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Sled Island 2023: A Daily Recap

Our view from the frontlines of a discovery music festival.

by Sebastian Buzzalino

Photos by Sebastian Buzzalino

June 20-25, 2023

Calgary, AB

Sled Island Music Festival

“Happy Sled!” is how to greet people in Calgary this week. Sled Island launched its 17th year under dreary early-summer skies and cold rain, but RANGE is on the frontlines of the festival this weekend, anticipating those iconic moments that deserve a bigger stage.

From the biggest headliners to this year’s surprise discoveries, follow us all week, until Sunday’s final gasp at the Palomino Pig Roast (and maybe some afterparty karaoke at Modern Love?), for a feverish marathon at the heart of one of Canada’s best indie music festivals.

Tuesday, June 20

Inside Commonwealth, the venue for the Kickoff Party, there is nothing but warmth, friendship and a buzz of excitement in the air to get the weeklong marathon kicked off. Couple of beers (start with Eighty-Eight’s Sled Island Hazy Pale Ale), bounce between two floors, get ready to cruise around the Beltline in Calgary in style — bike gangs, scooter gangs, “where are you looking to land tonight? — I just go with the flow, see where the gang ends up.” 

I get there for More Than Nothing and the discovery portion of the festival is already complete: a flautist, a violinist and two electronic wizards walk into a bar, but the joke is on anyone not punching their ticket for the improvised ride, an introspective blend of classical and noise that exists for a moment before fragmenting into distortion and static. 

Downstairs, Temia drilled into the audience, spitting bars about her villain arc over 808 grooves. Back upstairs, up and down, another beer, Winnipeg’s JayWood got the dance party going, funky and boppy with unnerving ease. Between bands on the mainstage at Commonwealth, one-off drag shows keep the temperature rising, strutting to classic rock bangers in skin-tight leopard print.


Downstairs again, quick rip past the coat check selling $0.75 Tootsie Pops, Roya descends from Stockholm in minimalist fashion: she’s moody and head-to-toe in black, teasing sensual ethereal vibes out of thin air with her table of synths. Upstairs: impossible-to-find local punks, Fault, worm their way through a spindly, crackling set. Downstairs: Toronto’s R. Flex returns to Sled Island after some years away and puts on a clinic on experimental R&B. Gotta make it sexy and sexy it got, dripping and flicking sweat all over the dance floor. 

R. Flex

It’s a moment to pause and take it all in before it’s back upstairs to grab Dandy’s Sled Island Hefeweizen, cloves and bananas on leave their taste on my tongue ahead of Ryan Bourne & the Plant City Band, crowned kings and queens of Calgary’s collective pop hallucination. They’re riding high after releasing their excellent album, Plant City, earlier this year and it feels like a victory lap on stage — Bourne and his superstar plant gang can do no wrong. Two kids makeout sidestage like tonight is the only night and when’s the last time you had a session like that? Hands, hips, tongues, lips, they makeout, they make a scene, they get kicked out. They were too horned up for the moment. 

Ryan Bourne

To cap it all off, in what should likely become a Sled Island Kickoff Party tradition, Chris Zajko’s latest immaculate post-punk band puts an exclamation point on the evening. BRIDGELAND teeters on the edge of the void and makes eye contact — an impossible kraut rhythm edges closer to the chasm, marching forward, forward, forward as the longtime Calgary frontman gyrates in a bid to feel something, anything. What a night, can’t wait to rip this week, let’s go!


Wednesday, June 21

The first full day of Sledding and I gotta pace myself. Grab a program guide, figure out where I’m supposed to be as tall boy #1 disappears at the bar. Over to Sloth Records, where Edmonton soul crooner, Aladean Kheroufi, played his first of two festival sets. Among stacks of records, it was just him and his guitar singing sad songs — and in between, the crowd barked like big dogs on one-two-three. Little dogs don’t bark.

Aladean Kheroufi at Sloth Records.

Over to the Palomino, where I’ll spend most of the night not looking both ways before I cross the C-Train tracks between the Palomino and the #1 Legion, ground zero for most of the night’s festivities. Upstairs at the Pal, Matt MacNeil & the Geeks kicked things off — half Toronto, half Calgary, a classic Craig Fahner band full of power pop hooks and immaculate style. Halfway between their set, they announce that their name isn’t actually & the Geeks, but that it’s hard to change things in print once they’re printed. Don’t know what their new name is, though, because I can’t hear shit anymore. Sick set regardless, buds.

Matt MacNeil & the Geeks at the Palomino (upstairs).

Downstairs, Wack: three kids playing punk while their proud mom films. Songs about driving down Deerfoot Trail, skateboard pedal boards, remember when we were young? Earth Freaks followed downstairs and they brought two wah pedals all the way from Victoria with them. Two Cry Babys duelled on leads, looking for a psychedelic exit velocity into the cosmos. 

Earth Freaks at the Palomino (downstairs).

At the suggestion of an old friend, I skipped across the train tracks to make it in time for Vancouver’s Weak Knees, who were in the process of making everyone in the Sled Sauna (upstairs at the Legion) weak in the knees. An absolute powerhouse of a set, I wish they were playing again. When indie guitar rock hits, it’s so cool. Bring back more cool bands.

Weak Knees at the #1 Legion (upstairs).

