For the past 10 years, every June indie rock fans in our hometown of Calgary have been treated to the kind of music festival that I could only have dreamed of as a young alt-rock fan growing up here in the early ’90s. The Sled Island Music and Arts Festival brings together over 250 artists in 35 venues around town. It’s a perfect collection of musical weirdos and college rock favourites (there’s usually at least a few ’90s golden oldies on among the headliners) and a great chance for locals to catch up with old friends. On the food front, there’s also plenty of chances to eat — many of the venues double as restaurants, there’s some food trucks at the Olympic Plaza main stage, and various places around town offer deals for anyone with a Sled wristband.
I’m not a big fan of articles about events that have already passed (why tell you all about something that has already happened and therefore you will never be able to do?), but one of the greatest thing about Sled is discovering new bands (or that old bands you love are better live than you expected) and giving other music fans a heads up on which acts to check out over summer festival and touring season. So, here are my Sled Island highlights, with some food tidbits sprinkled throughout.
From Vancouver, de Courcy is a former metal guy who now does a bit of a glam rock baroque cabaret thing. It’s fun and melodic and reminds me a little bit of Momus (what ever happened to Momus?) or classic artists like Jobriath. The set culminated in de Courcy playing a sax solo while crowd surfing — which is definitely a feat to be commended.
We caught de Courcy at Broken City, which has a decent menu, but is conveniently located a couple doors down from the Last Best Brewery, where we stopped for a couple of pints and a killer pickle-brined fried chicken sandwich.
By far my most exciting find of the fest. This is the magic of Sled Island: I went in not knowing a single thing about Montreal’s Duchess Says, but I fell in love immediately because of the pure intensity of their live show. Their music is a hybrid of synth-dance and punk-metal, which works beautifully thanks to Annie-Claude Deschênes, the band’s wild lead-singer. She sang, she crowd-surfed, she smeared face paint on the audience, she got everyone to lay down on the floor. At one point she poured a beer over my head. It was magical.
Speaking of beer, Sled Island had it’s own IPA courtesy of Big Rock this year. Being Big Rock it was locally made and absolutely delicious.
Women-fronted bands from Montreal were the order of the day at Sled Island. The Pale Lips played upstairs at the #1 Legion, one of Calgary’s most special venues (it actually is a Legion Hall). Punchy femme garage rock, there’s nothing ground-breaking here, but sometimes ground just doesn’t need to be broken when you’re out to dance and have a good time.
Video taken by Aaron Booth
The Sonics’ appearance at Sled Island wasn’t perfect — two of the three original members who are still in the band, including the main singer, retired from touring a few months ago, so this was more like “the saxophone player from the Sonics with some really great garage rock players” and the dance floor quickly devolved into one of the most violent mosh pits I’ve seen in years, but… it was The Sonics. The legendary 1960s band from Tacoma wrote the book on down ‘n’ dirty garage rock and are credited with influencing every punk and garage band that came after them. Hearing their songs played live was a treat — even in the band’s deeply altered form it’s worth catching them while you still can, if only to hear “Have Love Will Travel” as it’s meant to be played.
Another classic band that appeared in its non-classic form, GBV is basically just singer Bob Pollard these days, but ultimately, that’s all you need. This Sled Island show was the first time that any incarnation of GBV that has ever played in Calgary and while Pollard wasn’t doing the high kicks that he did while performing in the ’90s, he also seemed less inebriated, which was a good thing.
Before the Olympic Plaza show I hustled down to Native Tongues to indulge in the second official food of rock ‘n’ roll (after barbeque) tacos. Native Tongues offered a 10% discount to Sled Island pass holders. Tacos!
Full disclosure — I didn’t actually go to the Peaches show. I lined up in front of the venue after the GBV set wrapped up, but it was packed to capacity, so we grabbed a slice of pizza and called it a night. But, by all accounts the show was epic and I believe it — having seen Peaches play before, I know that her brand of performance art, sexually-charged subversiveness, sense of humour, and high-energy danceable music can’t be beat. If this woman plays in your town, go see her. She’s one in a million.
And that’s a wrap! I know that in general festivals have been having a rough go in recent years and Sled Island has had it’s bumps (three years ago the entire thing was cancelled after the first day because all of downtown Calgary was under water), but 10 years in Sled Island is going strong, thanks to the tireless work of its staff and volunteers and the dedication of Calgary music fans who know how good they have it with this fest. If there’s a great festival happening where you live this summer, be sure to go out and support it. Or buy your passes for next year’s Sled early and come and visit us in Calgary.