Sled Island’s setup is all about tradeoffs. On the one hand, you can jump from venue to venue and absorb all the festival has to offer quite easily. On the other, playing the nomad can be a gamble, as you may find yourself trying to get into a show that’s at capacity. But if you’re patient and stick around in one place for a few hours, the phenomenal curation becomes apparent. Acts play in groups of 3 or 4, and they always compliment one another. Is your favorite band headlining the show? Your new favorite band might be playing right before them. Here is a recap of the first day-and-a-half. If you're fond of one artist, odds are you'll be fond of the others.
Astral Swans, Marlaena Moore & Angel Olsen @ Central United Church
Nestled between the train line and what is soon to be the city’s tallest building, Central United Church is almost as old as Canada. It doubles as a concert hall on weekdays, and as you might expect, the acoustics are sublime. I can't speak to what it's like when it's fulfilling its intended purpose, but Central Community Church had a very open, collective vibe to it. Members of the unbelievably docile crowd were spilling into the aisle and lining the walls, politely awaiting each act. First we were treated to the wry, impish witticisms of local bedroom act Astral Swans, who is promoting his debut album All My Favourite Singers Are Willy Nelson. With a palette falling somewhere between folk and noise rock, it was a charmingly off-kilter set. After came the eruptive songwriting of Edmontonian Marlaena Moore, who is promoting her new album Beginner. Mounds of echo and reverb backstopped her shambolic tales of alcohol and disappointment. Needless to say the church was a suitable setting. She has a stylistic peer in Angel Olsen, who put on a show that was beautiful and understated, but also a bit workmanlike. Olsen’s vocal command is unimpeachable, and the venue lent even greater depth to her band's warm, watery guitars. Her new album, My Woman, is due in September.
Frigs, Chastity & Protomartyr @ Broken City
Broken City is a two-stage venue in the city’s Beltline, with one stage on the main level and one on the upstairs patio. The walls are coated with graffiti and art and the venue feels lived-in. The patio stage is elevated by about 6 inches, offering ample opportunity for the singers to interact with the audience. Toronto act Frigs (fka Dirty Frigs) and fellow Ontarians Chastity (not to be confused with Chastity Belt) both took advantage of the setup, wading into the crowd and hopping on tables. Frigs stormed through a set of throaty, grimy rock and roll that alternated between slow-motion atonality and uptempo grooves. Chastity (who formed less than two years ago) pulled a genuinely unexpected bait and switch, starting off mellow and melodic before whipping out an avalanche of aggressive punk-based tunes. Both groups are still gearing up for full LPs. The patio probably holds around 150 people at capacity. It felt closer to 250 by the time Detroit noise/post-punk outfit Protomartyr hit the stage. They were loose and aloof onstage but their heady, verbose jams were airtight.
Respectfulchild & Julia Holter @ Theatre Junction Grand
Built in 1912, the recently refurbished Theatre Junction Grand is Calgary's oldest music venue. I only caught that second half of a stunning solo set from Respectfulchild (Saskatoon’s Melissa Gan), but it was probably the most mesmerizing 20 minutes of the festival so far. Equipped with nothing but a violin and loop pedals, Gan builds ethereal tracks that are part field recording, part avant-pop. Julia Holter is still touring in support of her excellent 2015 album Have You In My Wilderness. Her music is pinned-up and statuesque on record, put on a surprisingly unbridled show, goofing around with the audience and drawing from her entire catalogue. Her touring violist made heavy use of electronic effects to manipulate her instrument, most notably on a fantastic rendition of "Horns Surrounding Me”.
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