By: Jonathan Dyck
Before the waters surged and the evacuations began in downtown Calgary, the city was poised for one of this summer’s most anticipated music festivals. This was the seventh year for Sled Island, and, on paper, it looked like a damn good time. At the top of the bill this year were shoe-gaze pioneers The Jesus and Mary Chain, Texas post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky, indie supergroup Divine Fits, Danish punks Iceage, nineties alt-rock legends Superchunk, and over 250 other artists spread across 30 different venues in downtown Calgary. Along with the big draws, Sled Island organizers did their best to highlight local talent: 85 Calgary-based bands were featured and the total number of Alberta artists exceeded 110. It’s hard to imagine a better way for Alberta music lovers to spend a June weekend. In the past, Calgary’s downtown has been the perfect environment for bicycle-based show-hopping, but this year, halfway through the festival, Sled Island unfortunately came to resemble its name: water was everywhere and, just two days in, the downtown was nearly deserted.
I arrived in Calgary at around 8:30, hoping to catch Colin Stetson, a Montreal-based saxophonist known for taking a gritty, relentless approach to his instrument. It was already raining and the line for the Commonwealth was at least 40 people. Lineups like this aren’t uncommon for festival that are spread out over small venues throughout the city but it can be a bit frustrating. In places with limited space, preference is given to folks with individual tickets; for those of us with wristbands, it’s first come, first served. As I was deciding whether or not to enter the line a volunteer with a clip-board in hand came over and encouraged us to head over to Dicken’s Pub for the Swans show; they weren’t supposed to take the stage for another hour and a half, but I wasn’t going to get stuck in another queue. As I asked around for directions to the venue, I met a friendly couple from Saskatoon, both on their way to see Swans. They lent me their spare umbrella.
That night I was able to check-off Swans from my long list of must-see bands. Founded in 1982, on the tail end of the New York no-wave scene, Swans were among the festival’s most distinguished veterans. “Turn on the lights” was the first order given by Michael Gira, the band’s founder and front-man, as he walked out on stage to join his five other bandmates. Beyond this deliberate moment of audience recognition, Gira’s intensity didn’t waver for the entire 2-hour set. Under the lights, we were a spectacle of wide-eyed headbangers. And Swans didn’t disappoint. With songs lasting between seven and seventeen minutes, it was astonishing to see a group of seasoned men press onward despite visible signs of fatigue. Three quarters of the way through, Gira began to contort wildly, dancing through walls of guitar feedback, crushing basslines and galloping drums. In the final half hour, he started leaping across the stage with his guitar. Each time he crossed it, he would run back to repeat the ritual as many as 15 times. By the end, we’re all sweaty and thankful: it’s rare to see this level of craftsmanship and poise from a band so aggressively loud and spontaneous.
Another slow, rainy day. The Besnard Lakes began their set at the Commonwealth by easing into “Devastation,” a bombastic anthem that falls somewhere in between Aerosmith and Rush. After a few minutes, I found myself joined by some friends who were absolutely soaking wet. We left partway through the set to catch some gloomy garage rock from The Beets at Tubby Dog, undoubtedly the most delicious venue of the night. By this point we’d figured out that Superchunk, the evening’s flagship concert, was going to be moved from the cozy Republik to spacious Flames Central. It was a sign of things to come. Up to this point, I hadn’t paid the flood warning much notice. Evading the rain proved difficult, but entering a shrine to the Calgary Flames as a casual Edmonton Oiler’s fan was the night’s first real challenge. Luckily Superchunk’s openers THEEsatisfaction made the vibe significantly cooler.
When Superchunk took the stage, ostensibly playing as hard as they did 25 years ago, it was clear that, despite what was going on outside, we’d picked the right place to end the festival. The Chapel Hill band tore through songs from classic albums like No Pocky For Kitty, Foolish, and their most recent LP, 2010’s Majesty Shredding. They even threw in a cover of “Punk Rock Virgins” the 1980 single by Calgary punks The Sturgeons.
After the show, I started heading north towards the Bow River but each time I got close I hit a barricade smattered with cops. None of them seemed to know where I’d be able to cross. Luckily the 10th Street bridge was still open for traffic and pedestrians. As I stepped onto the bridge, I noticed a toxic smell in the air. A nearby onlooker mentioned that the odour came from a chemical used on railroad tracks. According to him, there used to be a plant about a kilometre west of the bridge. He said he was watching for railroad spikes to float past. Crossing the bridge, I could see that the power had gone out near the base of the hill. It was a treacherous bike ride, but I made it back to my friend’s place without any real incidents.
We returned to Edmonton late in the afternoon and it wasn’t long until Facebook was buzzing with news about a series of Sled Island relief shows happening throughout Calgary and Edmonton. Tubby Dog in Calgary was pressing ahead with its scheduled lineup. Meanwhile, two of the best spots in Edmonton, Wunderbar and Barber Ha, were going to be hosting half a dozen bands each night. $10 at the door, or free admission if you still had your Sled Island wrist band. Naturally, I had acted rashly and thrown mine out after I got word of the cancellation. Still, it was money I could part with, and it all went to support the bands who had their Sled Island gigs cancelled. $10 is small price to see so many great acts in one place (Peace, Slam Dunk, The Courtneys are just a few of the bands I was hoping to see in Calgary).
They’ve dubbed the ad-hoc festival Shred Island. You’ve really got to hand it to the promoters in Calgary and Edmonton for acting quickly and putting this all together in the face of such devastating conditions. Let’s hope that this kind of helpful collaboration continues as Calgary’s recovery begins.
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Jonathan Dyck lives, writes, and draws in Edmonton. You can catch his weekly radio show, “Dyck’s Pycks,” on Tuesdays at 2pm on CJSR 88.5 FM.