Calgary’s Sled Island Festival Is For Those Who Still Love Live Music Discovery

Calgary, Canada is a city with a rodeo-sized chip on its shoulder. It’s not that residents of the Canadian mountain town and the local community aren’t delighted by their incredibly popular annual rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, one that’s earned them a reputation as a country-styled city, it’s just that there is so much more to Calgary than steer-wrangling or boots.

This is a city on the make, and everything from the local gourmet coffee roaster chain, Rosso Coffee Roasters, to a host of fantastic local microbreweries currently flourishing due to a recent change in provincial law, and, in particular, due to the week-long festival Sled Island that puts music discovery, artist investment, and diversity over big, popular names or trendy headline-grabbing side shows.

Aside from the wildly popular rodeo that takes place every July, Sled Island is one of the key events helping introduce visitors to Calgary. If you haven’t been that far up north yet, try to imagine a smaller-scale Portland, where the people are twice as friendly — yes, apparently it’s possible for people to be friendlier than they are in Oregon. Canadians continue to take the cake for politeness and hospitality, so if you’re looking to visit a city where people will really warm up to you, Calgary is one.

Similar to the way CMJ used to function in New York, or even SXSW in Austin way back before it became an overblown corporate hangout for brands and tech companies, Sled Island is a week-long haven for bands from all over to come and play the Alberta city, which is often skipped over on traditional touring routes. The proximity to the mountains and this “island” mentality as far as booking musicians are part of what went into naming the event, which has been going strong for ten years. Most of the 35 venues used for the five-day festival, which allows 250 bands to reach about 30,000 people, are located within the same general vicinity downtown, so navigating the square mile or so on foot is easy and accessible for anyone.

Over the last decade, the fest has been steadily building steam for programming not just in music, but in comedy, film and art, culminating in this year’s massive indie lineup, graced with names like LA hip-hop icon DJ Quik, folk-pop breakout star Weyes Blood, and the fuzzed out jazz-fusion of Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, who also helped curate the 2017 lineup. While all of these artists very much deserve your attention, odds are that plenty of people scanning a lineup with those names on it would be unfamiliar with those musicians — and that’s totally okay with Sled Island.

Because, come on, while it’s not like any of us can begrudge the crowds who flock to see Beyonce — or, rather, Lady Gaga — at Coachella, or Drake, or Radiohead, or LCD Soundsystem, it’s just that the constant slew of rotating stages out in open fields with the same six or seven super stars does get old. Especially for those of us who started off in this industry due to a love of live music and independent bands who may or may not ever make it big.

The first couple gigs I saw during the week were the scathing punk Vancouver band Kiso Island, who were down a regular drummer for the set, and bedroom freak-poppers Soft Cure, both of whom delivered near-perfect sets without a hint of hype or hubris. It’s been so long since I’ve been on the ground, doing music discovery in a live setting, that I almost forgot how fun and matchless it is to stumble into a band’s show and immediately fall for them, headfirst, without regard for how they’re perceived out in the rest of the world.

The ability to test my own limits when it comes to musical knowledge and taste is something I already enjoy and try to participate in whenever I can, and a festival with a lineup this diverse made that experience easy and joyful. Getting the chance to experience the legendary metalcore Boston band Converge live for the first time — and what may possibly be the only time in my life — is not something that I’d be able to find at most music festivals. That one was due to the suggestion of an intrepid fellow journalist (shout out to Adam), and watching Japanese post-rockers MONO wail away in the intimate church venue (complete with pews) was another recommendation that took me by wonderful surprise; neither of those bands fall into the milieu of music I am normally drawn to cover.

But, no matter how great discovery is, there’s something to be sad for experiencing an artist you already know you love for the first time live. That’s how I felt at DJ Quik’s capstone set on Saturday night at The Palace Theatre, my first time experiencing his sly, laidback energy firsthand erased even a bartender’s extreme rudeness — I guess not everyone in Calgary is friendly to a fault — and Quik made it right by pouring some Veuve Clicquot straight into my cup off the stage.

That’s another perk of attending a smaller festival, where the divide between artists and fans is diminished, and everyone in the city begins to feel like they’re all part of something that we created together. That’s the whole point of live music, right? To create a community that didn’t previously exist, to make something out of nothing, to argue that in the face of everything going on, celebration and creation still matters. That is the ethos that I’ve found absent in plenty of the big name festivals I’ve attended the last couple years, and rediscovering it in Calgary reminded me exactly why I used to love going to festivals so much. As cliche as it may be to praise a festival for really being about the music, it isn’t fully apparent just how many of these events aren’t anymore, until I attended one that wholeheartedly is — it made all the difference in the world.

Watching Toronto indie rockers Land Of Talk close out the entire week with a raging set in a packed venue that Saturday night, or seeing rising star Half Waif (aka Nandi Rose Plunkett) perform just before Elizabeth Powell and co., ranked up there with my top moments of the entire fest. Those women, along with Weyes Blood and Waxahatchee, who both also performed in the regal church venue that housed a MONO set the same weekend, are all bands that fall squarely into my preferred taste and aesthetic, and for a reason, they’re all fantastic performers and artists. But on the plane home the next day, it was MONO and Converge and Soft Cure that I was listening to, my own tiny mementos from a trip up to Calgary well spent, falling back in love with the joy of discovery.