Calgary's Festival Season Started Its Thaw with BIG Winter Classic 2024

With Sunny War, Lost Decade, NYSSA, DEBBY FRIDAY, Meule, Sunglaciers and Battles

BY Em Medland-MarchenPublished Feb 1, 2024

Calgary’s summer-winter cycle of booms and busts sometimes makes it feel like two different cities. The chaos and adrenaline of its annual cowboy cosplay convention turned music festival, squashed between the city’s more alternative Sled Island and Calgary Folk Music festivals, is punctuated by the heat of summer, long nights by the river and endless cans of craft beer. When the cold snap of winter descends on the city, so too does a recognizable lull in Calgary’s music festival scene, a period of hibernation from September to December that is only broken by the coming of a new year. That, and BIG Winter Classic, taking place this year from January 24-28. With the arrival of BIG, the defrosting of Calgary’s festival scene begins.

A winter refuge for locals eager to discover their next favourite underground artist, BIG matches their in-the-club vibe with a bold and future-forward lineup that features impressive musical talent from Canada and beyond. This year’s collection of headliners — recent Polaris prize winner DEBBY FRIDAY, indie legacy experimentalists Battles, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sunny War, and Toronto pagan-meets-punk-poet NYSSA, among others — is equally ambitious and flashy, a crew that screams “BIG.”

From industrial R&B to dream pop and shoegaze, post-punk and post-hardcore to experimental rock, rootsy folk and everything in between, the kaleidoscopic nature of artists can make the festival itself seem a bit unfocused. Look harder, and you’ll realise it’s more of a refocusing from one talent to the next, a swivelling spotlight that for a moment lights up your next discovery before moving on.

The DIY nature of the festival lends it a curbside appeal that crosses generations, as Calgarians from all walks of life trickled into the festival’s local venues. The neighbourhood block style format is perfect for a festival of BIG’s size and scope. From the cozy, firelit patio of Last Best Brewing & Distilling to the recently facelifted dive bar Modern Love and their upstairs patio that looked like it came straight from the set of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the proximity of each venue allowed for plenty of spot hopping. Amongst the excitement, here are a few highlights as Calgary’s music scene emerged from hibernation.

January 25

Lost Decade



Lost Decade takes the cake for best local discovery. Warming up the Last Best patio on Thursday night, the three-piece wowed the intimate crowd with rock-solid vocals and danceable synths. Paying homage to a legacy of ‘80s and ‘90s synthwave, Lost Decade had no problem getting the crowd to bump and groove to their tracks “Nightlife” and “Baby It’s You”. The liquid, soul inspired vocals of Chenelle Roberts were a standout, supported by the plucky brightness of Brandon Smith and Derek Leugner on keys. Relatable lyricism and catchy melodies are the glue that sticks Lost Decade together, a Calgary-based favourite that will transport you instantly to another time and place — perhaps one where you’re dancing around in socks in your childhood bedroom with a pink hairbrush microphone.

Sunny War



There was a lull in energy as the crowd that was drawn for Lost Decade danced their way out the doors and on to the next venue. After a brief set break, the humble Sunny War stepped up to the stage, acoustic guitar in hand. With no introduction, she simply began to play, and it was the pure integrity of her sound that drew a chiller, folkier bunch her way. Songs came and went as her fingers danced across the strings, matched by a powerful voice that spoke universal truths about gaining hope, experiencing loss, missing friends and losing control. As she played 2020’s “Can I Sit with You?,” the front of the crowd sat down with the heat of the Last Best patio fire at their backs; “I think I grew a little bit taller up here,” she grinned to whistles and applause.




Pagan-punk-poet NYSSA delivered a captivating vocal performance to close out Thursday night at BLOX Arts Centre. The Toronto-based songwriter howled laments and conjured spirits in a sleeper set that demanded attention. Performing “Go Away Evil” with “Mandinka”-like energy, NYSSA cast spells on stage in perfect harmony with her partner vocalist. Their on-stage magnetism had the entire crowd gyrating at the altar of the witch queen.

January 26




Local indie darlings meet a post-punk dreamscape in Sunglaciers, the Calgary band that just keeps on giving. Opening early Friday night at Commonwealth, the city’s hardest working four-piece used the opportunity to deliver a set brimming with new material. Never one to shy away from experimentation, lead vocalist Evan Resnik jockeyed between guitar, mic and keys while sharing the outpouring of tracks that had kept them busy in the recording studio during the long winter months — the group recently announced their third album Regular Nature will arrive on March 29 via Mothland. It's the band’s commitment to continual transformation that makes them one of Calgary’s finest underground acts.




Throughout the festival, there was buzz surrounding the recently crowned Polaris winner DEBBY FRIDAY and her arrival in Calgary — the bunker-like BLOX Arts Centre was packed for the performance. BIG Winter Classic’s DIY stage set, a series of pillowy, colourful fabric borrowed from last summer’s Frog Fest, towered over a painting inspired by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, drenched in blood-red light. Descending the steps of the venue in a black lace ensemble and her finest white boots, FRIDAY was the picture of a goth pop queen. It was the perfect setting to witnessher intoxicating blend of industrial R&B, an undoubtedly catchy and equally horny affair that utterly hypnotised her audience. Performing nearly the entirety of last year’s GOOD LUCK, FRIDAY matched her vocal ability with booming industrial tracks and earworm-worthy beats. The guts of BLOX Arts Centre quaked as FRIDAY took things to the next level with “HOT LOVE,” then slowed them back down again for “SO HARD TO TELL.” Between songs she toyed with her audience, seeming unsure at first at the prospect of performing in Calgary for the first time. But as the city’s notoriously friendly crowd egged her on, FRIDAY let her award-winning brand of strangeness fill the venue.

January 27




Saturday night at Dickens was packed to the gills for French rock experimentalists Meule. Squeezing in to bear witness to the international three-piece, the energetic crowd was treated to an eclectic mix of drums, strings and synths brought together by band members Valentine Pedler, Léo Kapes and Dorris Biayenda. Their fourth member, an impressively enormous modular synth, replete with colourful patch cables and glimmering knobs, loomed over the stage like an always watchful third eye. Pedler stood at the bow of the three-pronged arrangement, commencing synth wizardry with the turn of a knob and flick of a switch, while occasionally stepping back to bust out a guitar riff. Colourful flashes on a projector behind them fell somewhere between analog glitch and a thematic reference to their 2021 self-titled debut album. The everpresent duelling drumming of Kapes and Biayenda brought the set to a climactic fever dream as the crowd purred and danced, a feast for the ears of every audiophile in the audience.




Who doesn’t love a couple of indie boys plunking away on synths and smashing on drums? The New York two-piece Battles continued the feverish energy conjured by Meule at Dickens on Saturday night, acting as a crowning finale to BIG’s colourful eclecticism. Ian Williams transitioned between keys and guitar, matching the driving energy of John Stanier on drums as the pair enraptured the crowded faithful. Williams seemed initially unsure of the city, forgetting when they last performed in Calgary, but later on suggested an enduring artistic relationship between cowtown and New York. Blistering through classic  hits from their 2010s discography, the shuffling earworm “Atlas” was a highlight of the evening that took the performance to frenetic new heights. The controlled chaos of the oft-unhinged sound shook the walls of the basement bar, sweat dripping and shoulders bumping. Few bands could conjure such a spirited response, let alone a band of two, but Battles proves that it doesn’t take an army to win the war.

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