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Sled Island 2015 continues to surprise

July 9, 2015

Obnox, Fountain, The Ex, and Lightning Bolt made for one of the fest's most exploratory line-ups.

Photo: Obnox at The Palomino (Bobbi Barbarich)

In its ninth year, Calgary’s Sled Island has become an eagerly awaited summertime oasis. Though it’s now sized somewhere between the behemoth NXNE and modestly booming Halifax Pop Explosion, the downtown-spanning, multi-venue event has somehow maintained a community feeling closer in spirit to Sappy Fest. Perhaps it’s due to organizers and festivalgoers banding together during 2013’s Mud Island, or simply because the event offers a welcome alternative to the down-home debauchery of the Calgary Stampede, which steamrolls the city the following week.

Before we go further, it should be disclosed that Calgary is my hometown, marking 2015 as my seventh Sledding experience, along with the fact that my band Tough Age joined this year’s line-up. However, despite these obvious biases, it was incredibly heartening to see larger than ever festival crowds continue to place their faith in the programmers (plus guest curators Godspeed You! Black Emperor), arriving en masse for relatively lesser known headlining acts.

Obviously these names aren’t buried too deeply when GY!BE can win (then reject) the Polaris Prize, Kim Gordon is a bestselling author, and a Lightning Bolt album can be streamed on the NPR website. Yet the most important point to be raised is that these artists can still be counted on to challenge the status quo rather than reinforce it. In the place of NXNE’s fumbles in booking (then un-booking) the hate-spouting Action Bronson, Sled Island represented the polar opposite with a marquee position for freaky deeky freedom fighter Mykki Blanco.

There will always be issues with an event of this scale, the worst of which were reports of the Flames Central venue’s racial profiling, demanding bag checks at a De La Soul show but not for Yo La Tengo. The blame can’t be aimed at the festival itself, but their partner’s practices are pretty disappointing. And while the headliners programmed on the Olympic Plaza mainstage were uniformly excellent, the outdoor venue suffered like years past from less than stellar sound and scorching hot concrete. I hate to sound like a curmudge, and would instead propose a return to Mewata Stadium or even a move to Prince’s Island Park if it’s not gripped by the iron fist of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

In the end, I have overwhelmingly positive thoughts about Sled 2015, and the largest complaint I can lob is that there were far too many things I wanted to see. Sadly that meant missing out on the film, comedy, and panel talks altogether, along with woefully sleeping on Mdou Moctar. Yet with a hectic schedule of venue hopping — made a lot easier thanks to Calgary’s free C-Train and surprisingly ghosted downtown streets — I managed to get to nearly every act on my gotta-catch list.

Samantha Savage Smith (Photo: Allison Seto)

My Sled experience started on Wednesday with Edmonton’s Strange Fires on the Broken City patio. Their jangular effects pedal pop hit a high note with a cover of Simply Saucer’s classic “Bullet Proof Nothing.” Up next was hometown hero Samantha Savage Smith, backed up by ringers from Lab Coast and Fist City. Her daydreamy set of subtle slow burners — with a few shouty moments — was perfect for an afternoon sway.

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Bog Bodies (Photo: Greg Bennett)

From there it was off to the Nite Owl basement, with its oddly sinister backdrop of bookshelves that looked like the location of a millionaire key party. Calgary’s Bog Bodies — the latest off-putting project from members of bubblegum weirdos The Gooeys — proved an ideal match for this space with their bombardment of cartoon metal riffs, snarled vocals, and gnarly eye contact propelled by a drum machine that sounded like R2D2 overheating.

Ashley Soft (Photo: Jesse Locke)

Regrettably deciding against De La Soul, The Courtneys, Sarah Devachi, and Birdstriking, I ended up at the #1 Legion to catch The Ex (stacked night of shows, to say the least). Upstairs, Ashley Soft set it off with a tortured squall wall featuring the feedback wrangling of Devin Friesen a.k.a Bitter Fictions (and an occasional AUX contributor). Vancouver’s Softess were up next on the big stage, and despite some sound issue delays, the trio powered through with impressively abrasive jags.

Cousins (Photo: Jesse Locke)

I caught a few moments of AmRep loud-quiet-loudness from Winnipeg’s Conduct before thee almighty anarcho post-punks The Ex arrived to a psyched up crowd. Five decades into their existence, the interplay of the band’s three-guitar frontline and off-piste precision of drummer Katherina Bornefeld have been honed to masterclass status. Best of all, Terrie Ex and co. still look like they’re having a blast horsing around. Halifax’s Cousins brought an equal set of smiles with frontguy Aaron Mangle and a new trio line-up decked out in mailmen uniforms. Without sounding like a hack, can I say they delivered?

