Calgary, Alberta is known for a couple of things: the 1988 Winter Olympics and the Calgary Stampede, a rodeo that takes over the town every summer. What it’s not known for—internationally, at least—is being a hot bed of raw rock ’n’ roll talent. Sled Island could change all that. Growing exponentially since its launch five years ago, Sled Island is a multi-day music festival that brings 250 bands to town to play 30 venues. If organizers have their way, Sled Island will make Calgary the Austin of the North, if only for a few days a year.
While both Alberta and Texas are famous for their beef, The A.V. Club wasn’t so sure the two regions shared musical commonalities as well. Thus, we headed north to Calgary to attend Sled Island, making a four-day sonic slog from venue to venue, neighborhood to neighborhood, for an hour-by-hour roundup of a ton of up-and-coming Canadian bands, as well as a few internationally known acts. We found people who were polite almost to a fault, pretty tasty beer, and a whole lot of good Canadian rock.
Wednesday, June 20
1 p.m.: Upon arrival in Calgary, we’re greeted by people in white cowboy hats who welcome us to town. We’re later told that these people are volunteers who just like to help out. Lesson learned right up front: Canadians are nice.
1:30 p.m.: Our shuttle driver informs us we just have to wait for a few more people. Turns out those people are The Evaporators, a band fronted by famed Canadian journalistic sensation Nardwuar. We’re starstruck, but play it cool as Nardwuar answers all our dumb questions about which Canadian bands to see and asks us if we “tweeter.” He tells us to see Kids In The Hall theme-song writers Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet that night and to come see The Evaporators later in the week, when they’ll be jamming with special guest and festival curator Andrew W.K. Done and done. When Nardwuar speaks, we listen.
6 p.m.: The Tourism Calgary people take us for a nice dinner at the National Beer Hall, a restaurant with 72 beers on tap and a penchant for overfeeding international strangers. One of the tourism reps talks up the region’s fly-fishing and offers to set us up with a guide that weekend. We’re hooked.
12 p.m.: Fist City, another band Nardwuar recommended, is playing at the Royal Canadian Legion No. 1, a veterans’ hall complete with prominent portraits of Queen Elizabeth and old ladies manning the bar. Fist City is a Calgary-based punk quartet with copious amounts of fuck-you attitude, but that falls by the wayside as the guitarist introduces a song by calling the crowd “a bunch of ding-dongs.”
1 a.m.: After a 17-year break and the death of original bassist Reid Diamond, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet make a triumphant return to the stage, plunging headlong into a set of non-stop instrumental psychobilly and surf rock. “Having An Average Weekend,” the theme song to The Kids In The Hall, drives the already jubilant crowd into a near frenzy. The Sadies’ Dallas Good, who’s sitting in and using Diamond’s bass, seems to be having just as good a time as anyone in the audience.
1:30 a.m.: As some people rush the stage, Shadowy Men’s drummer calls the ruffians out for their “bad vibes,” asking if any of them “need tickling.” One guy takes him up on the offer.
Thursday, June 21:
2 p.m.: We try to make it to B.A.’s Hot Dog BBQ Extravaganza in time to see Cousins, but the walk to The Area, a gravel parking lot with a shed for a stage, takes forever. Instead we get there in time to grab a surprisingly good hot dog and catch some of Shotgun Jimmie, a pleasant enough Halifax indie-rock outfit reminiscent of That Dog.
9 p.m.: Everyone’s been talking up the East Village Block Party, which takes place in a newly developing area of town the fest is trying to boost. Calgary has a robust food-truck scene, some of which is supposed to be at the party, so we head over to have some dinner and see Flosstradamus, a DJ duo from Chicago. Turns out only half of Flosstradamus is there spinning, and all the food trucks are sold out of everything, save some iffy-sounding gelato. Swarms of bugs and EDM fans with hula-hoops are out in full force, though.
9:30 p.m.: Discouraged and starving, we head over to The Palomino, a bar that advertises both regular live music and the best BBQ in Calgary. We catch part of Dog Day, a married noise-pop outfit from Halifax. They’re okay, but hunger wins out, and we head upstairs to eat a delicious brisket sandwich and some garlic fries.
10 p.m.: We head back downstairs to see Sheer Agony, a Montreal band that the festival’s program bills as having a “psychedelic vibe.” While it’s not sheer agony, it isn’t sheer genius either. The art-rock band can’t find a groove, and it does not one but two songs about cats.
11:30 p.m.: Classic English pub The Ship And Anchor is a bit of a hike, but we head over to see Androgynous Mind, a Vancouver-based lo-fi pop group featuring Pat Flegel from Women. The trio is heavy on drone, light on pop, so we retreat outside for a few dozen more beers. We catch some of Nu Sensae, who have a thing for noisy garage rock and instrument swapping. Indian Handicrafts, from Ontario, close out the night with one of our favorite band names and one of our favorite sets of the fest. Reminiscent of the Melvins and impressively noisy, the duo put the perfect stoner-metal cap on a long day of rock.
