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Photos by Mariah Wilson

Dispatches from Sled Island

By Troy Hasselman, June 25 2019 —

Sled Island has come and gone for another year. The annual festival where venues across the downtown core plays host to artists both local and international, up-and-coming and established. Sled Island has becoming something like a Holiday akin to Thanksgiving or Christmas for myself. Here’s how it went for me this year.

Wednesday

After having picked up my pass from the Fairmont Palliser at about 7:30 in the evening I made my way to the Central United Church in hopes of catching Cass McCombs’ set. No dice. The church was already well at capacity and the line of hopefuls waiting to get in stretched long down Seventh Avenue. I was given an early reminder of the cardinal rule for all Sled passholders: Capacity is no joke, show up early.

“Your One and Only” art exhibit. // Photo by Yasmine Elsayed.

Not letting this set-back bring me down I made my way to The Palomino which acts as a home base for so many during the days of the festival. From there, I hung out on the main floor and caught sets from Montreal’s Chris Hauer, local surf-rockers Window Lamp and psych-funk from Edmonton’s Squids.

From there I made my way to the Palomino basement where I caught the end of the set from Vancouver post-punks Bored Décor before headliner Chandra came on. Chandra ran through tracks from her EP’s that were originally released when she was just 12 years old. In the intervening years, she hasn’t lost any of the childlike exuberance that fuelled this work, excitedly shouting her lyrics and dancing as the crowd followed suit as the Palomino basement was transformed into a dance party. I briefly spoke to Chandra after the performance and she noted how many people were singing along to her music, showing the large cult following that her work has gained.

After Chandra I made my way upstairs to catch the rest of the set from local noise-punks Calisthenics. They ran through their loud and fast songs for a rowdy mosh pit that matched the chaos of their music, bringing a fitting end to a chaotic and energetic first night of the festival.

Thursday

Thursday night began for me at the National Music Centre where I caught Montreal cellist and composer Justin Wright as he incorporated elements of modern classical, ambient and electronic music into a unique and captivating set that gained an ovation from the capacity audience. 

From there Ukranian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk came on and spoke of his ideas on music theory and his concept of continuous music. Continuous music is Melnyk’s piano technique in which he plays quick and complex note patterns that create a unique harmonic effect that almost sounds like a drone. Melnyk may without hyperbole be the greatest musician I’ve ever seen perform. I’ve never seen an artist with such a level of effortless mastery over his instrument. His pieces would average twenty minutes in length but would seem to float by in seconds as his hypnotic playing style had me transfixed throughout his performance. 

Following Melnyk, fearing breaking the cardinal rule of Sled Island passholders for the second night in a row, I hailed a taxi to Commonwealth Bar & Stage on the other end of downtown and managed to make it in to see JPEGMAFIA in what was one of the most hyped sets of the festival. Before JPEGMAFIA came a set from Calgary rapper Jae Sterling that featured a guest spot by Calgary rap duo Cartel Madras, fresh off being signed to Indie superlabel Sub-Pop in one of their last performances in Calgary before moving to Toronto. This brought the energy level in Commonwealth to a fever pitch as the crowd ferociously danced and moshed along to their set, leaving the headliner with a tough act to follow.

JPEGMAFIA did manage to follow this set after making a nondescript entrance in which he quietly walked onstage in a hoodie, set up his laptop and fiddled with it for a few minutes while vaping before bursting into his first song. JPEGMAFIA’s stage presence is akin to watching a caged tiger that’s trying to break out. He ran, screamed, charged and jumped through his set as the audience followed his lead and didn’t let up the sky-high energy level for a moment during his forty five minute set. The pit in front of the stage was absolutely relentless and vicious throughout and by the time the set was over I was head-to-toe soaked in perspiration and water from the frequent dousing of the audience that JPEG gave to the sweat-drenched and overheating audience. The set was both terrifying and absolutely mesmerizing as JPEGMAFIA fully lived up to the promise of an energetic and cathartic set from one of the most unique and enigmatic figures in music.

Friday

After the chaos and experimentation of the acts on Thursday, I was in the mood for a good old fashioned indie rock show so I made my way down to the Palace Theatre for the double bill of Bully and Hop Along. 

Bully played a fierce set of ‘90s indebted alt-rock with clear references to Hole, Nirvana and Bikini Kill in their music. The crowd moshed and sang along enthusiastically in a solid set from the up and coming indie rockers. Following Bully came Hop Along which made a softer and more rhythmic type of indie rock that was both danceable and melodic at the same time with Frances Quinlan’s vocals sounding pristine in the live setting and the band elevating the tracks from their studio versions into more energetic jams with impressive guitar work from Joe Reinhart. The crowd added to the joyful atmosphere of the set with the audience dancing and singing along to Quinlan’s lyrics and melodies, overtaking her on the outro refrain to “Well Dressed” in a strong headlining set from the group.

Following Hop Along I made my way across to the #1 Legion and caught the set from reunited ‘90s garage punks Oblivians. The set was the platonic ideal of a Legion show at Sled Island, played sloppily, but so fast that you don’t care and to an audience consisting mostly of sweaty people too drunk to notice their last drink was spilled in the mosh pit. The average age of a person in the mosh pit at this show was easily 20 years older than what I’d seen at any other show during the festival and really shows the wide age range that Sled Island has compared to other festivals with college students happily moshing along with people nearly old enough to be their parents.

Saturday

I was working a shift on Saturday night and sadly missed out on this night of the festival. Word is that The Comet Is Coming, Julien Baker and Cate Le Bon were all incredible but I can’t firsthand confirm that. 

Holy Drone Travellers at Commonwealth on Saturday. // Photo by Mariah Wilson.

With that, another Sled Island is in the books. The festival has become an annual tradition for myself and so many people that I know, where for a week you can hop from venue to venue to see an exciting up-and-comer, or an old favourite or be blown away by something you’ve never heard of before. That’s the beauty of this festival and I’m already counting down the days until the next one.

The Gauntlet is a media partner of Sled Island



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