Turning the cobblestoned corner onto Stephen Ave, it was lined with bicycle racks. Not only that, the racks were full. It could only mean one thing: Sled Island was here. Yes, all the ghouls and goblins from Calgary’s music scene were out in full force for five days of booze, bikes, and oh so many bands. What were the liveliest highlights? So glad you asked…
The Hometown Coming Out Party – Lab Coast
Lab Coast’s recordings run along the same lines as the traditional indie ventures of lore: recorded in various Calgary basements with frontman David Laing playing almost all of the instruments himself, writing songs in between shifts at his day job. As such, watching Laing emerge from this DIY experiment to perform his songs live are like watching a coming-of-age right before your eyes. Laing’s delivery as a frontman is shy and self-conscious in the most charming way possible. He guides the band through their jangly lo-fi dreamscapes with a shoegazer’s focus—eyes closed, both hands on the microphone, calm and intent. The full Lab Coast band is an assemblage of musicians from elsewhere, most notably including the always-wonderful Samantha Savage Smith as well as intermittent input by a mystery saxophone player, darting on and off the stage throughout the set. Although the band’s members are a mishmash, their sounds mesh masterfully into airy, spacey, melodic guitar pop songs, each one shorter and sweeter than the last. With each show, Lab Coast drift further into the conversation of Calgary’s most notable bands.
The Ear-Ringiest Guitar Solos – Yo La Tengo
Looking at Ira Kaplan’s guitars during soundcheck, I caught myself thinking “man, those look really beat up for such a successful band”. I soon found out why. Yo La Tengo has been around since the early 80s, and Kaplan goes hard every night. The guitar paint doesn’t stand a chance. Kaplan and his bandmates passed around instruments constantly throughout their masterful Flames Central set, each of the three playing keyboard, drums (and maracas! And tambourines! And egg shakers!), bass, or guitar interchangeably. Yo La Tengo were at their bracing best, though, with Kaplan playing the electric six-string—his face contorting as his fingers coursed through buzzy, edgy guitar textures. The band would be vamping on a shimmering dream pop riff when Kaplan would drop a bucket of noise into the song—he would jerk the whammy bar, contort the tuning pegs, snap strings. He held the guitar over his head and waved it back and forth in front of the amp. He shoved the mic stand horizontal and used it as a slide. Then, amazingly, he’d loop all of this and tear off another layer or two of blistering feedback freakout on top until it formed a droning mountain of reverb and distortion. At one point the layers were so thick he passed his guitar around the audience so people could take turns adding to the pastiche. Kaplan’s sonic assaults also served to make their softer material all the more affecting when they slipped it into the set—Georgia Hubley’s hushed and aching “Do you know / How I feel?” in “Nowhere Near”, for instance.
The Genre Freakout – OBNOX
Obnox is essentially a solo artist—the brainchild of Cleveland’s Lamont “Bim” Thomas—and his backing band was a perfect illustration of his varying musical interests: a high-octane drummer stomping out garage-punk blasts, and a turntable-equipped deejay spinning choppy, funky loops—each accompanist alternating their contributions to the set, as opposed to in unison. Thomas would grab the mic and rap frantic verses alongside the DJ for a song or two, bouncing around the stage like his own hype man. He would then kibbitz with the crowd (“Oh hey! Denise! Is that Denise over there? How’s it going? Great to see you!”), replace the mic in its stand, throw his guitar strap over his head, and churn out frantic guitar fuzz powerchords alongside the drummer, singing out chanty punk rock verses and choruses. Was it a rapper playing stoner grunge? Was it noise punk for hip hop heads? Whatever it was, it was a searing, commanding onslaught on your eardrums.
The Fan Favourites – De La Soul
De La Soul have been around the block, and it’s obvious they have learned one thing in particular along the way: how to work a crowd. Calgary is typically not a great city for hip hop crowds, but you wouldn’t know it from De La Soul’s Thursday night Sled Island set. It was a textbook execution of all the moves in the cagey vet playbook: the high fives, the stage dives, the fan phone onstage selfies. Despite being old-school icons from the days when they and A Tribe Called Quest were battling Public Enemy and NWA for hip hop’s cultural influence, De La Soul made it clear all are welcome. They played to the dedicated lifers (all the classics got play: “Me, Myself, and I”, “Potholes In My Lawn”, “Oooh”) and the newbies (“I don’t care if you know who we are. You’re here now, so you’re part of the party,” shouted Posdnuos). They even catered to the venue staff, with Maseo snatching a bus tub away from a Flames Central employee, telling him “we’re the only ones working tonight”. Maybe the biggest symbol of De La Soul’s mastery of an audience was in their deafening crowd callbacks, where they routinely turned a traditional interaction like “when I say ah, you say ah” into a roof-blowing audience roar.
The Homecoming Kings – Viet Cong
A lot of the Sled Island’s afternoon lineups can be sorted into one of two categories: local upstarts or blog buzz bands. Viet Cong not only encompass both of these, they transcend them. In the past half year, Viet Cong have been riding a typhoon-sized hype wave, their January seven-song LP taking them from unknowns to international acclaim (Rolling Stone’s “10 New Artists You Need To Know”, anyone?). As such, they received a hero’s welcome at their daylight Olympic Plaza set, performing for one of the best-attended shows of the festival. Where their album cuts are styled as swelling, textured art-rock, Viet Cong pulls no punches with their in-your-face live show. The raw brashness of Viet Cong’s performance can be well illustrated in the guitar players that flanked the stage—Scott Munro broke his guitar strap while thrashing out a solo (and finished the set without it), while Daniel Christiansen played much of the set’s second half on his knees.
The Wall of Sound – Jaga Jazzist
Looking at the stage before the show, the sound check undoubtedly took longer than their performance would go. Every inch of the stage was covered, each musician standing in a tight space surrounded by microphones, monitors, and instruments of every shape and size. 40 instruments, 9 musicians, and a wall of sound. The group is typically categorized as a species of jazz fusion, but that designation is a loose one at best. The songs, which would often span 10 or 20(!) minutes, grafted together elements of jazz, prog rock, electronica, and hip hop into an interlineating patchwork of drum machines, horns, and synthesizers that seemed somehow natural, not quirky or gimmicky. Jaga Jazzist’s trick is how they ebb and flow. They will reign back their compositions into say, a flute and 808 breakdown(!), and then slowly, serenely add instruments until the song has become sprawling and cinematic. The stage setup only added to the spectacle: the amount of gear on the stage meant the musicians were stretched to the edges of the stage where people crowded close from three sides, and instead of lights beaming down, the stage was light from the inside out. These elements gave the show a communal feel, like we were all witnessing something special…because we were.
Long live Sled.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Brett Fillmore