Published Jul 06, 2010The fourth iteration of Calgary's Sled Island feels like a coming of age, with the annual event becoming a destination on the Canadian festival landscape alongside NXNE and Pop Montreal. The organizers have a knack for scoring scheduling coups (year one featured Boredoms, Cat Power and Spoon), and with this year's roster featuring the Melvins, Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill and the GZA, the theme seemed to be "'90s nostalgia." But most festivalgoers were either old enough to remember these acts' heyday, or smart enough to realize that they should be paying attention. Nobody was complaining.
Sled's Wednesday night kicked off the proceedings with a number of must-see shows, beginning with Deerhoof at the Central United Church. Greg Saunier's drumming alone would be entertaining enough for an hour or two, but since said drumming also makes anyone with a pulse want to lurch around like an intoxicated draught horse, church pews may not have been the optimal seating arrangement. Vancouver's B-Lines brought their energetic punk to de facto festival headquarters Broken City, opening for another favourite, the lovably nerve-jangling Signals from L.A. Signals also played a show at the Legion, which included a Blink-182 cover and another song that just sounded like one. Another Wednesday highlight was Calgary ex-pats Braids from Montreal. These exceptionally talented youngsters are that rarest of creatures: a buzz band that are actually doing something unique. Their reverb-drenched choir of wailing, guttural sounds was heightened by the Arrata Opera Centre's acoustic environment.
Thursday started early with the Mint Records Piñata Party at Broken City, featuring the papier-mâché likeness of a certain human serviette (and Mint artist). Edmonton's Hot Panda played an energetic set featuring tracks from their upcoming full-length How Come I'm Dead. This was followed by Vancouver's Pack A.D., whose Ann Wilson-meets-George Thorogood blues rock seemed to draw an even bigger crowd in Calgary than in their hometown. The party closed with the Ramblin' Ambassadors, featuring former Huevos Rancheros guitar wizard Brent Cooper. Highlights from the evening included an excellent performance from Why?, who seemed pleased if a little taken aback by the rowdy Canada Day crowd, as well as Ty Segall (who played about eight times during the festival) and Chain and the Gang back at Broken City.
Friday and Saturday afternoons were dominated by the main stage events at Olympic Plaza, where Friday sets by the likes of Built to Spill and Girl Talk were only slightly marred by fickle weather. The story on Friday night, though, was the Melvins at Republik. These guys haven't changed the game plan much since emerging from the Pacific Northwest's primordial ooze sometime in the mid-'80s, but damned if there's anyone who does the sludgiest of sludge metal better. Their riffs overran the packed bar like an angry elephant: plodding, dangerous and unstoppable. Opening for the Melvins were fellow Seattle stoners Big Business, who were joined by Melvins drummer (and grunge godfather) Dale Crover on guitar for a couple of songs. Another hit was Mini Mansions, who plied their power pop wares on the tiny upstairs stage at the Legion, while the festival's one failure in the '90s nostalgia department, the frankly unlistenable Posies, crooned earnestly downstairs. Edmonton's underrated Whitsundays had a last-minute show at the Legion as well, and were fittingly joined onstage by a random fan in a creepy mask, as they played their creepy, theremin-laced '60s pop. Vancouver's MYTHS also did well in an early show across town at Dickens Pub, the duo's often polarizing avant-electro going over well.
Saturday was packed with shows that anyone worth their salt would want to see, leaving festivalgoers frantically charging around Calgary's thankfully compact downtown. The main stage included many of the festival's big names, including a headlining set by Dinosaur Jr., who, in addition to many classic tracks, played a Cure cover, and were then joined by Fucked Up's Pink Eyes on vocals for a cover of the classic "Chunks" by the Boston hardcore band Last Rights. Across town at Calgary's famous Tubby Dog, fans consumed weird pop and punk from Sans AIDS, Puberty and Gobble Gobble.
Later that night, the Fucked Up-curated portion of the festival went down both up- and downstairs at the Legion, turning the building into Calgary's largest sauna. A workmanlike set from No Age was followed by a long wait as festival organizers tried to track down the GZA, who eventually started playing about an hour behind schedule. Despite this and some technical difficulties, the Genius turned in a well-received performance that leaned heavily on crowd-pleasing Wu-Tang hits.
Meanwhile, the upstairs stage featured strong performances from Calgary's Hunter-Gatherer and Vancouver's Peace. Finally, 2009 Polaris Music Prize winners Fucked Up took the main stage at the Legion and made it clear that they may also be Canada's best live act - their three-guitar-bass-and-drums wall of sound provides a suitably monolithic backdrop for Pink Eyes' (né Damian Abraham), in all his shirtless, gravel-throated, Rabelaisian glory. There could be no better ending to such an important and exciting festival.