So, last weekend’s Sled Island festival was pretty solid. Sleep, The Sword, Dead Meadow, Bison B.C., Red Fang–I really can’t complain. Well, not about the lineup, anyways. But after defending Calgary as an affordable city to live in, I found out otherwise during my trip last weekend…
On Friday, I started off bright and early with a 9 o’clock flight outta Pearson. No problems there–not until I climbed into a cab at the Calgary airport. If you think taking a taxi in Toronto is expensive, try catching an airport cab in Calgary. The meter starts running at $6.40, and it’s programmed to add 20 cents to the fare every 135 metres. When you’re doing 100 clicks an hour on the Deerfoot, it’s kinda like watching the seconds go by on a digital clock while you’re talking on a phone sex chat line. The ride to my hotel on the edge of downtown cost me 34 bucks. Nice hotel, though. Just a couple blocks from Olympic Plaza–the main site of Sled Island–and I got a great deal on Priceline.com, which would turn out to be the only real bargain I’d find in Cowtown.
Alas, while the announcement of Sleep’s lone Canadian date in Satan-knows-how-long prompted an immediate plane ticket purchase from yours truly, I changed my flight just as fast when I found out that Dead Meadow was playing on Friday–at the ripe old hour of 1:30 pm. I wasn’t all that familiar with Local 510, a small pub on 17th Ave, but it seemed like the kinda place where I could head out there around noon to grab some grub before the gig. Good thinking. While eating a Cuban-style pork sandwich, I caught a couple other bands on the afternoon. The girl-punk band that was playing when I came in was pretty decent, but I wasn’t digging the dual-singer hardcore outfit that went on afterwards. Twas a bit of a strange bill, to be sure…
One note about the venue. This place isn’t really set up for full-band concerts. Maybe an acoustic gig or two, but that’s it. The bar is perfectly square, which makes for decent sightlines, cept that there are tables and booths right in the middle of the room. They evidentally cleared away some tables so that the bands could set up along a row of bench seating near the front entrance. There was no stage to speak of. Last couple times I saw Dead Meadow were at Lee’s Palace, capacity 500, with a five-foot stage. This gig was a lot more intimate–100 people packed the place, and it was definitely packed by the time they went on. Good thing I got there early!
The first thing I noticed about Dead Meadow was their new drummer. Well, new old drummer, that is. Gone is flamboyant hippie wildman Stephen McCarty, replaced by the ex-lawyer who played on their first two albums. He seems to fit the band better in terms of appearance, giving them all the look of a slighty-disheveled, psychedelic Fab Three. The trio was understandably subdued this afternoon, dressed in jeans and t-shirts instead of their more formal stage attire, and their set moved along at a mellow pace, ending with a lengthy instro jam that got my head nodding in approval. If you ever get the chance to catch Dead Meadow at lunchtime, I’d highly recommend it.
The Local gig ended around 2:30, which gave me time to get down to Olympic Plaza shortly before the gates opened at 3. There wasn’t that much of a line-up, mind you–and they didn’t actually open ’em for another half hour. But if you’re wondering how they hold an 80-bucks-a-head outdoor concert smack dab in downtown Cowtown, it’s by erecting large fences, covered by an opaque banner, to prevent non-paying onlookers. There were a few freeloaders gathered by the un-covered emergency exits, but they wouldn’t have had very good sightlines. Me, I was right up front for all the bands I paid to see.
I wouldn’t have put C’mon on that list, though, not after their lacklustre gig at the Horseshoe one week beforehand. To their credit, they put in a better performance this time around. Ian Blurton was a lot more low-key, keeping the between-song banter to a minimum and hiding his hair under a Saint Vitus hoodie. I’d even say that I liked a couple songs I heard, although they were played at the beginning of the set, not the end–interestingly enough.
