Sled Island 2023: Festival Wrap-up
The temporary bike racks are torn down and the PBR has long gone warm. A stomped-on wristband flutters in the gutter and all the moonlighting punks have shuffled back to their barista jobs. The boom-and-bust economy of pizza-by-the-slice, tragically, reverts back to bust. With the city abound in Doc Marten blisters and the hangover now subsided, Sled Island 2023 lives on as a warm, albeit blurry memory for a dedicated core of music fanatics.
Since its inception in 2007, the festival has remained true to its roots, boasting a musical kaleidoscopic of artists across genres who transform Calgary’s downtown core into a slapdash venue-hop, replete with marquee names and undiscovered gems jam-packed into venues ranging from 1800-seater open theatres to churches and veteran’s clubs. On any given night, the five-day festival (extended to six days with a festival preview kick-off party) stretches across 15 venues at once. It’s like a mini-SXSW, with significantly less tech-bros and seedy corporate activations.
The shining jewel of Sled Island, aside from the incredibly dedicated volunteers and staff, is the the city itself. Calgary has solidified its own indie status as a cool city, just big enough to be interesting and yet small enough to avoid the pitfalls of major music metropolises. Sled Island is one of many events that attracts people from all over the world, who marvel at how beautiful the city is, how hot and nice the people are, and how Calgary is a desirable place to live. For the stalwart locals jaded from years of city and provincial politic, the overwhelming reception from out-of-towners is always a refreshing boost. After a few days biking around town catching a diverse breadth of artists, even the most cynical locals admit that Calgary is pretty rad.
We bounced around Sled all week long and plucked out some of the highlight artists that caught our attention.
Hailing from Winnipeg, Canadian artist Jeremy Haywood-Smith laid down an incredible set of psyche-funk with glistening pop edges. Haywood-Smith and his band were effusive and relaxed, demonstrating impressive musical chops while conjuring up memories of previous festival headliner Thundercat. JayWood breezed through songs from their 2022 release Slingshot replete with catchy hooks and even sharper lyrics. Underneath the shimmer and shine, Haywood-Smith’s lyrics pack a punch.
Electronic producer and singer/songwriter shn shn cast an ethereal spell on the audience at the Central United Church. Weaving lush ambient soundscapes with untethered and emotional lyrics, shn shn effortlessly played with the boundaries of weightless dreams and haunting nightmares. Understated yet immensely powerful, ambient instrumentals were sent soaring by her effervescent vocals, hypnotizing the captivated audience.
Bringing arena-rock bonafides to the dancefloor of a sold out veteran’s club, Bartees Strange exploded on stage with the energy and bravado worthy of one of alt rock’s most exciting names. Strange is a born entertainer and thrilling guitar player who never takes a night off. Following an appearance in Calgary last year opening for The National and fresh off a stint with boygenius, Strange relished being in the spotlight as Sled Island’s festival curator, rattling the walls and attracting a spirited audience of awe-inspired onlookers.
Samantha Savage Smith
Samantha Savage Smith made mince-meat of her set at the Palomino Smokehouse, serving up a five-star buffet of tasty licks and psyche-tinged indie rock. The singer/songwriter bounced through a bubbly set buoyed by her 2022 release Fake Nice. Anchored by a killer band and over a decade of performance chops, Smith continues to find her stride and is clearly having a blast. Her set won the award for most guitar-shredding solos while wearing Birkenstocks.
Silvering played an understated solo-set to a soft and attentive audience. The Calgary-based singer/songwriter serenaded the crowd with emotionally charged chords and flowing vocals, swimming syllables together to create intimate portraitures of heartbreak. These are sad songs for saddies, bedroom pop jams for busted hearts and forlorn lovers. With only a few releases in her catalogue, Silvering’s potential seems as boundless as a dream.
Amy Nelson might be partial to floral patterns, but her musical adornments are anything but pastoral. The sharp-tongued Nelson took a skewer to old fashioned bluegrass with biting wit and a larger-than-life stage presence. Nelson commands attention on stage, with her impressive vibrato and country-twang shining bright under the spotlight.
Rarely was Sen Morimoto’s tongue dislodged from his cheek. The charismatic polymath was aloof and energized during his set, bouncing between passionate saxophone solos and energetic keys with impish delight. Morimoto’s stripped back R&B was refreshing and brisk, stringing along his audience with humour and sheepish swagger.
Sun Ra Arkestra
Masters of their craft, celestial bodies Sun Ra Arkestra exploded like a supernova of sound at Central United Church. Playing to a sold-out and enraptured audience, their wall-of-sound experimental jazz was at times beyond comprehension in its complexity. Swept up in the cosmos, to witness Sun Ra is an incredibly humbling experience. Kneel at the altar of Arkestra.
It’s impossible to sum up the 200+ artists that take the stage every year for Sled Island. Each year the festival is full of surprises. Don’t take our word for it — mark your calendars for next June and take a trip to one of Canada’s most eclectic and exciting music events.
Photos and words by Jarrett Edmund.