Sled Island explores new territory in its 10th year

by Jesse Locke

June 29, 2016






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Cult heroes, legends, and future game-changers came together at the Calgary music festival.

ESG (Photo: Mike Tan)

The greatest strength and weakness of a six-day festival like Sled Island is that there’s far too much good music to see everything. Since the 2013 flood left the downtown-spanning event underwater, Sled Island’s staff have doubled down on their efforts to keep fans of all stripes afloat. Now in its 10th year, the Calgary institution welcomed Peaches as guest curator for a line-up pairing local favourites with cult heroes, legends, and future game-changers.

This year’s most anticipated artists included ’90s indie-rock royalty Guided By Voices and Built To Spill on the Olympic Plaza main stage, garage-punk pioneers The Sonics and shoegaze metal bros Deafheaven closing out late night parties at the #1 Legion. Angel Olsen and Julia Holter delivered in swooning style alongside headier picks such as ESG, Oneida, Psychic TV, Dawn of MIDI, Junglepussy, and Radioactivity. This came coupled with comedy, art, and film for anyone exhausted by the musical overload, but there was truly no way to catch it all.

Of course, Calgary is still Calgary, so there were some bum notes. These included overly aggressive security guards at Dicken’s Pub, overly aggressive crowd members moshing to The Sonics, and the fact that the Palomino is proudly booking Black Pussy despite the band’s racist, sexist behaviour. None of these are the fault of the festival, but the local music community (like all others) should strive to make everyone feel safe.


Lab Coast (Photo: Chris Tait)

Gripes aside, this year’s Sled Island was jam-packed with highlights. Wednesday may have actually been the strongest of all. It began on Local 510’s outdoor stage with local luminaries Lab Coast programmed by upstart label Wyatt Records. With a typically lengthy set list drawing from their latest album, Remember The Moon, the jangly pop group were at the peak of their powers.

Angel Olsen (Photo: David Kenney)

From here it was off to Central United Church to wait in a line for a packed performance from Angel Olsen. Inside it was sweltering, but her smoky vocals sent shivers through the pews.

Oneida (Photo: Bobbi Barbarich)

Oneida gathered a similarly charged crowd at the Commonwealth. The members of the Brooklyn avant-rock band hit the stage for their first of three performances with a pulsating onslaught of psychedelic splatter. Octo-armed drummer John Colpitts (a.k.a. Kid Millions) revved up the spacecraft as the frontline of keyboards, guitars, and vocal chants steered it straight into the sun.

ESG (Photo: Mike Tan)

As if that wasn’t enough for one night, the party concluded at the #1 Legion with New York’s mutant disco legends ESG (Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold). Originally formed by four sisters from the Scroggins family in the South Bronx of the early ’80s, ESG mesmerized with minimalist polyrhythms. Their signature song “UFO” has been sampled by everyone from MF Doom to Liars to TLC, which the group cheekily addressed on their 1992 EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.

ESG’s Sled Island performance saw original Scroggins sister Renee joined by bassist Nicole Nicholas, percussionist Nicholas Nicholas, and drummer Aaaron Worley. According to various sources, the stickman was hired over Craigslist or Kijiji with this set marking his debut with the band. Though he was playing from sheet music throughout, the rhythm section was locked in and kept the crowd moving.

Whipping through classics like “You’re No Good”, “Moody”, and of course “UFO” (with the percussionist dancing in an alien mask), they also peppered in newer songs like “Erase You” and “Watching” without missing a beat. This was a joyous performance from a reunited act clearly doing it for all the right reasons. ESG proved all you need is bass, drums, and vocals to pass down music through the ages.

People of the North (Photo: Christy Swanberg)

Thursday started with Oneida in a different guise as their free-improv project People of the North. This noisy performance stormed up the Broken City patio as curious onlookers sipped suppertime beers.

Jo Passed, Vulva Culture, and Foam (Photos: Bobbi Barbarich)

Tubby Dog played host to the mathy skronk of Vancouver’s Jo Passed with gentle vocals cutting through the clamour. Halifax’s Vulva Culture rended hearts with crashing waves of slowcore, before London’s Foam melted faces with their scrappy grunge shredding.

The Avulsions (Photo: Ashley Orzel)

The gothic post-punk of The Avulsions saw a crowd gathered at The Palomino for the Saskatoon group, proving there’s a weird breeze blowing through the prairies. Downstairs, a four-piece line-up of Vancouver queer-noise-punk lifers Shearing Pinx sounded heavier than ever before. That’s saying a lot for a group that’s been ripping non-stop for over a decade with hundreds of releases to their name.

Man Forever (Photo: Ashley Orzel)

Edmonton’s Pigeon Breeders set the stage at Wine-Ohs with glaze-eyed ambience, before Oneida’s Kid Millions made a final appearance with his drum-driven project Man Forever. Here, he was joined by The Highest Order’s Simone TB plus stickmen Matt Doherty from Raleigh and Pierre-Luc Simon from Technical Kidman. The four drummers gathered around two snares to roll with precision for 30 minutes straight. As Oneida’s other members added a swelling backdrop of drone, the infinite snare hits stretched into Reichian hypnosis.

