Rolling into Calgary by car reminds you of one thing: urban sprawl. It’s been one of the city’s defining characteristics over the past decade, and an urban population density roughly 10 per cent of New York City’s does its best to justify the image. Throw in some cowboy hats, oil barons, and giant trucks with fake sets of testicles and you’ve got a pretty good approximation of what my view of Calgary has been for most of my adult life.
Zak Pashak isn’t satisfied with that image of his home city, mostly because he knows how false it is. Pashak started the Sled Island Music Festival as a celebration of local and international music that embodies a counter-culture element many in Calgary are eager to be a part of. Not everyone in “Cowtown” wants to ride horses.
Venues were scattered throughout the downtown core, each boasting a roster of bands hand-picked by musical curators King Khan, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, and Fucked Up. It’s deliberately similar to Pop Montreal’s structure, and it works. Pass holders could hop from show to show all night long, checking the next one down the street out if a venue was already at capacity.
Some of the more unique shows included Sleepy Sun playing in the science centre’s planetarium (including a discount to the current real human bodies exhibit), Woodpigeon and Azeda Booth in an opera hall, psychedelic folksters the Duchess and the Duke in a church, or an afternoon punk rock show in a hot dog restaurant.
Having options offered another advantage since it started raining Friday night. I was ill-prepared for wet weather, and some of the smaller venues were already starting up. I managed to find some shelter under a friend’s umbrella to wait it out, but, if I hadn’t, a smaller show would have provided protection just as cozy.
The mainstage shows at the Olympic Plaza were the only ones that a festival pass absolutely guaranteed you entrance. We were well taken care of, with world-class acts like the Black Lips, Hot Water Music, Fucked Up, Why?, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., and Girl Talk.
Friday night was a bit divided, split between rock fans there for the first few bands and people there for the dance party that is Girl Talk. The overwhelming majority, though, were there for the love of music. Girl Talk loves music too, as his genre- and generation-hopping jams show. The night’s diverse lineup highlights another one of Sled Island’s underlying tenets – exposing people to new music is a rich and rewarding experience for everyone.
The Saturday plaza show represented some of the rock and hardcore elements of the festival, with openers the Black Lips ripping through a fun, raucous set while looking like they hadn’t slept since Wednesday, hardcore punks like the Bronx destroying the audience, and headliners Dinosaur Jr. bringing way too many amps onstage. It was loud.
The grassroots, community-focused side of Sled Island is also worthy of some praise. The festival rests on the backs of volunteers who keep everything running as smoothly as possible. Last-minute lineup changes are communicated to festival-goers as fast as possible, with updated schedules going up online and into print in free local magazine Beatroute. A tent just outside the main gate promoted the virtues of drinking local tap water and chalk drawings and messages covered the concrete surface of the plaza.
It may be surrounded by a sprawling mess of suburbia, but the real Calgary, the pulsing, vibrant core that packs punk rock shows and makes an event like Sled Island even possible, is healthy and eager to take its city back.