Friday, June 22:
12 p.m.: We head over to the National Music Centre for a tour and a hands-on lecture about weird instruments with Wolf Eyes’ Nate Young and Lake Of Dracula’s Jim Magas. The whole thing seems kind of thrown together, but since the museum itself is incredible, housing hundreds of different keyboard-based instruments from the whole of musical history, just being able to look and play is fun enough. We check out some theremins from the ’20s, mess around with the synthesizer used on Dark Side Of The Moon, and get things percolating with the first commercially produced drum machine.
5 p.m.: The Evaporators, Nardwuar’s band, are playing The Ship And Anchor. Clad in matching Speed Racer-style jackets, the quartet rips through goofy song after goofy song like “Hot Dog High” and “Addicted To Cheese.” The audience eats the whole thing up, and soon enough, everyone is singing and dancing along. About halfway through the show, Nardwuar grabs his portable organ and goes crowd-surfing, only to get “stuck” about halfway back in the crowd. He asks for help, and lo and behold, out comes Andrew W.K. The crowd goes wild, Nardwuar is saved, and W.K. sits in for the rest of the set, which includes an incredibly energetic version of “Party Hard.” It’s the best thing we’ll see all week.
7 p.m.: It’s comedy night at the Auburn Saloon. While the host, Toronto comic Ryan Kukec, is cringe-inducing, the night’s big-money acts—Neil Hamburger, Natasha Leggero, Tim Heidecker, and Todd Barry—all deliver solid sets. Leggero struggles a little to find references for her pop culture-centric jokes that Canadian audiences understand, but Barry succeeds by turning one of his jokes about the NYC subway into a joke about the LRT, Calgary’s public transit system.
Saturday, June 23:
8 p.m.: It’s pouring out now, but Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks are playing Olympic Plaza. Under the cover of some trees, we eat food-truck pierogies and jam out on tracks like “Jenny And The Ess-Dog.” These are certainly not the ideal conditions to see Malkmus or for the band to play in, but the Pavement frontman seems to be taking it in stride and goes back and forth with the crowd about the NHL draft.
9 p.m.: Theatre Junction Grand is packed with people for Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, a Montreal “art cult” that is equal parts performance piece and band. It’s crazy, psychedelic, and loud, but that doesn’t matter once we’re seated and festival fatigue sets in. We doze off during a particularly long, loud drone piece, after which about a quarter of the crowd leaves. Yamantaka//Sonic Titan is compelling in theory and on record, but we don’t need to see it live again.
10 p.m.: Dutch synth-pop duo Monokino is playing back at the Palomino. It’s oppressively loud and not impressive. Vancouver electronic act Teen Daze is up next, and while the venue is so packed anyone who isn’t in the first or second row can’t see anything happening on stage, frontman Jamison puts his all into getting people moving, encouraging everyone to clap and dance along. That enthusiasm is contagious, and after a few songs and a few beers, we’re definitely feeling it.
12 a.m.: It’s raining even harder now, so we take the LRT to see Grave Babies at The Distillery, one of the venues we haven’t been to yet. We make our way into the basement venue, which somehow manages to feature a massive dome right above the concert floor. Everyone working there is Hot Topic-punk as fuck, including the bartender who’s made her staff T-shirt into an extremely complex, ornate corset. Unfortunately, Grave Babies aren’t nearly as punk. The band has some solid positives going for it—it’s signed to Hardly Art and has a bit of a buzz going in Seattle—but live, it’s gratingly unoriginal. The keyboard player mopes around playing whole note after whole note while the lead singer blasts out atonal sounds. It’s a total bummer.
12:30 a.m.: Andrew W.K. is playing the festival’s closing party at the No. 1 Legion, so we head over there with a little time to spare. We get there in time to catch Aleister X, who wears a boxing robe and plays electric guitar to pre-recorded tracks and encourages the crowd to “fuck that shit.” A chant goes up as he leaves the stage, though the DJ quickly cuts it off by playing Denise Lasalle’s “Lick It Before You Stick It,” much to the dismay of the gray-haired ladies bussing tables.
1 a.m.: Snakatak and Tessa G, from Brooklyn, work the crowd with catchy electro-pop ditties about quitting a job. The entire set is chock-full of fun gimmicks, like distributing 3-D glasses and bubble wrap to the crowd. All that might seem lame anywhere else, but in a Canadian Legion Hall at 1 a.m., it’s a welcome distraction.
1:30 a.m.: “Houserobics” act Cherie Lily is up next with a mini-set, including her dirty new single, “Kiss My Lips.” Sounding a lot like Chicago rapper Kid Sister, Lily is solid enough, but falls a little flat after the over-the-top antics of Snakatak.
2 a.m.: Andrew W.K. finally goes on a full hour later than he was supposed to, and he’s immediately engulfed by drunk audience members who rush the stage. Opening song “It’s Time To Party” pushes the masses to the point of madness, and, all of a sudden, there are people crowd-surfing on the stage, drinks being thrown, and general anarchy, all to the amazement of notorious party-hound W.K., who can’t seem to believe the craziness himself. With no security around, the entire thing seems headed for disaster, so we take off before everyone gets trampled to death and/or the stage collapses. At the airport the next morning, we hear that the show ended early because it got too out of hand. Those Canadians sure know how to party.