Nap Eyes (Photo: Steve Louie)

Thursday hit the ground at a brisk jog with a set from Halifax’s Nap Eyes outside Local 510. I’ve been riding hard for these slack-rock swooners since the release of their 2014 masterpiece Whine of the Mystic, and it was nice to see a Calgary crowd similarly smitten. JOYFULTALK — the ramshackle electronic duo of Jay Crocker and Shawn Dicey, doubling at Sled as the Cousins rhythm section — followed up with a whole different kind of arm-hair raisers.

Melted Mirror with The Palomino Queen (Photo: Bobbi Barbarich)

The majority of my Thursday was spent smelling BBQ sauce and beer at The Palomino. Here, two floors of action included the smoked out psych riffs of Vancouver’s Cult Babies and spazzed out nerd rock of The Plodes. I loved them both, but probably not as much as the vape-toking granny in the Billy Talent t-shirt planted front row centre all night. According to locals, she’s a regular known as ‘The Palomino Queen.’

Obnox (Photo: Bobbi Barbarich)

Calgary’s Melted Mirror were up next with ex-Sharp Ends gyrator Chris Zajko backed up by eerie electronic buzzsaws. One of the most exciting new bands in town. This was followed by my pick for the highlight of the entire fest, with Cleveland’s Obnox throwing down a tight wire act of tuff gnarl garage-punk and righteous raps. This kind of genre-welding on guitar, drums, and turntable doesn’t sound like it should land, but it hit like a bombshell here.

Lightning Bolt (Photo: Steve Louie)

AUX’s own once-badboy Josiah Hughes called Lightning Bolt’s set at the Legion “one for the books.” He wasn’t wrong, with the world’s most nimble noise rock duo — finger-shredding bassist Brian Gibson and bonkaloid drummer/singer Brian Chippendale — packing the room to the rafters. At one point I swore I counted five simultaneous crowd surfers.

Energy Slime (Photo: Arif Ansari)

Renny Wilson Punk Explosion (Photo: Arif Ansari)

Friday was all sleepy grins at the Mint Records day party with the ramble jamming Monomyth, odd bod synth-bop of Energy Slime, and pitch-perfect pop moves from Faith Healer. Yet the show was easily stolen by the Renny Wilson Punk Explosion, expanded to a four-guitar, double drum kit superbeast with members of Hag Face and Faith Healer for the occasion. Renny’s vocal cord shredding dedications to cops, lipstick, and getting stiffed on Kijiji were closed out with his notorious cover of Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero.” What else could you ask for?

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Fountain (Photo: Greg Bennett)

Friday night closed out with a bang at Dicken’s Pub with another jaw-dropper from Victoria’s Fountain. This band has been on my radar for a while now, but the first time witnessing them live truly sealed the deal. The razor blade post-punk moves of their recordings were revved into overdrive for one of the most exciting performances of the week. Toronto’s Whimm followed, fading everything to black with an icy blast of stop-start precision yanked out of Cold Storage.

Feel Alright (Photo: Steve Louie)

Blonde Elvis (Photo: Elyse Bouvier)

As day four rolled around, energy levels were fading. Thankfully, a breakfast sumo dog and Feel Alright’s set at the best venue in town (Tubby Dog) were enough to perk things right back up. The band’s three-part power-pop vocals matched with Thin Lizzy/Sheer Mag guitarmonies should be enough to get anyone jumping out of bed. Vancouver’s Other Jesus followed it up with some downcast fuzz-buzz before I raced back to Local 510 to catch Toronto’s Blonde Elvis. Unfazed by a heckler shouting “Bassist looks like Frank the Tank!” they tore through their glammed up sing-alongs with hair-whipping aplomb.

Kappa Chow (Photo: Julia Dickens)

Bitter Fictions (Photo: David Kenney)

I sadly missed the fest’s main attractions from Ex Hex, Drive Like Jehu, Television, and Viet Cong while occupied behind the kit, but by all reports they were excellent, and I commend Sled on its superior booking. The evening’s bill at the Legion was lovingly dubbed ‘No Fun Night’ by Bitter Fictions’ Devin Friesen, who set the mood with his daisy-chained tone zoning. The electronic hypno-grooves of Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche were balanced out by the sassy thug-stomp of Sackville’s Kappa Chow, who we can now happily count as Toronto residents.

Body/Head (Photo: Steve Louie)

Finally, the dueling guitar dreamzone of Body/Head faded out the No Fun festivities. Even if the set was slightly sleepier than some might have hoped for, it still saw Kim Gordon and subterranean hero Bill Nace in fine form as they clatterwauled to a captivated audience.

Beginning with the mythic performance from Japan’s Boredoms in 2007, Sled Island has always stood out for its exploratory programming, and 2015 may have seen its furthest moves left field yet. Here’s to many more years of surprises.

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