Though every band and his dog had a gig in Lethbridge this past weekend, I couldn’t resist checking out the third annual Sled Island Music and Arts Festival in Calgary for the first time.
Several local bands were playing at the festival, sometimes described as being similar to South By Southwest in Austin. It’s not quite comparable — yet — but it has potential.
In Austin (I've experienced South by Southwest for the past two years) they have the main strip— sixth street, which is just silly with bars. Live music of every genre you could imagine blasts from every single bar on the strip, some affiliated with the extremely expensive south by southwest festival which also includes kick ass panelists a killer trade show and free parties everywhere, others with various competing festivals, and still others holding open mics like they always do whether there is a festival happening around them or not. You can’t move in the streets for the hordes of crazy cats swarming in and out of all the bars, in a spirit of wacky camaraderie you can only find in a city where musicians swarm to like flies to horse apples. There’s buskers and bands setting up on the street and a plenitude of smells of delicious food waft through the air. They even close off Sixth Street so music (also film and techies) lovers don’t have to dodge traffic. In short South by South West is akin to a religious experience for music geeks from all over the world.
Sled Island? I didn’t get that vibe at all. Granted this was my first time, but on first look at the program, I planned my festival around the specific bands I wanted to see. The Lethbridge bands were a priority —the Myelin Sheaths, the New Danger Kids, the Square Waves (who had to cancel due to personal reasons) and Endangered Ape (who I missed because they played mid-week, and I couldn’t get up there until Friday) and The Moby Dicks (who I missed because they were playing all the way across the city right after the Sheaths’ set — I still don’t know how Sheaths’ guitarist Joel Butler made it in time to drum and sing for the Moby Dicks).
The other band who were a must see were Vancouver’s Swank, who had a Friday night gig at a neat venue called the Stetson, which was about 10 km away from everything else. The point is when venues are so far apart, you lose a lot of time and music in transit. In Austin, I learned sometimes you could have a great experience by just parking yourself in one bar and letting the music come to you. Plus many bands played multiple times during South by Southwest. This year Antones was the bar of choice, though it is also a venue off the main drag, but at least you could walk to it.
So I took a similar tact at Sled island. On Saturday night I parked myself at Dicken’s Pub (also a really cool basement underground venue) to see the Sheaths’ energetic and fun show of garage punk. My sister, who was with me was shocked by the $30 cover they wanted for that show which also included a loud and energetic set of girl-powered metal from Edmonton’s Jezibelle, The Ex-Boyfriends, Lint and the Liars, who were the big draw, though I couldn’t make it to the 1 a.m.start time. So we left for for The Lord Nelson, a couple blocks away where the cover for non wristband holders was more reasonable). I hit that venue early before the Sheaths’ short, loud and fun set to ostensibly see the Square Waves, but instead caught an interesting Austin based guitar/ bass/ computer duo called Before Dawn, who were playing synth-hook filled dance music to an indifferent crowd.
I went back to catch Boston’s the Main Drag, who had what turned out to be a packed house dancing to original synth laden, guitar powered dance rock. I missed their Lethbridge show the night before, so was glad to catch these budding Rock Band stars (their song “ A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” is featured in the game). They were fantastic, but the next band, Calgary’s Brenda Vaqueros blew me away. I haven’t seen a band that tight in a long time. They locked in and knocked off an energetic set of garage rock which showed what the Myelin Sheaths could sound like with a few more years experience. Colour me impressed. That alone was worth the trip up. That and Swank.
On Friday though, I started off at an unusual venue— the Plaza Theatre in Kensington, where the New Danger Kids were set up on the stage in front of the movie screen and good to go after Muchmusic madman, Nardwuar’s video vault part 1. Nardwuar himself was in his high pitched-squeaky voiced and hairy chested element, playing with the crowd, crowd surfing, asking them to give him back his chest hair and sharing some of his secrets of interviewing. He showed video clips of him interviewing and dumbfounding people like Katy Parry, the Kings of Leon, punk legends Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins and numerous others who were shocked by the amount of research Nardwuar put into his interviews, not to mention all of the rare records they and even the musicians’ parents had played on.
Nardwuar went MIA for a while, but showed up in time to introduce the New Danger Kids and was impressed so much by their tight emo tinged U2 styled ambience filled set that he asked them to do an encore, which they declined.
And here’s the cool thing about the Lethbridge scene— they were all out in force to support their own ( The New Danger Kids were out in force at the Sheaths’ show too). Members of the Myelin Sheaths were crowded in front of the stage. A certain member of the Moby Dicks towered over the bouncing masses. And they were done, a little too soon.They could have played forever, but it was time for some unusual garage rock from Edmonton’s Hot Panda who incorporated everything from weird keyboard sounds, an accordion and even a kazoo into their boisterous set. A New Orleans band called Quintron was setting up and Nardwuar’s own garage rock band the Evaporators were set to close off the evening, but I really wanted to see Swank and knew I had a long drive ahead of me to the south side of the city. God bless GPS systems.
I was not disappointed by the Stetson’s laid back pub-like atmosphere, which had a fantastic Winnipeg power-pop trio called the Sons of York playing when I got there. They had more hooks than a fishing tackle box, an abundance of energy and sing-along choruses. I was disappointed in the sparse crowd, though kind of glad to see Lethbridge isn’t the only place where people (in many cases) don’t show up for fantastic music.
Vancouver rednecks Swank was the band of the night just before midnight. They barely scratched the surface of all of the different genres they can play usually in the same song, but they played a couple of their rousing drinking songs off their latest CD “Campfire Psalms” including “Drunkards Damnation Jamboree,” and brought out some electric banjo and stand up bass for twisted gospel style songs “Hey Jeb,” “Coming To Your Town” and brought out some snarling Gretsch — styled rockabilly action for “Shoot at the Devil” and some really cool, punk edged new material.
Before the show singer Spencer McKinnon said the band was going to go through 50 new songs for a new CD in September and hope to be back in Lethbridge next year. They ended a way too short set with “How Do We Do” off of their CD “the Survival Issue.” So why do I rave about Swank? Let me count the ways. They play tighter than a drum skin, they have a warped sense of humour, they can play almost any genre of music from gospel to punk, to country, they put on a wild show and did I mention how hilarious they are? And they don’t hold back even when there are only a dozen people in the audience, though most of them were dancing. It’s all good.
In conclusion— Sled Island has a lot of potential, great music and cool venues, albeit spaced apart, but I miss the vibe of South by Southwest. I’d go back. For sure.
— Richard Amery, L.A Beat Editor