So it’s my first time in Calgary. Had no idea the place was so flat. Or that the downtown is pretty much infested with generic sport bars disguised as “upscale” restaurants. Or that the dudes at the airport actually wear cowboy hats (hellloooooo Stampede!). It’s also my first time checking out a few days of Sled Island, the city’s awesome music and arts festival that takes place every year in June.
In Calgary to hang with my homie Lou Barlow (for whom I also do press/PR/marketing/cat-herding in his capacity as a dude in Sebadoh), and check out the vibe for three days, I’m looking forward to being a Sled Noob.
I arrive on the Tuesday night, late-ish and run into Lou in the hotel lobby along with Noel and Tomas – the sound engineer and guitar tech for Japanese doom-metallers Boris (and, coincidentally, also Dinosaur Jr, which is how Lou knows them). Boris is playing three Sled shows. We say our “see ya laters” and go for a quiet bite, then crash out early.
So it’s Wednesday, June 20th, the first day of the fest proper, and I’m just finding my feet. Kinda literally (see below).
Lou and I meet and head up the Calgary Tower – it’s a kind of cement phallus that overlooks the city. The “Artist Lounge” is located at the top, so we get our bands and drinks tickets and survey. He’s not fond of heights, Lou, but I decide to straddle the Tower via the glass floor.
Lou peers out over Calgary. “Hey! I can see my house from here!” are words we do not speak, alas. Dutch woman in the background later photobombs most of my other better pics.
After brunch (at Blue Vinny’s Diner, which should never, ever put curry in its hollandaise sauce EVER AGAIN), and where we once again run into Noel and Tomas from Boris’ crew, Lou heads back to the hotel to play guitar. He’s still in songwriting mode for Sebadoh’s upcoming new EP and album and wants to hash out ideas and rehearse whenever he can. I wander back to the Artist Lounge. In the elevator up the tower, I stand next to comedian Todd Barry. I smile and say hello. I want to be funny but one cannot be funny in an elevator filled with German tourists. He says hello back and asks me how I am. “Hungover,” I reply. Because I am old, you see, my body is no longer enjoying last night’s wine-with-dinner.
In the artist lounge, I run into Dan Moxon from Vancouver band Bend Sinister. We chat a bit – he appeared in my mate Rob Leickner’s incredibly dry and witty film about an indie recording studio, called Everything’s Louder Than Everything Else – and is quite frankly, a DUDE. Bend played the Sled music festival kick-off party the night before, but I arrived too late to check ‘um. Bummer.
I go back to editing pics with a beer, when I hear a very polite “Excuse me, aren’t you the BackstageRider?” It’s Aaron Vanimere, an incredibly chill/cool photographer from Edmonton. We’ve never met, but know each other from Twitter and catch up like old friends. Aaron becomes my gig buddy for the next few days. He is also down with the rockhands. See?
I find Lou again and walk over to the incredibly rad new venue, The Commonwealth, where he’s playing later, for soundcheck. At check we meet up with Mike from clothing company Lifetime Collective and Nick, Brock and Chris from Deluxe Design Group, a video company, who with Lifetime are doing coverage of the fest and some video “zines” and they want feature Lou. Of course, Lou’s forgotten to tell me about this, so it’s news to me, but who cares? He’s so bloody easygoing that they just film and interview him at check before he heads back to the hotel for more hours of geetarin’ and rehearsin’…
…So I go for a walk. Everyone needs a Tour Bus Yoda. Still not sure whose bus this was, “It’s a really old bus” says Tour Bus Expert Barlow, but I’m hoping it’s the Antlers‘ – my buddies from last year’s Music Fest Northwest fest and the Weezer Cruise – who are, unfortunately, on at a different venue, at the same time as Lou. I’ll next see them in Belgium at Pukkelpop though, so hope we can catch up then. Later, we grab a bite to eat close to the hotel and as we’re wandering back, we run into CBC Music’s Vish Khanna. Vish asks Lou if he can do an interview on the street. Mr. Barlow, being all chill, of course says yes, and I stand off-camera. There is some concern about Vish’s half-eaten pear.
