I WAS SHARING a van with Vincent Mason, AKA Maseo of De La Soul. We were heading from the airport into Calgary, Alberta, on our way to the Canadian city's annual Sled Island Music and Arts Festival. "Every festival wants to be Coachella," said Mason. "They're becoming the same."
"This one," I said, "seems different."
"It's kind of like a little SXSW," Toody Cole would later tell me, with a grinning Fred at her side. The Coles performed in their stripped-down Fred and Toody guise at this year's Sled Island, which took place June 24 through June 28. "We played it before, a few years ago, and really liked the feel," Toody continues. "We like doing these kinds of things because it's one of the only times we get out to see new bands."
I agreed. Compared to the increasingly homogenous, big-money American summer festival circuit, Sled Island is something else. It is, to use another analog, like MusicfestNW before it joined the big-stage crowd. Like Musicfest in its heyday (or like Boise's Treefort), Sled Island takes place across the city in clubs and bars and patios. And, like Toody said, it's ideal for finding new music.
Roughly 80 percent of the bookings at Sled Island are Canadian. They're bands you probably haven't heard of and likely never will, at least in the US.
Sled Island distinguishes itself in other ways. It is not-for-profit, self-sustaining, and made possible by an army of volunteers. It exists in service of need. Where other Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto are able to book bands playing up and down the American coasts, Calgary is hundreds of miles from anywhere, an inconvenient stop that sees few tours come through.
Then there's the weather. The winters are dark, punishing, and long. Once the four-month summer arrives, with its warm temperatures and late-setting sun, Calgary's denizens are ready to explode.
And therein lies the bedrock of Sled Island's aesthetic: It's time to get out, revel, and burn off those excess energies. Most of the bands there do so by playing guitar—loudly. A significant amount of Sled Island's bookings are rock-based, from shoegaze to indie, garage to post-punk, sludge to thrash.
The 200-plus acts at the five-day event include a few representative outliers, including a small handful of rappers, electro DJs, and a few hybrid laptop-poppers. But make no mistake: Sled Island is a festival that celebrates guitar. Funk, R&B, and other, more rhythmic genres were missed.
But what it lacks in musical diversity, Sled Island makes up for by lowering the barriers to entry. Loads of weird, unknown, and/or undercooked regional acts took the stage, some performing only for a few friends. One band I saw, Bog Bodies, were hilariously, punishingly bizarre. The duo, from Calgary, melted shreddy blast-core over 200 BPM sonic-speed, electronic hyper-junk. Every song began with blaring beep click-in, as if counting down to nuclear annihilation. The singer and bassist, sardonic and wide-eyed, sashayed with legs akimbo, embracing the absurdity.
There were, of course, well-established marquee acts—like De La Soul, Yo La Tengo, and Television—as well as popular up-and-comers like King Tuff and Calgary's own Viet Cong. But for the most part, I set aside the familiar in hopes of feeding discovery. The stickiest of those new finds were Birdstriking and Juan Wauters.
Birdstriking are a four-piece from Beijing, and probably the only Chinese band I've ever seen. They're similar to Diarrhea Planet with warm, wavy blasts of anthemic, celebratory rock, but trade earnestness for schmaltz. They are sharp, charismatic, deft, and hardworking. If the group, featuring members of P.K. 14 and Carsick Cars, can leap the logistical hurdles, it's not hard to imagine Birdstriking coming soon to a Coachella-clone near you.
Juan Wauters, from New York by way of Uruguay, probably won't be playing any big-tent festivals soon, but it's just as well. He's best up close. Effortlessly wielding an unpretentious, sparkling charm, Wauters works with marvelous melodies and a sweet, stupefyingly simple yet wall-breaking way with words. His peppy, all-inclusive folk tunes recall the seminal Jonathan Richman. (Wauters is playing in Portland this week; see Up & Coming, pg. 19.)
I also saw Denmark's Iceage for the first time, and left wondering if they weren't more than a put-on. "[Singer] Elias (Rønnenfelt] kicked me in the face," boasted one sweaty twentysomething to a friend afterward, as if flying a flag of honor. "He also kneed me in the face!"
Then there was Television, who headlined the outdoor stage on Saturday. I was dubious, as I am of most nostalgic acts—the payoffs rarely match the myths. The group, three-fourths of which recorded Marquee Moon, stuck wholly to the first record (pre-encore), closing with the titanic title track. Rather than flirt as entertainers, the 2015 version of Television focused on dutiful execution and played the hits. They sounded tremendous—particularly drummer Billy Ficca—though they weren't much to witness.
In the grass at Olympic Park I found a young man lying prone on his back, eyes closed and feet tapping. Rather than lean in or expect too much, he let the sounds wash over him. He had the right idea.
Television was a soft, smooth peak, at least as far as festival closers go. While the rest of Sled Island's guitars were a little more combustible, Television's current iteration is a bit reminiscent of Canada itself: safe, dutiful, relaxing, and polite.