Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Canada, Live, Music.
First and foremost: it was a pleasure participating in Sled Island. My sincere thanks go out to Zak, Drew, and everyone else who went out of their way on multiple occasions to help my friends and I. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to attend and I wouldn’t trade spending Canada Day in some dingy bar for the world. Respect. I mean that.
That said, while the experience was an enjoyable one, it was equally disheartening. For a more balanced perspective on the festival you should probably check out some other people’s thoughts as various accounts will lend a bevy of alternate views on the week’s events: Metro called the event a “smash hit,” Fast Forward concluded that “The fest should be in good shape for next year,” and the Calgary Herald added, “Sled Island has made its mark.” I think that on the whole Sled Island was a success. There were some fantastic performances and I was more than just a little bit starstruck by seeing J. Mascis, the Black Lips, Quintron & Miss Pussycat, Big Business, Mark Sultan, and so many others just strolling around the city. All of that was, in the simplest of terms, baller. Even with all of that in mind though, the overall 2010 Sled Island experience was underwhelming.
Various accounts I’ve heard and read via blogs, news sites, tweets and first-hand experiences cite a number of shows having sold out or been packed to capacity. I experienced something different than that. The highest turnout at a show I made it to featured Cave (feat. Quintron), Turbo Fruits & Les Savy Fav (though I didn’t stick around for them) at the Distillery: by the time I left there were people standing in line all the way up the basement-venue’s staircase leading to 7th Avenue. If you weren’t there early you weren’t getting in. Deerhoof’s show at Central United on the first night of the festival was well attended, but despite the venue’s limited capacity there was still room in the balcony when the show ended. The floor of The Legion was packed when the Almighty Defenders took the stage for their only Sled Island performance, but the cavernous room filled with tables and chairs (it is a Legion, after all) still seemed a bit sparse. The most glaring issue I saw was with Olympic Plaza though, which acted as the central hub for the event as well as the main stage for Friday and Saturday’s shows. Starting off, the outdoor venue is large. Olympic Plaza’s Wikipedia page states that “over 30,000 people packed the plaza to celebrate the Calgary Flames run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.” While that’s likely true, I highly, highly doubt that’s focusing on the same amount of space that was sectioned off for the event—I’d run capacity at a few thousand (but please drop some knowledge here if you have an actual figure!). Based on your perspective it might have very well appeared as though the turnout was fabulous: take for example Avenue Magazine‘s account of the “exuberant crowd” or these Girl Talk and NoMeansNo videos. But even the Calgary Herald noted how Sled Island “has a ways to go in terms of warranting a major outdoor venue with the capacity of Olympic Plaza.” Again, this is all based on your perspective.
Girl Talk’s set was the one I was anticipating most, but the one that ended up being the most disheartening in the end. It wasn’t a let-down because I had unfairly built up the idea that a “Girl Talk Show” could be something out of this world. It was a let-down because a “Girl Talk Show” can and typically is something out of this world—when I saw him in 2007 it was awesome, and when my friends saw him in 2008 is was apparently bat-shit crazy. Sled Island, however, wasn’t having it. The large stage was scattered with a couple dozen sluggish “youths” who, if they put as much effort into dancing as they did mugging for their own cameras, would have livened things up a bit in spite of the stage being so uncharacteristically bare. (Sidenote on “youths.” I ruined the only video I took because I was yelling at this bald dude to get off the stage. His “thing” was simply walking from one side to the other, posing.) As my friends will attest to, I was kind of heartbroken by the whole thing. Factors including it still being light out, to the entire day’s lineup being bumped up an hour for reasons I’m still not sure of (I was on time for Fucked Up, but apparently I wasn’t on time), and the generally high ticket prices all had to play into the equation. But things would be different on the other days, right?
That picture was taken after a band had already played Saturday afternoon, and prior to the Black Lips taking the stage. Yes, those Black Lips. It should go without saying that I didn’t have much of a problem securing a first-row spot leaning against the completely unnecessary G20 riot-squad barrier that awkwardly kept fans some 10 feet back from the stage. By the time the band’s uncharacteristically sluggish set ended (see: the turnout) a couple hundred people (maybe) were milling around the Plaza. Later in the day I sat off to the side for NoMeansNo and there was actually a pretty cool crowd gathered for them. It wasn’t large by any means, but it certainly wasn’t as small as it’d been earlier in the day, and there was an actual pit going. But for the most part, scattered onlookers were doing just what I was doing by that time in the day: those who weren’t in the beer garden were casually sitting off to the side. At times it seemed like there were more people watching from outside the steel fences that surrounded the Plaza than there were in the Plaza itself. If that’s not telling of the economic disparity between those who can and those who can’t in the city, I don’t know what is.
Even when considering that Dinosaur Jr. was, in essence, the festival’s headlining act—while not the last act to play in the city the band did close out Saturday night’s Olympic Plaza show—the turnout was apparently modest, and no where near the venue’s capacity.
