Where else but Sled Island could anyone see ginger-haired Santa Claus look-alikes imploring people to dance, toothbrush humping cartoons courtesy of Chad VanGaalen and a group of dudes in marching band outfits talking about growing moustaches? While Virgin Festival may have strived for big, epic rock, Sled Island actually brought the musical goods.
The first show of note was the first of the festival, a smaller affair Tuesday with Los Angeles art-punkers No Age at Broken City. Guitarist Randy Randall tried his damndest to do the most epic of moves in the rock repertoire--including attempting a jump off a speaker that looked more like an awkward hop. He was best standing and tearing chords out of his guitar. Drummer Dean Spurt, soaked in sweat, was a living testament to No Age's live show chops.
After the great start to the festival, day two was even better. Grizzly Bear, backed up by Calgary's own Kris Ellestad and Woodpigeon, did a mind blowing performance replete with gob-smacking musicianship--Chad VanGaalen later raved about bassist/clarinet player Chris Taylor's talent--ethereal instrumentation and rapturous vocal harmonies. Calgary fans, spoiled as is, weren't prepared for the continued onslaught of fantastic acts. Two hours later, L.A. noise-punk outfit the Mae Shi took to the Broken City stage. The entire band moving through the crowd melted faces and brought the audience right into their music. With smiles all around, the band cut their set short and implored the audience with one simple request, "Dan Deacon delayed his concert so you guys could see our show. Go over there now, because that's where we're going."
The Mae Shi were spot-on in their assessment: Deacon was one hell of an act. With his trademark strobe light skull-on-a-stick and glitched-out electronica, nothing stopped the portly DJ from ending the most epic night of the festival right. Deacon conducted the audience through acts like dance tunnels and high five marathons--leaving everyone at the show with a big grin and a pair of loudly ringing ears.
Thursday night featured Chad VanGaalen in the Telus Science Centre's Discovery Dome, the only way to recharge after the madcap Wednesday night. With a dose of good humour and his typically shy stage presence, the one man band played some new tunes from his forthcoming album and showed off a DVD of his tripped-out animation in the expansive dome. If the new songs are any indication, another Polaris nomination is not far off for the lanky VanGaalen.
The Thursday cooldown was replaced with Friday's main stage extravaganza. Beans, New York's own motor-mouthed rapper, started off the main stage with an incredible show and flow. Later on the indie rock vets Yo La Tengo, Calgary's own Tegan and Sara and Broken Social Scene brought the main stage to a thunderous rapture. While the indie kids owned the main stage, there was definitely an undercurrent of hip-hop flowing through the city. Centre Street was the place to be as local heroes Dragon Fli Empire played in the Palomino while the legend himself, the RZA as Bobby Digital dominated the other side of Seventh Avenue at the Grand Theatre.
If there ever was an event where hedonism and spectacle reigned supreme, the RZA/Digital show was it. Getting the crowd worked up with statements like, "It's a man's world, but it ain't nothing, nothing, nothing without a woman," and covering them in champagne, the RZA generally proved to everyone why you don't fuck with the Wu-Tang.
Saturday was the most hectic day as everyone rushed to get in all the amazing acts that came to Calgary. Mogwai ruined everyone's hearing with their main stage set and Jonathan Richman--the most surprisingly charming act of the festival--made many boys and girls very happy with his wholesome and quirky display. The two-man force of nature that is the Dodos gave Calgary a small taste of their awesomeness. Later on, even the most crusty and stern-faced hipster attempted to dance when they played the Legion. Bend Sinister and Beija Flor closed out the night at Broken City with suitably epic sets. As the bars and clubs shut their doors for Sled Island, the taxi system got one hell of a workout.
Sled Island proved to be one of the most non-spectacle music-driven festivals that Calgary is ever going to experience. There were bands for everyone and the venues managed to keep everything going without a hitch. If Sled Island can book even more and better acts for next year, the cool kids of Calgary will all be trying to find the latest Brett Hull GT to ride down the awesome audio hills next summer.