Held every year for about the past decade in Calgary, Alberta, Sled Island is one of Canada’s best-kept festival secrets. A multi-venue affair held over most of a week, Sled Island is curated each year by a different artist who gets to slot a number of their favorite acts into the schedule alongside other bands. Last year, organizers tapped Kathleen Hanna, whose Julie Ruin played a number of dates. This year, Godspeed You! Black Emperor curated, bringing an eclectic mix of old garage, Tuareg jazz, post-rock, and world-music-infused punk to Calgary.
Because actual festival coverage can be such a bear—both to read and to process—for Sled Island, The A.V. Club is separating the wheat from the chaff and choosing to highlight just our seven favorite things, in no particular order, from the Calgary experience, be they desserts or bands. Like the Calgary Tower, these things really stand tall.
The best act we saw at Sled Island, period, The Ex has been making eccentric punk music since the late ’70s. (Full disclosure: For a brief period, this writer was The Ex’s publicist, though that doesn’t really matter.) Though the group has lost some members over the years—most recently, its original frontman, G.W. Sok—the band’s blend of off-kilter punk and world-music time signatures is still one of the most interesting and innovative things happening in music today. Set against the backdrop of Calgary’s branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, the band’s Sled Island set was truly a special experience.
As part of the Calgary experience, a few visiting journalists went out on a food tour of the city. Hosted by Karen Anderson, owner of Calgary Food Tours Inc, our tour went up and down the city’s 17th Ave SW. The six-course progressive lunch was a lot, but the meal opened well at Cibo, a coal-oven pizza place situated in an old warehouse. With a crust peppered with Parmesan and made in part with sourdough bread, the pizza was perfectly done, and it highlighted local Alberta ingredients like wild boar bacon.
An admittedly polarizing band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor isn’t for everyone. Its style of art rock can be a little hard to take, especially if—like this reporter—you tend to have a kneejerk reaction to any fandom’s extreme adoration. That being said, Godspeed put on a hell of a show in Calgary, filling a sweaty, booze-less church with complicated instrumental jams. With visuals that played on everything from the HIV epidemic of the ’80s to voting rights, the group’s overall artistic presence was understated, but still very palpable.
When The A.V. Club first visited Sled Island back in 2012, festival attendees were invited to tour the National Music Centre, a massive collection of everything from harpsichords to the Rolling Stones’ traveling recording studio. That tour was one of the highlights of our visit to Canada, and while the collection wasn’t available for poking around in this year, press members were invited on a hard-hat tour of the new National Music Centre, which should open in spring 2016. A massive five-story building that plays on different elements of Canadian architecture, the space will hold both the Centre’s gigantic collection but also performance spaces, a radio station, and a restaurant and bar. With sweeping, open views, the building is truly something and should provide a home for Canadian music for the foreseeable future. After all, Rush has got to put its archives somewhere, right?
A Halifax band we’d heard good things about in the fall when attending Nova Scotia Music Week, Monomyth lived up to its hype, delivering lo-fi indie rock that stood above some of the other acts. Though the Sled Island book called the group a blend of garage rock and psych, the band isn’t nearly as heavy as that description might have led festival-goers to believe. Instead, the band skews a little bit toward Mark Mulcahy and Miracle Legion, though some of its songs pull a little from Stephen Malkmus and Pavement.
A much-hyped pizza spot that mostly delivered, Una Pizza + Wine is one of Calgary’s hot spots for late-night eats. And while the pizza was good, the dessert of the night was better. A dulce de leche pot de crème that came complete with a side of Maldon salt to sprinkle on each new layer uncovered by the spoon, the dessert was a heaping helping of salty caramel goodness in one little glass jar.
One of Sled Island’s big highlights is always its outdoor Olympic Plaza show on Saturday, which generally draws decent crowds. This year’s event was headlined by Marquee Moon act Television, and while the band deserves the hype it’s long had, the back-to-back afternoon powerhouse trio of Ex Hex, King Tuff, and Drive Like Jehu was really where it was at. Fronted by Mary Timony, all-girl trio Ex Hex kicked up the festival’s general level of badass ferocity with tracks off its debut LP, Rips. The group’s ex-tourmates in King Tuff followed, mixing playful banter with epic guitar lines. The recently reunited Drive Like Jehu capped off all the mania, with Rick Froberg and John Reis delivering the kind of frenzied rock and roll set to which younger bands can only aspire. Together, the three bands made up a Sled Island murderers’ row, ultimately providing a perfect capper to a great few days.