These issues aren’t exclusive to Sled Island though. Even with the general lack of ticket sales across North America in mind—the tour has flat-out cancelled 10 dates—this year’s Lilith Fair tour-kick-off in Calgary at McMahon Stadium was “lifted by last-minute ticket sales” and drew some 11,000 attendees. Now, the venue holds somewhere between 35,000-60,000 people. An estimated 11,000 people showed up and the event was still considered “well-attended“? Even when considering Calgary’s inflated prices—tickets for Lilith Fair were apparently going on Craigslist for between $50 and $170 each—the fact that there are a butt-load of people in the city with a generic taste in music who have this kind of dime to drop on “the arts” leaves me with no other conclusion than to say that Lilith Fair was not “well attended.” And as much as I’d like to be able to draw a different conclusion, I can’t say in good conscious that the turnout to Sled Island was any different. There are certainly exceptions though, such as the Turbo Fruits/Les Savy Fav show. I straight up forgot about GZA on day four and by the time I got there The Legion was filled to capacity with fans lined up out the door waiting to get in to the event (No Age and Fucked Up were also playing). That was great to see, and maybe every other venue in town was packed elsewhere throughout the festival—if so I’d love to retract my statement and draw a different conclusion—but that’s simply not what I experienced.
The Crowd. I’m not even going to get into my feelings on the statement of how Fucked Up apparently embody “a complex tapestry of guitar sounds,” but the overall feeling I got was that quite a few of those who were going to shows weren’t really paying much attention to the music: many fans/photogs/etc. seemed to be out there to either document the event, hype it, or to simply be seen. That said, some couldn’t even do that right (note: Cole Alexander is not Ian Saint Pé). On the first night Quintron got frustrated by the crowd at The Legion, and rightly so: More people appeared to be there than to experience it. He simply called it like he saw it. This sounds like a generalization and that’s sincerely not my aim here—there were tons of audience members who were at the events I saw, many singing along with the bands (especially at Why?) and many others appearing to be genuinely excited to see some good shows. But by the end of the third day I had grown so tired of everything that when all was said and done the highlight of the day came in the form of a trip to the Calgary Zoo with some friends of mine who were visiting the city. A crowd can be a good one regardless of its size, but a crowd lacking anticipation or enthusiasm just doesn’t do it for me.
Plain and simple: I got in for free. For that I am wholly grateful. But as time went on I grew so embarrassed that I couldn’t nut-up and snap a few shots, take some video, or write down some notes because I felt like I was more a part of the problem than of the solution. I was there taking a photo of Quintron & Miss Pussycat before he jumped into the crowd to plead for its participation. I was there jotting down notes as Deerhoof played the best show I’d ever seen in Calgary. I was there snapping video of Girl Talk instead of dancing. I was there sitting on the sidelines for NoMeansNo while a pit was gaining steam. You see, I was the problem with Sled Island. But I wasn’t alone.
In general there is a shortage of quality acts who visit Calgary. I’ve learned that it’s far from rare for local radio stations to promote shows in Edmonton and give away tickets to the (over) three-hour-away events. Originally I felt really distraught about this, like Calgary was getting a raw deal. But over time my perspective changed. Many local bars charge around 10 bucks a pop to see local bands who would likely not (many who should not) get paid if they were to play outside of the city. Many local venues charge extraordinarily high ticket prices (plus service charges) to get into shows. Even with the city’s high cost of living in mind, it starts adding up as to why a slim number of touring headliners want to make the painstaking trip to Alberta, let alone Calgary. At the end of the day what’s better: having a reasonable number of people show up at a high priced event or having a ton of people show up to an affordable event? One of those options might not even be feasible, and I’m being very simplistic and utopian here, that I understand, but there’s no way to build a music community on the grounds of entitlement. And on the whole that’s what I saw: many fans expecting acts to entertain them rather than participating in the event itself, and venues expecting to be able to milk it financially for everything they could. As my friends and I entered Dickens Pub, where Why? and Ted Leo were headlining, one lady was arguing the $40 door price to get in. This isn’t a large concert venue we’re talking here: it’s a bar in a basement. Cost of living be damned, she was right.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a laundry-list of great bands that I found while living in the city and the festival was, in the end, a lot of fun. The Calgary music scene and Sled Island have the potential to be on par with any other scenes and festivals in North America, but until things start to change I doubt that they will ever reach their potential. These will be my last concert reviews/recaps/whatever you want to call them. Maybe I’ll snap a video or two along the way, but I want to start enjoying live music again because it’s so damn awesome, not for the sake of documenting how awesome it was. That’s my error, and I’ll take care of it. As for Calgary: I still love you, but some things need to change with you too. Get on it. If not, best I can tell: Edmonton is still only a few hours away.
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]