Sled Island 2023 Was Everything It Needed to Be

With Mannequin Pussy, Sun Ra Arkestra, the Body, SPELLLING, Super Duty Tough Work, WAIT//LESS

Photo: Jesse Gillet

BY Clay GeddertPublished Jun 26, 2023

Once a year in Calgary, Alberta, as the carnival rides and truckloads of hay bales start making their way to town to mark the start of Stampede season, the alternative crowd gets one last hurrah at Sled Island. Before our streets are heavy-laden with cowboy boots, Wranglers, and ten-gallon hats, an otherwise fragmented alt scene converges on downtown Calgary for five days every June to show their true colours. 

During Sled, Calgary's downtown is transformed — a city usually clogged with pickups is instead cluttered with bikes, cowboy boots are swapped for Doc Martens, duallies are traded in for two wheels. Every street corner, handrail, bench and light post is ensconced in a labyrinth of bike locks. A haze of smoke billows from outside each venue and is transported across the downtown core by the C-Train (a vital transport network for festival goers) as Calgary's cigarette consumption per capita climbs. Sled Island 2023 was no exception, as more crowds than ever filled the streets and downtown venues for some of the finest music the city sees all year.  

Sled is always a big deal for Calgary music lovers, but this year felt more electric than recent editions. Queues spilled out onto the street for the most anticipated acts, with some shows reaching capacity as dozens still waited outside. The importance of showing up early to avoid getting bounced quickly became clear, but it was a good problem to have as the crowds brought a palpable energy to every venue. Whether it was hardcore, experimental, electronic, indie, rock, jazz or hip-hop, every niche had a gaggle of eager fans. For those wearing boots and all black, there were plenty of sweaty mosh pits to throw themselves into, and for those wanting a quieter experience, Central United Church housed a lineup of more contemplative acts. If the wide range of music wasn't enough, there was also the Ramsay block party, an artist showcase, a mobile skatepark, pig roast, and the list goes on — Sled is truly a community celebration. 

Essential to Sled's DNA is the guest curator role — one artist who acts as headliner and curator of a selection of artists that might not otherwise venture to Calgary. This year's curator was the visionary, genre-blending indie rock artist Bartees Strange, who collected an incredible blend of acts with the likes of Sen Morimoto, SPELLLING, Kaina, Gulfer, Maassai, Maneka, Pom Pom Squad and Helado Negro. The guest curator adds a sonic and cultural diversity to the festival that really elevates the experience, and Bartees Strange's taste brought a fresh and interesting perspective. 

Here are a few of the best things that Exclaim! saw at this year's Sled Island. 

June 21

Bartees Strange

Photo: Jesse Gillet

Genre-blending wizard Bartees Strange kicked off the festivities on Wednesday night. Familiar indie rock sounds were twisted by R&B and hip-hop influences and Strange's experience in hardcore bands; that experience proves so useful in riling up a crowd and maintaining energy — a critical role of the headliner. Strange was up to the task and then some. This was hardly a case of an audience warming up to an unfamiliar act — the reach of Strange's ineffable earworms was clear, drawing a young and hyped-up audience who showed major enthusiasm and had every word stamped onto their hearts. Strange operated with uninhibited freedom, and no genre or influence was off-limits; where many bands would get lost in the mayhem, Strange sounded like a harmonious celebration of everything that makes up his unique identity. 

June 22

Sun Ra Arkestra

Photo: Michael Grondin

Revered the world over, it was a tremendous surprise to see Sun Ra Arkestra on the bill for Sled Island. I'm not sure any other show at Sled brought so much excitement — many people found themselves lined up outside the venue as they reached capacity long before the band went on. Jealous eyes darted between patrons as the last few folks managed to trickle into the packed house. Luckily, Sun Ra Arkestra put on an extra-long set (for Sled standards), giving many of us the opportunity to gain access as the temperature inside the building reached near untenable levels, and some of those on the balcony decided to pack it in early. 

Central United Church was the perfect venue for the band from outer space as they carried on the tradition of their late leader and filled the beautiful hall with cosmic incantations this planet hardly deserves to hear. The band swung to-and-fro, and free jazz swirled in all the spaces in between. Inhibitions were swapped for intuition as each member played off the other, following each other's lead instinctively, letting the music take them wherever it may. Capped off by a moving standing ovation, we all walked out of Central United a changed people, forever altered by Saturn's gravity. 

Blackwater Holylight

Seeing Blackwater Holylight for the first time was like discovering post-rock as a teenager — lying on my back in my bedroom, blasting Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Rós, I felt like I could reach out and touch God. On Friday night at Dickens, I was taken back to that place. Trance metal filled all the dark corners of the venue (and our psyches) as the crowd found euphoric bliss under the weight of their tone. Blackwater Holylight felt like sonic ego death with a perfect balance of bliss and turmoil. Looking around, I saw faces lifted to the sky, eyes closed, arms outstretched — did I stumble back into church? Did someone spike the punch? Why isn't anyone moshing? All too soon, Blackwater Holylight had to reach their crescendo and complete their altar call, and we were on our knees begging for mercy. As the crowd stumbled outside, hearts warmed, arms goose-bumped, and teeth chattering, I heard everyone around me try to grapple with what they just experienced. As one Patron quipped, "That might be the best live show I've ever seen." 