Thursday night ended once again at the #1 Legion, yet instead of a big-name headliner, it was closed out by Calgarian oddball Craig Storm. Though he’s been busy with the unclassifiable horrors of Bog Bodies, this year saw Storm revisit the warped retromania of his solo electronic project Monroeville Music Centre. Now reinterpreting the instrumentals with a full band, Adam Kamis of Hex Ray tossed in spaghetti western riffs for something resembling Morricone Music Centre.

Friday began with the annual day party from Vancouver’s Mint Records. This year saw signees from the label joined by newer acts such as TV Ugly. While switching off instruments and singers, the quartet also oscillated between sunny slacker charms and hair-raising screams. Tough Age were up second with their recent touring line- up tearing through a bubblegum punk barrage as frontman (and AUX contributor) Jarrett Samson tried out his new look of a windbreaker with no shirt.

Johnny de Courcy (Photos: Jesse Locke)

West Coast freak-rocker Johnny de Courcy is currently rounding home on an eight-week infinitour with Victoria’s Painted Fruit. The costumed group’s cartoonish glam sent influences like Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, and the Voidoids through a meat grinder, as the lanky bandleader commanded all eyeballs. Unreleased songs bumped up with old favourites like the tribute to his mother “Amelie” and the slinky hit “Master Manipulator” as de Courcy closed it all out by crowdsurfing with a sax.

Zad Kokar (Photo: Steve Louie)

The openers for Psychic TV landed prime slots, with Toronto’s HSY continuing their descent into industrial hell and Calgary’s Melted Mirror pumping up the Dickens Pub dancefloor with prog-synth overdrive.

Best and most surprising of all was Strasbourg, France’s Zad Kokar. Joined by drummer Laura Jeffery from Fountain, the duo dressed like nightmarish clowns while dishing out 23 Skidoo-style discordant grooves and slashes of guitar from the school of Arto Lindsay.

Psychic TV (Photo: Lisa Amos)

When thee almighty Genesis P-Orridge finally took the stage, the crowd ov psychick youth were at a fever pitch. To their credit, Psychic TV surprised by opening with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” (not unlike their spookily straight take on “Good Vibrations”) but it wasn’t quite the transgressive spectacle one could have expected. Instead, the band cranked through slickly generic rock songs with the addition of P-Orridge’s singular vocals.

It was an undeniable thrill to hear and see the Throbbing Gristle founder in the flesh, and at this point s/he can do whatever the hell s/he wants. Nonetheless, this subdued set was one of the festival’s only true disappointments.

Saturday started early with the second of two sets from Calgary’s Feel Alright. Waking up the Palomino with their Cheap Trick hooks, Big Star harmonies, and Thin Lizzy guitarmonies, the band of BFFs has never sounded better.

Fountain (Photo: Steve Louie)

Tubby Dog was packed full for Victoria’s Fountain, whose powerhouse post-punk was another highlight of last year and this year alike. At this point, their Gang of Four-style doubled vocals, guitar jags, and zigzagging rhythyms have caught on out west, so it’s only a matter of time before the word spreads further.

The Plodes with Dave Shiroky (Photo: Arif Ansari)

Tough Age (Photo: J. Ashley Nixon)

The Plodes were hit with a rainstorm on the Broken City patio, but made the most of it with hyperactive energy and guest vocals from CJSW radio host Dave Shiroky (while eating a quesadilla). Tough Age hit the stage once again and not even a broken guitar could stop them from completely winning over the crowd. The hour may have been early, but this ripping set felt like it should have closed out the night.

Guided By Voices (Photo: Chris Tait)

Nonetheless, the soggy concrete of Olympic Plaza was the final destination for Guided By Voices. At one point, frontman Robert Pollard apologized for the fact that they could only perform for an hour and a half instead of their typical three. Backed up by a stadium-ready band and a demonic drummer, this set of self-declared “semi-hits” included crowd-pleasing classics like “Game of Pricks”, “Glad Girls”, and the moving “Motor Away.” Meanwhile, serious fans got their kicks with deeper cuts like the solo song “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft.”

As Pollard swigged from bottles of his signature Miller Lite and Cuervo Gold, his banter slurred to the point of announcing a song from his “Matrador Records debut” (apparently it was on Merge). Gracefully drunk and surrounded by fans who knew every word, GBV proved that communal experiences can take place on a big stage or in a hot dog shop, wherever you find the music you love.

Tags: Music, Angel Olsen, esg, feel alright, Fountain, Guided By Voices, Johnny de Courcy, Lab Coast, man forever, oneida, psychic tv, Sled Island, the avulsions, zad kokar






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