It started as a joke.

Sure, I responded to a seemingly run-of-the-mill press email, I'd be happy to cover a music festival in Canada—just take care of hotels and airfare and I'm there. "Haaaaaah," I added.

The response: "We can do that."

And suddenly, a week-and-a-half later I found myself in Calgary, a city whose location I had to look up on my World Map shower curtain.

They were waiting for us in the airport, two volunteers who could've been from Portland if not for their soft Canadian accents. They were hip and cute and sweet, and they'd take me to the hotel just as soon as their second charge arrived—Vince Mason, AKA Maseo from De La Soul.

Mason was as bleary-eyed as I was, but we got to talking. I asked him about festivals, and what he knew of Calgary.

"Every festival wants to be Coachella," he said. "They're becoming the same."

I told him that's why this one, Sled Island, looked interesting to me—it was almost all Canadian bands.

Mason didn't seem to have looked at the schedule, and really he had no reason to—he had a show and a DJ set that night, and would be out the next morning. Of what he said he likes to do in Calgary: "Get high." And so launched a wide-ranging conversation on weed.

He loves it, can't get enough. Told me about some $44,000-per-pound super-hybrid stuff he tried recently, calling it "the Louie the XIV of weed."

We talked about legalization, and how it was just around the corner in Oregon. (He'd been in Portland only days earlier, DJing an event with Rev Shines from Lifesavas.) He said something about how legalization drops the crime rates. I agreed, citing a recent study from Colorado. He said something to the tune of: "No one has ever committed a felony while high." I told him how absurd that was, and that I could attest that indeed I had almost surely committed such an act. He stiffened up: "Do your research, man." I chuckled, and changed the subject. I told him about Weed the People, and he told me he'd be back in Portland again in the next few weeks to help judge an upcoming Cannabis Cup and to DJ. We got the hotel and I let him check in first.

Im in Canada, I swear

The hotel is absurd. Even now, on my third day here, skating around the four-star accommodations seems like some kind of mistake. I'm ready for the knock to come at any moment: "Excuse me sir, would you please gather your belongings and meet us in the lobby? And, dear god, what is that smell?"

None of this is to brag, but to note how such treatment must inevitably color my coverage. Indeed, they're pulling out all the stops.

After a good long nap I emerged to begin exploring the city and festival, which is located at clubs all around downtown Calgary (à la MusicfestNW before it was turned into another big-stage summer festival putting up many of the same bands as other festivals).

I wandered into the Canadian Legion, which was as old and creaky and had the same smell and sunburnt photographs of veterans as the American versions. But I thought to myself: why in the name of George W. Bush does Canada have a Legion? What wars have they been fighting?

Indeed, the stereotypes are true: Canadians are incessantly polite. The national motto should be "Sorry!" Everyone says it, even strangers on the street and drunken bums. I saw a car make a blind turn and the person who had to jump out of the way apologized.

To be sure, this is not to mock—they're just sweeter than we are. It's nice.

The first band I saw was Canadian and it just wasn't happening. For two reasons, really—they were playing way too many instruments and they didn't have the dexterity. Hell, they hadn't yet really mastered the basics. Also, the sound was a disaster, and was only partially their fault.

Ashley Soft

Upstairs, the ghastly-named Ashley Soft left me a little more impressed. From Montreal, they seem to embody a significant aspect of what it means to be a Canadian band—or at least a Canadian band at Sled Island. They were loud, bursting guitar rock, a kind of spasm. My early guess is that, surrounded by long, cold winters, when the short summer hits (and it's staying light here until 10:30 pm or later) they kind of just combust. And yet, they were still polite, apologizing for the mic not working during a song, then screaming almost violently into it the next. The frontman, wearing a homemade shirt emblazoned with "I'm a baller motherfucker," seemed a shy nihilist, both assured and totally unsure.

Ashley Soft also embody another aspect of a great many bands at Sled Island—you wouldn't find them at most American festivals. They're green, not widely appealing, and the crowd was made mostly of their friends. There are dozens—if not over a hundred—similar stories here. And goddamn if I don't find it heartening. In large part Sled Island seems to say: fuck what's hip, we're doing our thing for our people because we want to and we can.

As it's been relayed to me, Calgary generally has trouble getting touring bands to stop there. It's in the middle of nowhere, and not anywhere along the touring circuits. Cities near the US border, like Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, have better luck, as bands touring up or down the US coasts can just keep going. Calgary, though, is mostly shit out of luck—the equivalent of living in Montana, Nebraska or Wyoming, their just aren't a lot of bands coming through. So when they do—or when they can make it happen—they goddamn go for it, and everyone's invited.

That first night—Wednesday—I saw a number of bands, and two stood head and shoulders above the rest: Birdstriking and Juan Wauters.


Birdstriking are from Beijing, and I think they're the first Chinese band I've ever seen. But goddamn, it wasn't novelty; these four dudes have got it—charisma, skill, and infectious energy. Their songs were all major chord blasts, kind of like Diarrhea Planet's posi-rock without the schmaltz and theatrics. Every player was slyly sharp, and they whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Afterwards fans lined up for high-fives and to buy them beers. If the logistics of being a band from Beijing will allow, these dudes could kill it on the American circuit.

Juan Wauters

The second gem was Juan Wauters, a New Yorker by way of Uruguay. He is—and I say this with absolute reverence and measured respect—the second coming of Jonathan Richman. Like Richman, Wauters is almost effortless in achieving something others could never dream of: dropping the walls between people. It's as if somewhere naiveté got short-circuited and electrified to the point where seemingly obvious truisms take on profound new meaning and gravity. Indeed, Wauters is a cure for depression better than any pill. Hooky, with a higher, more cutting voice than Richman, Wauters and his marvelous, minimalist band manifested life's most earnest joys.

I took yesterday a bit slower. For my taste, the day's schedule was the least essential in terms of artists I wanted to see. With a crew of publicists and other journalists, I plowed into a teeming tray of barbecue (a Calgary mainstay), then trundled off to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who helped curate this year's fest.

But barbecue and Godspeed don't mix. Truth be told, though, even on an empty (or more properly nourished) stomach, Godspeed and I were worlds apart. There's a time and a place for meandering, slow builds, and a festival where the sun is still up, leaking through the windows of the church where they played, is certainly not it. At least not for me.

The crowd was reverent, though, a sea of earth-tones and B.O. It struck me as kind of strange: as anti-symbol as Godspeed seem to be, they've also become one. I'm also confused how their populism somehow excludes the music from pretension. I dunno. Back-patches.

In my quest to see Canadian bands and bands I've never seen before, I trekked around and saw a few—again, they were mostly heavy. Bog Bodies stood out, they were completely insane hyper-junk. Two guys, on guitar and bass, playing along to beats from an iPhone that must've been upwards of 200 BPM. Not a word of the screeching gnarl was audible, but the theatrical singer and bassist (playing a BC Rich Warlock) embraced the absurdity of it all. Again, another band that no mainstream American festival would ever entertain.

Later I saw Obnox, a Cleveland garage-punk band with a modern twist: samples, a turntable, and a laptop. Mostly, the samples were used as sub-bass hits, though there were moments of dirty, mangled beats that the singer rapped over.

I capped the night with Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitarist from Agadez, Niger. His trio was thumping, buzzing and energetic. They had one speed: top. And though the songs bore a striking sameness, their bright electricity abounded. Godspeed gathered, hippies danced, and one proffered a pouty lip when told to put his flip flops back on. Still, he got right back to wiggling.

Mdou Moctar