By Paul McAleer, Sebastian Buzzalino, Matty Hume, Keeghan Rouleau, and Jamie McNamara
June 22nd, 2018, CALGARY —
It would be hard for Sled Island organizers to find an all-around better fit for the festival than San Francisco art rock legends Deerhoof. Much like the festival, the band has built a reputation for finding a sweet spot between avant garde experimentalism and pure pop celebration. Their headlining set at the Royal Canadian Legion on Friday was no different, resulting in one of the best curator sets at Sled in recent memory. Early set highlight “Paradise Girls” from 2014’s La Isla Bonita, had the packed main room at the Legion bouncing and singing along with singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki. The band also made quick work of singles from their 2017 album Mountain Moves, resulting in some of the set’s most straightforward, danceable songs from the band’s somewhat impenetrable 14 album discography. It’s hard to express just how intoxicating it is to watch Greg Saunier drum. Saunier is one of the most expressive drummers you’ll ever see, like a percussive recipe that is equal parts “Funky Drummer” breakbeats and Buddy Rich on amphetamines. He makes more use of a two piece drumset than most drummers do with five, commanding the herky-jerky, start-stop breakdowns the band is known for with an ear that could only come from doing this for over 20 years. Deerhoof have always been known to put on the kind of show that would make anyone in attendance into a lifelong fan. It’s safe to say they renewed some lifetime memberships last night.
After their rousing set at the Palomino on Thursday, and tucked inside due to the torrents outside, Bat Fangs were ready for their victory lap in Calgary. Broken City was packed, sweaty, dank, and ready for a clinic in perpetual power-pop perfection. Having already crushed the Broken City stage a couple of years ago as Ex Hex, Bat Fangs’ show last night felt like a return to a dream that festivals are made of. It was the kind of set that, like this weekend, you never want to end.
By the Friday of Sled Island, most attendees are split into two camps: the ragged, and the beautiful. Thankfully, weary and wonderful alike come together at Mint Records’ yearly showcase, a time to recharge and discover what the brilliant minds behind the label have in store this year. Fan favourites, Faith Healer, are a mainstay of the showcase by now and for good reason: Jessica Jalbert’s songwriting is flawless, life-affirming, and she makes it look altogether too easy, like your friend who seems to subsist exclusively on sunlight and whiskey.
Soft Cure started out their set by decking out the floor (and ceiling) of the palomino with pastel accessories. Balloons laden everywhere they could find to put them, fisher price telephones on the floor, and a small wooden dollhouse adorned table in front of the stage. The stage-setting goes a long way to introduce their dream-like sensibilities. Even before they started playing their jangly, fast and loud guitar tracks, they had our attention. Every time we’ve seen Soft Cure it has been more exciting than the last time, and always a set to remember.
When the lead singer of an experimental punk band moshes by himself at 5pm to a crowd of maybe forty people, screaming his head off and pushing the audience back while the band frantically tries to keep up, you might ask yourself. “Wow, how did I get here?” But after a few minutes, once the pattern has settled, the nuance of the rest of the band becomes apparent. The rhythm section had excellent chemistry, and the guitarist’s throbbing chords were technical and deliberate. Once the chaotic scene at the Palomino you showed us it’s wiring, it became clear that even though sparks were flying, the circuits were making contact.
“Sled is good this year — it’s cool that rock ‘n’ roll is fucked up and loud gain,” Shearing Pinx drummer and vocalist JV Dub told BeatRoute after his set. Not only is he right on all fronts, but the Vancouver trio is leading the charge. Dub is joined by Nxc Hxghxs on guitar and Isabel Ford on the bass, collectively delivering harsh and jarring, yet never inaccessible, noise punk that hits all the right notes (even the ones you didn’t even know a guitar could actually make). The energy upstairs in the Palomino was such that the crowd could have been Play-Doh in their hands, stretching slow tempos and drones before smashing it all back together with full-tilt licks. Shearing Pinx were stylish maestros of controlled chaos. The front batch of the crowd pushed and jumped with all their might, but could never outshine Koke’s onstage shakes and hops, bass-guitar and all.
If it wasn’t for the playful interactions between effects-saturated guitarist and vocalist Chip King and drummer Lee Buford, The Body’s earth-shaking extreme metal experimentations would be a haunting memory burned into the psyche of the Palomino’s sold-out crowd. Pass holders who didn’t camp in the basement early enough found themselves in a venue-spanning line to enter, well before the duo even took the stage. The Body is unrelenting, and the wrecking-ball of low-tone destruction could be felt underneath the feat of everyone waiting to experience it first-hand. Buford’s drums pounded with unbelievable weight, every kick of the bass drum pushing us back like a hurricane wind. King turned every string of his guitar into impossibly grand choirs of the unholy and doomed. In front of the stage, a mass of bodies constantly shoved like a sullen tide, spilling onto the stage as hell exploded from King’s amp. Now we are The Body, and each of us is a part of it.
While rainy days can make traversing between venues during Sled Island a bit of a chore, the weather was perfect for Grouper’s mesmerizing set at the National Music Centre. Performing to a sold-out crowd, Liz Harris did not say anything as she tuned her instruments and settled in. The music spoke volumes in her place: drones and celestial vocal loops washed over the audience, enveloping them in a storm of noise that was simultaneously hopeful and heartbreaking. Harris did not accompany the show with visuals, but her performance was naturally enchanting. She recreated the melancholic atmosphere of her recorded material from the ground up using live instrumentation, solidifying her spot at the top of the ambient genre. The career-spanning setlist flowed naturally from one song to the next, covering the spacey stillness of Alien Observer to the heartbreaking, piano-driven ballads of her latest release, Grid of Points. Since 2005, all of Grouper’s records have been met with critical acclaim because of their transformative power, separating body from mind and throwing thoughts to a state of deep introspection. Time seemed to stand still during the set, but as soon as Harris closed things off with a thick cloud of distortion, the clock propelled forward and the show was over. As the audience celebrated the performance with a loud applause, Harris left the stage in the blink of an eye. Just like that, she was gone, but her music still lingered in the atmosphere even as the lights came on and the crowd shuffled out the door.
Who knew that a man who constantly blows snot rockets onto the ground mid-set could make you feel so jovial and loved? Everyone who’s ever been to a BA Johnston show knows, and his Tubby Dog show was the 11th nugget in a 10 piece chicken nugget meal — you didn’t know needed it, but you’ll be telling everyone you know how happy that greasy wad of meat made you feel for at least a month. “This’ll be the longest 40 minutes you’ve ever spent it a hot dog restaurant,” he belted at the top of the set. That jokes always lands, but he could have played for 40 days without losing a single body from the Tubby cohort. He looked at his hand to check what city he’s in every time he said ‘Calgary,’ he played backtracks off of a Discman, which he referred to as everything from a “Blackberry Passport” to a “JPEG.” He took off a jacket and four shirts citing the temperature of the deep fryers in Tubby as the problem, walked behind the bar and gave vodka to the staff and wrapped ecstatic fans in his mic cord. It’s the same set and bits he’s been doing for years. But not only does it never get old, it’s constantly getting better, like a rank chunk of Canadian cheese. Through this sweaty jester’s self-depreciating misery, everyone left Tubby Dog with childlike joy in their hearts and mustard on their face. He generates joyful comradery, and even took his encore outside to 17th Ave. so the city could have a hot slice of the fun.