On the other hand, I hadn’t seen Bison B.C. in over a year, not since they destroyed a packed B.S.C. at CMW 2010. I made sure to be front-and-centre for this one, and they put on another devastating performance. Only problem was that it was practically an instrumental set. From where I was standing, I couldn’t hear any vocals at all. I dunno if it was due to the placement of the speakers, which were beside, not on-stage, or if they simply turned all their amps to 11. By contrast, I could hear Ian Blurton clearly from the beer gardens, but I got fuck all from James Farwell and Dan And. Unfortunately, this issue would resurface later in the evening…
Now, the Buzzcocks are a pretty big deal, but on this bill, they stuck out like a sore thumb. That said, they were a few punkers, along with some older folks, who had clearly come to see ’em. Speaking of old folks, well, it’s safe to say that the band’s current rhythm section wasn’t around back in the day, cuz they were considerably younger than the two guitar players. The lead singer, in particular, looked downright grandfatherly, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he’s clearly pushing 60. Mind you, they still sounded pretty good, a welcome shot of three-chord, punk-rock adrenaline on a bill of heavy rock bands. They were given a 60-minute set, but I don’t think that anyone, including the stage manager, was expecting a three-song encore. There was quite a bit of commotion backstage, but the gig would get back on track later on, with Sleep taking the stage a couple minutes ahead of schedule.
I figured that anyone who’d be up front for The Sword would stay in place for Sleep, and my intuition proved to be correct. That’s why I staked out a spot up front before the Buzzcocks’ unexpected encore. I’m not a really big fan of The Sword–in fact, I haven’t even heard their new album, which isn’t all that new anymore–but I might be inclined to pick up Warp Riders after they started their set with a few new tunes. It seems they’ve moved away from the “metal” tag towards stadium-sized southern rock, and that’s a-okay by me. Mind you, they still ended the set with some older tunes that featured chugging, thrash-style riffage broken up by slow, heavy breakdowns. Seems like that’s what a lot of the crowd wanted to hear, judging by the reaction in the pit.
For the last two bands, the vocals were somewhat audible up front. Not as loud as they should have been, but you could kinda hear what The Sword and the Buzzcocks were singing. Unfortunately, Sleep was plagued with the same problem as Bison in that regard. I didn’t hear a single word from Al Cisneros’ mouth the entire set.
It probably didn’t help that I was standing right in front of Matt Pike–and his twin Marshall stacks–on the opposite side of the stage. Pike’s approach to both this, and last year’s reunion gigs, is the same as he takes to High On Fire, where he’s the stalking, menacing centre of attention–Cisneros is much calmer and Zen-like by comparison. And since I couldn’t hear the vocals at all, it was great to be able to see the fingering that Matt uses on those classic riffs.
I gotta say, those riffs speak for themselves. I filled in the blanks where I could, though my voice was hurting from the dry mountain air, so I’m definitely not complaining about the overall performance. The band played all of the same tunes as they did last year in Portland, albeit in a different order, opening with the first 25 minutes of “Dopesmoker”, which segued seamlessly into “From Beyond”. A somewhat lengthy tuning period followed, during which the soundguy could only shrug off Pike’s requests, before the band launched into “Dragonaut,” then back into “Dopesmoker” for a bit before “Aquarian” and “Holy Mountain” rounded out the set.
Only Pike left the stage before the encore, and he was doing something behind the amps (whether it was an instrument tune-up or taking his medicine, I couldn’t tell) while Cisneros led off with a bass solo into what kinda sounded like “Sonic Titan”. Incidentally, all the Bison B.C. dudes could be seen backstage, along with several other “festival VIPs”–including a guy who long-jumped off the stage and into the crowd during the last song.
A final note to anyone visiting Calgary in the early days of summer: If the daytime high is 18 degrees, and you’re going out at nite, you’d better bring a jacket. You’ll need it when the sun goes down, and the mercury drops 5 to 10 points. I managed to survive my two blocks back to the Delta Bow Valley, but the suckas who were stuck waiting for a C-Train probably wished they had layered up beforehand.
P.S.: Part two of my Sled Island recap will be posted next week, detailing a Saturday headlining spot for The Sword with some solid underground support. Stay tuned…