The Body

The Rhode Island sludge duo were an absolute can't-miss on the Sled Island bill. Dickens hosted some of the best metal of the weekend, and the Body were a clear standout. While only sporting a meagre single guitarist and drummer, the Body still pushed out more raw sound and pure energy than almost any other act you could name. Amps groaned and wailed as though they were collapsing in on themselves like a dying star; skins clung to the drums with little hope of survival, and the air in the venue transformed into pure electricity. Sweat poured from the audience in a physical, cathartic release as even the seams of our clothes threatened to let go under the pressure of the Body's tone. Juxtaposing their punishing onslaught and strained wails were gentle, barely audible "thank-yous" between each track before another chug from a wine bottle to kick off the next song. Few people do sludge/doom like the Body, but no one is doing it like them with so few members. After seeing them live, there's little doubt they deserve their legendary status. 

June 23


Photo: Michaela Neuman

Coming from Oakland and making some serious waves was experimental pop artist SPELLLING. Mainly playing tracks from her most recent project, The Turning Wheel, Chrystia Cabral and co. put on a mesmerizing show featuring a mix of prog jazz and pop instincts at Central United Church. Her band were as tight as they come as a grand piano drove the energy forward while guitar pedal wizardry beeped and buzzed alongside a chugging and splashing back line. A balancing act between downtempo grooves, nearly operatic refrains, raunchy solos and new-wave bliss, there was no telling where SPELLLING was headed next. At the front of it all was Cabral, an ethereal and enigmatic leader, channelling pure flower child energy with her flowing dress and Stevie Nicks dance moves. As Cabral bobbed and weaved, so did the band, turning on a dime bar after bar like they'd done it a thousand times before. You couldn't ask for a better live band to support such an inspired talent as Cabral. 

Mannequin Pussy

Photo: Shannon Johnston

Easily one of the most anticipated shows for this year's festival was Philadelphia emo heroes Mannequin Pussy. The group has endured many changes over the years, but their sound remains as powerful as ever — experts of tension and release, Mannequin Pussy focussed more on the release side of the equation and delivered a punishing onslaught of fast and heavy punk songs, many of them a preview of their upcoming release. There was fire in their eyes as they thanked the Legion for hosting them in one breath, cussing out the monarchy in the next. "This song is about this, this song is about that, and this song is about who gives a shit. We're very grateful to be playing at the Royal Canadian Legion tonight, but fuck the fucking monarchy, fuck the Queen, and fuck the King." Ending on an unapologetic tune decrying police brutality led by bassist Colins Regisford, Mannequin Pussy made clear that they were more interested in Rage Against the Machine's approach than they were in rehashing relatable bubble grunge anthems. It was a charged and energetic set in front of a very eager audience — no one left disappointed, nor did they forget the message. 

Super Duty Tough Work

Photo: Em Medland-Marchen

"Golden era taste, current era based" is the mantra behind the genius of Super Duty Tough Work. Spinning up an engaging blend of '90s jazz-driven beats with an effortless flow, Super Duty Tough Work are not ashamed to pay homage to the greats that brought us here. With a seven-piece band putting in the work bringing earthy, splashing downbeat grooves with blaring baritone sax, sultry bass lines, and a drum kit not much bigger than a Little Tikes kit, fans of '90s era of hip-hop have little to complain about here. 

Positivity and gratitude oozed from the band as they personified the community vibe of the festival. Super Duty Tough Work asked politely that we treat each other with kindness and grace, and in return, they delivered some of the best throwback hip-hop tunes you'll find north of the border, proving that Winnipeg has some of the greatest talent this country has to offer.  


Photo: Shannon Johnston

The newly minted Vancouver punk band WAIT//LESS were an unexpected surprise, but stumbling upon great new bands is perhaps the best reason to attend a festival like Sled. As I waited for the hotly anticipated Mannequin Pussy, I found myself drawn from the smoke pit of the Legion to its top floor, where I could hear some exciting things happening. 

Upstairs I found blistering punk that felt like the British greats as they chugged from track to track in an all-out skate-punk sprint. Vocals growled from their bubbly leader while the band charged forward relentlessly. Their sound was utterly magnetic, and you could feel everyone in the venue being pulled toward the pit. Fists flew as the floor joists bounced a little too much for comfort, and the energy continued to ratchet upwards until it came to a rather abrupt halt when the bassist broke her E string(!), but I think everyone was too impressed to care about the speedbump, and shortly thereafter a new bass was found, and it was pedal to the metal once again. For the punk purist, WAIT//LESS is not to be missed.

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