoyed his wash of nostalgic soundscapes. They hit my ears in an hallucinatory wave. A glorious cover of The Tragically Hip's “Bobcaygeon" put a feather in everyone's cap as we headed out into the drizzly night.

Hayes Carll quickly endeared himself to the hushed crowd at Theatre Junction Grand. Funny stories about getting busted for citrus contraband at the Canadian border introduced his particular brand of rambling country music. Carll's hastily cobbled together band from (U.S. and Canadian dudes) proved to be tight performers. The standup bass set each song's strong backbone and Carll was deft with his acoustic guitar. Calgary obviously loves country music, as evidenced by a fairly packed venue. It's exciting to see such enthusiasm for postmodern cowboy music. Californians aren't exactly clamoring for Americana tunes.

Hot Snakes brought out the best in the sweaty crowd at Dickens Pub. Beers were tossed, some dude tried to use the indoor plumbing like monkey bars, and the reunited San Diego hardcore-punks absolutely slayed the animalistic crowd during their extended set. As punk groups are wont to do, there wasn't a lot of down time between songs. There was no small talk aside from a few moments of gratitude. Pure rock, please.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet performed their first concert in 16 years. The instrumental country-rock band's most famous tune, "Having an Average Weekend," received a roar of applause as though The Kids in the Hall theme song was a Canadian national anthem. Rightly so, Shadowy Men were happy to be playing to an adult audience after dusting off their instruments for a bunch of disintersted schoolchildren and their parents at a charity event earlier this year. Drummer Don Pyle proved to be a comedic powerhouse in addition to keeping a steady, rocking beat. Also, Brian Conneelly perfected his Spaghetti Western guitar's tone throughout the secret and regular performances.

Their two Sled Island appearances are some of the extremely rare scheduled reunion dates (with Dallas Good of the Sadies replacing founding bassist Reid Diamond, who passed away in 2001) to mark the re-issue of their three excellent full-lengths. Seek out this Juno Award–winning trio as soon as possible.

Tim Hecker's droning electronic music at Hillhurst United Church was worth the walk and cab ride over the Bow River. The piano samples he extends and distorts on Ravedeath, 1972 put a few hungover music lovers to sleep in the back row, but the rumbling bass and beautiful venue kept my eyes wide open. Such contemplative and meditative music can often be drowned out at other festivals such as Coachella, but it's great that Sled Island found an appropriate venue for ambient lovers. I crave for respites like this, where I can decompress, stare at a stained glass window, and let the sounds wash over me. The brilliant CFCF didn't translate as well live, but Hecker commanded your attention through technical mastery of his equipment and outright volume.

Location and Weather - B

There's not much the festival organizers can do about inclement weather, but I applaud them for having bike rentals available for the influx of Calgary. The city itself is extremely easy to navigate because of its strict grid system and only a few navigational problems occured when trying to use the festival's map (print or online). The venues were various and manned by polite staff. The day parties were great and showcased the smaller artists in huge blocks. It was worth it for those not hungover from the night before. 

On a positive note, Calgary is a beautiful city and 17th Ave SE contains so many must-visit shops, restaraunts, and bars per block. It was very encouraging to see so many bikes being used and I never felt unsafe staggering back to my hotel at 2 a.m. No one was over the top, obnoxious, or stressed out aside from a few bad eggs. People definitely got drunk, but any problems were settled in private. Again, making the transportation relatively effortless, coupled with almost perfect June weather (mostly blue skies) greatly contributed to the friendly, happy vibes at this year's Sled Island.

Staff & Organization - B+

The staff at individual venues were surprisingly courteous and happy to help you get your beer on and the festival promotors and my Calgary guides showed me around the town like we were old friends. My special thanks go out to Visit Calgary and Brooke Black at Big Hassle Media for accomodating my visit to this year's festival. It was a wonderful event that everyone should experience.

Overall - A

Sled Island may not be a big name in the U.S., but it's a a destination music festival without all the huge and advertiser-soaked events in the U.S. There was a real sense of community and the Canadian bands really impressed me. The organizers only need to stick with the formula they've cultivated so far. A small expansion beyond their excellent rock core would serve this event well.

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