Later, we head back to the Commonwealth and arrive at the venue. Our Lifetime friends ask to film Lou outside. It’s the longest day of the year, 10:15pm, but still light. Lou walks across an empty parking lot, strumming and singing a new Sebadoh track, “Let It Out”. Of the new batch of his tracks he’s working on, it’s the one song he feels like he’s kind of finished. It’s acoustic and, frankly, utterly beautiful. And I’m not just saying that. (Video to come in the next few weeks.) He here is getting kitted for a mic by Nick, as Brock shoots around him.
Meanwhile, the lone guy Field & Stream finishes up with some 70s cover I now can’t remember, and Colleen Rennison from Vancouver’s No Sinner belts out in her Joplin-y fashion upstairs, and the crowd seem to be blown away by her raspy rock. Lou is downstairs in the Commonwealth’s closed-off basement bar singing along to them. He’s warming up, and I tease him that he as he is now back in Canada he HAS to play Bryan Adams’ “Run To You.” (Elsewhere in town, the Bard of British Columbia is actually performing FOR REALS in a Calgary arena.) It’s a track he covered on his lo-fi Sentridoh cassettes wayyyyy back in the early 90s, so I’m rather insistent he do it. We Google the lyrics to get them right and he starts practicing. The bar managers – all Barlow fans – pop their heads out of their offices grinning. We laugh our asses off.
One of the other benefits of being with Lou pre-show is that I get to put in a whack of song requests. So I start rattling off songs I want: the mash-up he does of Bill Callahan/Smog’s “A Hit” with Folk Implosion’s “Natural One”, “Pearl” from the New Folk Implosion album, “Freed Pig” by Dinosaur Jr, ” and there’s “Skull” (which he starts with), “On Fire” and even an old Deep Wound track, “Psyched to Die.” He plays “Rude”, the new Dinosaur Jr track from their upcoming album “I Bet On Sky” and of course, the new Sebadoh, “Let It Out.” On stage, he’s dryly funny. Folks seem to dig his digs at Dinosaur Jr. “Was that too mean?” he asks me later. No, the fans know it’s also said with love, I reply.
But there’s one problem at the gig: drunk, festival goers, many of whom who have just dropped in to check things out, will not stop talking, nor seem to know how to behave when a guy’s on stage with an acoustic guitar. It’s a loud, echoey bar to start with but combined with chatty arseholes? Well, the true fans clamor to the front and try to tune them out. Hey you, talking loudly at gigs? SHUT THE FCK UP. And festival organizers? Put solo acoustic artists at sit-down venues or venues off the beaten path so that the folks who do arrive, are there because they truly want to be.
Also a problem: the smoke machine. Which Lou asked to have turned off. But which kept going automatically until bar staff hopped on stage to save his vocal chords. Ah well, it added ambiance, and for those of us actually LISTENING, it was a lovely little show.
After the the gig, the Commonwealth guys invited us for shots of whiskey, thanks! Then we headed out….
…and over to the first Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet gig in 16 years. Sorry for the crap iPhone pic! Calgary’s Legion was rammed full and with a couple of friends who got us in, we lined up for beers served to us by little old ladies. Have I mentioned how much I love Legions? I LOVE LEGIONS. And back in the 90s, I used to love Shadowy Men’s surfindie instrumentals, as much as the next Kids in the Hall fan (they did the opening music, a track called “Having an Average Weekend”) and looooved their album Savvy Show Stoppers. Tipsily, I lean into Lou and ask him if he knows of the Kids in the Hall. “UH DUH YEAH…” he says.
Tonight, 1am, it’s all love in the room. Sled staffer Evan beams from the sidelines as he had the biggest hand in making this reunion happen. “This is the culmination of my career to date,” he jokes and is stoked. Guitarist Brian Connelly asks the full house to raise their drinks to bassist Reid Diamond, who died of cancer in 2001, “because he wouldn’t want us to have anything as weird as a moment of silence”, and then continues to rock out. It’s a great ender to night one. *hic*
Did I mention how much I LOVE LEGIONS? And also music. And friends like Lou, who make music. Sorry I missed the Antlers, and, like, everyone else of Day One. But while this wasn’t a full-on Sled day for me, it was just priming me for DAY 2. Bring. It. On. Calgary. \m/