The biggest music festivals create their own universe. While Coachella wouldn’t be the same without its rolling hills and Palm Springs climate, you don’t “experience” the culture of the locale by attending. Lollapalooza isn’t Chicago, ACL isn’t Austin, and Outside Lands isn’t San Francisco. Those festivals wouldn’t be as great without borrowing from their home cities, but what makes the events magical is that they become transportive experiences singular to themselves.
Interestingly, this is a roadmap we see more and more festivals attempting to mirror and failing. Without calling out any particular names, there is only so much differentiation possible when you fence in thousands of people. Bonnaroo and Sasquatch have had years to cultivate their identity, and with more and more competition, newer festivals have trouble standing out.
In its 10th year, Sled Island displays a different path to success. Rather than restrict attendees to a footprint for the duration, it lets the city of Calgary be the star. And like we see in both well-known cities (Austin’s South By Southwest, San Francisco’s Noise Pop) and less-frequented concert destinations (Raleigh’s Hopscotch, Boise’s Treefort), these events cater to local music fans and tourists.
For those from Calgary, Sled Island is a week that sees venues pulsing with activity, drawing a range of Canadian talent and international touring acts often making their first appearance in the city. With a range of wristbands –from a line-cutting Discovery Plus pass to an all-ages, select venue wristband that can go for as cheap as $40 bucks — most Calgary concert goers should be able to feel included. Heck, you can even buy tickets to individual shows.
And for those from outside of the Alberta city, Sled Island is a chance to get acquainted with the town. Bars, clubs, theaters, and outdoor spaces all play host to shows, with Downtown turning into a hub of cultural activity aside from the steak houses and office buildings and hotels that compete for space in the terrain. With the ability to come and go from music events as you please, dining on 17th Ave or stopping by downtown’s numerous coffee bars or shopping at Recordland become not just possible excursions, but essential breathers from a music schedule that is omnipresent.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sled Island. The floods of 2013 still pop up often in conversation. The disaster caused numerous deaths, the cancelation of many festival events, and more than a billion dollars in damages. But just a few years later, the city and the festival have moved forward. That both the fest and the city have rebounded so quickly speaks to the spirit of both.
This year boasted Peaches as the guest curator (a role in the past that has been held by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Kathleen Hanna, Tim Hecker, and others) and offered up indie rock icons (Built to Spill, Guided by Voices, Tortoise) side by side with current critical darlings (Angel Olsen, Deafheven, Julia Holter, Kaytranada). And this results in what Sled Island does best: bridging generations of music so that The Sonics and ESG can share a bill with Protomartyr and HEALTH; everything making sense under the eclectic umbrella of good taste.
As always, some of the music stood out more that others. Continue on to check out 10 favorites from Sled Island 2016, and don’t forget about our exclusive portraits, either.
By far the weirdest venue in Calgary is Flames Central, a large club that banks hard on the city’s local hockey team to essentially combine the worst elements of both sports bars and corporate venues. Still, it’s the place to see some of Sled Island’s best talent, with recent years hosting the likes of St. Vincent and Yo La Tengo. Booking Kaytranada there this year made even a little more sense, as it wasn’t hard to imagine the space turning into a sweaty nightclub.
But the performance wound up being a tale of two opposing elements. The DJ, riding high on one of the year’s best albums (99.9%), did everything in his power to make Friday night a memorable one. The set leaned heavily on the originals, which give funky neo-soul an otherworldly quality. Even with a fairly basic light show, he succeeded in bringing the material to life. The only drag was the crowd, who didn’t quite know how to behave at a dance party. Crowd surfing came off silly. Standing on top of tables as cheap shouts for attention. And the fall-down drunks, which there were many, distracted from the top-tier talent on stage. Kaytranada deserved better, but those that could disappear into their own worlds on the dance floor had an undeniable soundtrack.
One of the joys in traveling for music festivals is seeing rising, local talent that might not otherwise be on the radar back home. This is true of even the biggest festivals, and at Sled Island, a number of notable Alberta-based acts peppered the bill. One of the most promising is Marlaena Moore, who opened for Angel Olsen at the Central United Church. Between banter that was as Canadian as can be (she’s from nearby Edmonton), Moore revealed a powerful vocal range and sturdy songs. Her nerves about singing provocative material in the church came across as charming, but her music did more than charm. It persuaded attendees to get to events early, to check out some acts they’ve never heard of, and keep an eye out for the locals creating great work from the north.
Every festival needs a band like together PANGEA, but the problem is there aren’t too many bands up for the task. While Sled Island books from across every genre, a great many of the biggest names on the bill were best enjoyed with some familiarity already going in. But that’s not the case with the LA-based garage punks. The songs of together PANGEA are so hooky and instantly familiar that it’s hard for attendees to not want to jump round and get in on the fun. At a festival that is often esoteric and intellectual, together PANGEA put having a good time in the forefront. It was an essential moment that softened the palate for the rest of the festival.
With the critical attention that Deafheaven has received, making metal accessible for a pie sliver of fans never before attracted to the genre, it was only a matter of time before their influence showed its face. Rather perfectly, that appeared at Sled Island with Deafheaven’s direct support amid a capacity show on Saturday night. Numenorean, local to Calgary, aren’t a carbon copy — the vocals can be more gruff, the songs feel even more spacious, and the lasting impression didn’t quite match the emotional spectrum — but the set was also enough to turn heads in anticipation of what might be a furthering of metal’s accessibility.
Saturday afternoon at Sled Island featured a multi-band outdoor concert at the Olympic Plaza. Topped by legends Guided By Voices and Built to Spill, the constant threat of rain wasn’t enough to keep people away. But maybe no band benefited from the wet conditions more than Suuns, with the four-piece capturing all the tension that inclement weather brings and releasing it in the sonic equivalent of a puddle splash. In fact, the event’s youngest fans did just that, running across gathering water and playing in puddles while the band harnessed their energy. The grown-ups simply raised umbrellas and took shelter under trees, bracing for the rain with a straight-faced bravery that’s deep-rooted in their Canadian heritage.
Though not the biggest name on the bill, ESG was at the top in terms of esteem. Building a reputation as one of the most sampled musical groups of all time affords this sort of distinction, and a large crowd of both fellow musicians and fans turned up to see a rare set from the Bronx legends — even curator Peaches could be seen grooving in the back of the room. With only a couple of original members still in tow, the biggest worry was that the show might feel like unconvincing replica of the veteran act. But the performance did the music justice, and fans danced until late into the evening with the band. No set during the week felt as meaningful for the fans, with even the sound technician sporting an ESG button undoubtably given to him by the band.
It took a bit of time to showcase, but Julia Holter’s greatest strength is her self-awareness. Performing at the Theatre Junction Grand, Holter and her backing band were a paradigm of serious musicianship. And for Holter’s sophisticated songwriting and arrangements, playing it straight-faced for the entire set would have made sense. Through her banter, however, Holter was able to bring some levity to her set. “That song was a really big hit when it was released,” she deadpanned after “In Lilies”, adding quips about her Nord harpsichord’s sound and the difference between violins and violas. It stayed high brow throughout, but Holter charmed by not taking herself too seriously, letting her beautiful tunes carry that load on their own.