June 27, 2011

Sled Island recap

I've spent the last five days in Calgary listening to live music, complaining about scenesters, and staying up well past my bedtime. The Sled Island music and arts festival boasts over 200 artists hosted by twenty-odd venues scattered throughout downtown Calgary.

As with most large-scale festivals, scheduling conflicts are inevitable, so you've got to choose your venues carefully. I was sad to miss the lo-fi prestige of Thee Oh Sees and Times New Viking, as well as Kurt Vile's nostagia trip through the sixties, and pretty devastated to miss an unadvertised performance by Purity Ring (a little-known group from Edmonton that has only released two songs, each of which are among my favourite tracks of the year).

For every amazing performance there was a band that turned my stomach. For me, the worst of these were Crocodiles (a band I was excited to see) and the Dandy Warhols (a band I stopped caring about ages ago). The same level of self-aware coolness was common to both. Perhaps I saw Crocodiles at the wrong point in the evening, but for a group of musicians so wholly infatuated with themselves, I expected some musical inventiveness or some acknowledgment of the crowd that was lapping up their lacklustre homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain. Pretense is a given at festivals like this, but intoxicated crowds aren't going to let you off the hook for merely producing cool-sounding drivel (then again, I can't see how else anyone can enjoy the Dandy Warhols). 

On a different note, here's a sampling of some of the outstanding artists I got to see perform.

Blonde Redhead were hit and miss. I consider myself a relatively devoted fan, but I can't say I was totally impressed with their show. It was clear from the start that they were seasoned professionals with loads of talent, but their setlist kept losing momentum. Their old material shone but their most recent songs, especially from the unsuccessful Penny Sparkle didn't translate well into a live setting. 

Wild Flag were one of the festival's most pleasant surprises. Despite being comprised of legendary rock 'n roll babes from the nineties (members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders), they played every show like it was their first: unlike dismally trendy hipster acts (Crocodiles, for instance), the girls in Wild Flag had no sense of entitlement. Every song was a struggle to win over the audience.
"Glass Tambourine"

I wasn't sure what to expect with Twin Shadow, but they managed to transform the disco stylings of their studio album into successful arena rock.
"Castles in the Snow"

Parts & Labor, another great band I came into the festival knowing very little about, put on a noisy, high energy show that I had to cut short. Three songs in, I could see they were just getting started and I was sad to go. Scheduling, dammit!
"Fractured Skies"

Chad Vangaalen, as always, did not disappoint. He seemed characteristically awkward and uncomfortable on stage, which I wasn't expecting since he was playing for a hometown audience. Then again, it's that social anxiety that makes his stage banter so entertaining. His set was made up mostly of new material from the reverb-heavy Diaper Island, and I think the songs actually grew on me as I saw them being performed.
"Freedom for a Policeman"

Of Montreal were as advertised. Kevin Barnes doesn't have the class of David Bowie, but he's probably the closest thing our generation has to the thin white duke. I was thankful for a strong showing of material from Hissing Fauna, are you the Destroyer?, which I still consider their best to date. There were about half a dozen extras on stage during a given song, each one dressed like a flamboyant Mexican wrestler; and they provided the crowd with balloons, streamers, and all the libido they could handle.
"Coquet Coquette"

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