Calgary’s Sled Island is a lesson in meaningful festival curation executed at the highest level

Now in its thirteenth year, this year’s curator Julien Baker invited audiences to imagine the festival as a deeply intentional, cross-continental dialogue.

JPEGMAFIA @ Commonwealth. Sled Island 2019. Photo by Levi Manchak.
July 25, 2019

The first thing that stands out when you land in Calgary’s downtown core is how wide everything is. Midday, in the center of the downtown core, the streets are populated but comfortably open, and are in sharp contrast to the chaotic energy involved with trying to move through similar streets in Toronto. Later in the day, when the evening programming for Sled Island, Calgary’s esteemed and annual multi-venue music and arts festival, begins, the sidewalks swell but rarely overflow. The rudimentary act of moving between venues is easy and unrushed; early on you realize that the actual work associated in traversing through the festival is epistemological — to move through Sled Island is to constantly challenge yourself to enter spaces for live music with uncalloused ears. 

In an increasingly shrinking national festival landscape, where the race for survival means a race to the top, and an attempt to build a big box copycat of major U.S. festivals under a bigger is better mentality, Sled has spent more than a decade opting for a different approach. The festival is part of a deeply considered group festivals around the country like Pop Montreal, Strangewaves in Paris, Ontario and OBEY Convention in Halifax that have sustained their longevity through prioritizing expert curation. 

Cate Le Bon @ #1 Legion. Sled Island 2019.rPhoto by Jarrett Edmund.

This has largely been due to a consistently dynamic cast of curators, which counts Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Flying Lotus, and Kathleen Hanna and many, many others as alumni. The product is an approach to constructing a festival that’s fuelled by curiosity; an approach where you put the outcome of your night in the hands of someone else’s taste. 

This year, Julien Baker was announced as Sled’s youngest curator to date, and anchored her curatorial method around a clear-headed ambition, only made possible through Sled’s unique orientation. “The organization of this festival grasps at something essential about the nature of musical performance,” she explains in the write-up in the festival program guide. “It’s fluidity, its potential to be more than a spectacle, something that unites audience and performer in a single social entity that furthers our human dialogue.” 

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but likely due to this framework, the crowds at each showcase just felt different from other festivals. On the third night of the festival, during avant-garde composer William Baskinski’s set inside Calgary’s breathtaking brand new Central Library, shortly after the fire alarm was triggered during Palestinian rapper and beatmaker Muqata’s set, the minor interruption was met with an unanticipated calm where upon filing in, a small circle formed around him as they finished their set. By the time Basinski came out, dressed in a diamond (rhinestone?)-encrusted jacket and a pair of bedazzled boots that effectively paid homage to a by-gone glamazon era, the veil of separation had melted and throughout his set, audience members sprawled and rocked to his endless loops. 

Perhaps this is the most desirable outcome when you program a lineup that requests fans push their expectations: people retrofit spaces to fit with the particular performance ambition of that artist.

Perhaps this is the most desirable outcome when you program a lineup that requests fans push their expectations: people retrofit spaces to fit with the particular performance ambition of that artist. Whether it’s Baltimore rapper JPEGMAFIA’s impossible high-octave endurance test, which asked the crowd to cower to the ground at the very end, or honorary Black Hippy Rapsody inviting a fan on-stage for a personal serenade before speaking clearly to her truth, throughout Sled Island the feeling of surveillance common in live music spaces dissolved in the name of exploration.

When you combine that with pairing bucket-list artists with rising acts from the region and beyond—like Calgarian JiaJia Li who opened for legendary pianist, and continuous music pioneer Lubomyr Melmyk, or sprawling Montreal-based drone folk band Year of Glad with the devastatingly enchanting Welsh musician Cate Le Bon— the result provides more than an opportunity for new talent to just share the stage with the greats. At its core, it invites the audience to collapse their perceptions of on stage hierarchy. 

Cartel Madras @ HiFi. Sled Island 2019. Photo by Allison Seto.

Over four days, truthfully, one of the most impressively selected festivals in the country extended beyond a multi-day celebration of music and art. It became this grand nebulous thing that felt not only human-sized, but person driven. In between artists shirting the way we think about their respective genres—like potent indie rock outfit Black Belt Eagle Scout, beloved hometown hip hop heroes Cartal Madras, and kaleidoscopic Korean psych-rock four-piece DTSQ—the festival included enough space to do the life-giving things that sustain and fortify us against the grueling task of navigating ordinary life; like sharing a sprawling, perspective-shifting conversation with a complete stranger in a late-night pizza joint, or giggling in between rooms with Julien Baker on a tour through the National Music Centre, or simply, spending the day relishing in the unapologetic delight of wearing a cowboy hat in the year of our Lord 2019 when the Yeehaw agenda has officially been activated.

Baker caps her didactic in the program with a bold, earnest intention about the artists she selected: “They show me that sometimes music is a balm to soothe a wound that is common and shared…It is a mirror and a lens; it shows us our experiences, and calls us to witness and recognize the experiences wholly separate from us.” Yup, ditto. 


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