Like a prairie dust devil, Sled Island swept through Calgary again this year and evoked a paradise-oasis of music, art and debauchery in a city typically known as a cultural black sheep. Even in its sixth year, Cowtown is still an unexpected host for the crowds who traveled there to bask in the brilliance of their idols and to discover new favourites.
Since 2007, for four days in late June, a palpable wind of energy has caught hold of the city’s inhabitants, buzzing them around like ions and propelling them from venue to venue as they try, often desperately, to see and hear everything. This was my first trip to Sled Island, and I traveled with two of my fellow Discorder editors. I slept on a floor only once and discovered that it’s possible to be drunk on three separate occasions—no more—in a given day and still be functional.
Thankfully Calgary is a great city to see music. Most venues are centrally located and close enough together to see an opening band at Broken City, catch the middle two sets at Dicken’s and watch a headliner at #1 Legion. Most of them are great venues, a fact that frequently made me pause to reflect on Vancouver’s lively but cloistered music scene. This is what it feels like to be in a city that’s wholeheartedly immersed in its own cultural scene, and for a few days, dusty Calgary is an Austin, Portland or Montreal.
Although I missed some headliner shows like Timber Timbre, Thurston Moore and Feist, it was always at the cost of seeing something equally mind-blowing. Hot Snakes, Boris, Cousins, Each Other and Shabazz Palaces each played amazing shows, some of them back to back in a single day. And after the club shows were the all-night house parties where bands, often right after playing a scheduled set, set up shop in packed living rooms, on decrepit back decks or in sweaty basements, creating an atmosphere of activity that was palpable as bitumen.
While this maelstrom of activity occurred, however, I also realized that the streets of Calgary aren’t entirely paved with gold during Sled Island. Undoubtedly, the homegrown festival is still in its infancy and will face some growing pains as it tries to find its comfort zone. For example, the number of bands booked this year was reportedly lower than in previous years, and there certainly wasn’t any visible press hanging around, snapping photos and interviewing the minor celebrities that could be seen hanging outside the Fairmont, where most of the artists stayed. Also, I noticed a single thematic vein could be traced through the long list of bands that represented a rootsy, rock ‘n’ roll or hardcore punk sound, revealing a lot about the city’s culture. It was why I wasn’t as shocked as despondent at how few hip-hop acts were booked; although, Shabazz Palaces alone filled the space of a dozen others.
But these are minor gripes. Sled Island, despite all odds, is fantastic for western Canada. Being immersed in Calgary’s music scene was a genuine pleasure, that for me, occurred within the haze of alcohol; floated 525 ft in the air on a glass floor, and was felt in the vibrations of the walls; it was a blissful glee that was felt until the last resonance of the final note.