Try to buy a tequila shot from the Legion, but they don’t have tequila at the Legion, so we toss back some brown liquor and scoot back across to the Palomino. At this point, I’m quickly losing track of time and I’m never quite sure if I’m late for something, but there’s music everywhere and I’m having a great time, so fuck it, I get there when I get there. Someone offers me a hit of their banana vape, which was delicious. I spend too long talking to someone else about single use appliances taking up too much space on kitchen counters, because that’s what I think about now that I’m in my 30s.

I make it back to the Legion for Bartees Strange, this year’s guest curator, and he has the room absolutely mesmerized, bouncing around to his chameleonic sound. “I gotta come back to Calgary,” he quips and the secret is out even further: Calgary is dope, in no small part because of the work that organizations like Sled do year in and year out, and we can still kind of afford to live here. 

Bartees Strange at the #1 Legion.

In the Palomino basement, THICK close out the night with the best set of the evening. They played Sled a couple of years ago at Broken City to similar acclaim and their rowdy, raucous set put everyone in body bags by the end of it. It was sweaty, messy, glorious (and this time, bassist Kate Black managed to not trip ass over heels on her amp). Calgary clearly loves THICK and the power trio (sometimes power quartet) should consider just playing ragers here twice a year until the heat death of the universe. 


That’s it for me tonight, one last beer and I catch the laziest Uber in town because I can’t be bothered to walk five blocks up the hill to my place. 

THICK: A post show portrait in the basement of the Palomino.

Thursday, June 22

It’s the halfway mark of the festival and things are starting to get ragged along the edges. Spirits are high, though, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in time to sneak into the artist lounge for free beers and pizza.

Post single-slice-of-pizza-for-the-day, I make my way to Modern Love (RIP Broken City). Calgary’s newest venue feels a lot like Calgary’s most beloved dive bar venue, with a fresh new up-do and brand new bar and stage. The Modern Love crew barely opened in time for Sled, but it feels great to be back in that space — especially upstairs on the patio, where the afternoon kicks off with Hermitess. Jen Crighton’s project pushes the limits of the harp as an instrument, recontextualizing it in gauzy, experimental folk that feels like a warm hug. 

Hermitess performing on the upstairs patio at Modern Love.

Krill Williams were up next, basking in the warm afternoon sun like happy little shrimps. It’s good to feel feelings every now and then and the indie pop quintet had the packed patio swooning. Can’t fall in love too hard, though: Krill Williams are the summer crush you can never have.

Krill Williams performing on the upstairs patio at Modern Love.

Downstairs, Bennett Mitchell assembled a superstar band to back his indie folk musings. Mitchell is clad head to toe in an amazing prairie denim outfit, complete with floor-length skirt, and the mushroom gummies I took start to shimmer when I move around too fast. Upstairs, Sister Ray holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she weaves unflinching stories of her Metis upbringing.

Sister Ray performing on the upstairs patio at Modern Love — Read our interview with Sister Ray’s Ella Coyes here!

The main room at Modern Love is starting to fill up in anticipation of Sessa, the highly lauded bossa nova project fronted by Yonatan Gat’s bass player, Sergio Sayeg. He takes the stage, all curly hair and classical guitar, and instantly transports everyone to a mystical commune in Brazil in the 70s. Most of the audience can’t speak Portuguese, but this shit is universal.

DEHD bassist Emily Kempf crowdsurfing during the band’s performance at the #1 Legion. 

I hop on a scooter and weave my way to the Legion in a rush, trying to make the last little bit of DEHD. The slacker garage punks are in full flight in front of a packed main room when I get there and it’s already chaos in front of the stage. The trio is clearly having a blast; dodging crowd surfers, jumping into the pit, and ripping through their catalogue with abandon. It’s sweaty, it’s hot, it’s everything you want from a festival set — everyone seems to be a little feral in the best way possible. DEHD finishes their set, but Calgary won’t let them go. An encore and off to the smoke pit to find more people making out before last call.

A couple smooches outside the #1 Legion on Day 3 of Sled Island Music Festival.

Friday, June 23

Fridays at Sled are for pushing through and no better place to do so than to start out nice an early at Commonwealth. I got there just in time for Super Duty Tough Work, a killer, live experimental hip hop group from Treaty 1. Their smooth, jazzy beats helped get the room going and the exhaustion was lifted off many an overtired face. Kamikaze Nurse are perennial Sled faves and wasted no time getting noisy, getting loud and getting dreamy. Capping the showcase off, Miesha & the Spanks repped Calgary on the Vancouver label, bringing their trademark heavy, driving garage punk to Commonwealth. They’ve been touring hard this spring, crossing Canada and the pond to tour the UK and Germany, and it shows: the duo were tour tight and enormous, making the most and then some of their two-piece stature.

Yolanda Sargeant of Sargeant X Comrade performs at Modern Love.

Off to Modern Love to soak up some patio sunshine, take a breather and steel myself for the headliners at The Palace Theatre later that night. Luckily, Sargeant & Comrade were just about to set up on the main stage at Modern Love. Soulful, groovy and with enough attitude to fill any room, Yolanda Sargeant fronted a funky set that felt refreshing and empowered. 

OHSEES performing at the Palace Theatre.

It seemed like everyone was jockeying for position to leave for The Palace Theatre for OHSEES and it would not disappoint. But first, Toronto’s Gloin provided direct support for the legendary LA band with a blistering, fuzzed out punk explosion that had the rapidly growing, 1200+ audience in the venue mesmerized. It’s the perfect introduction to OHSEES, who stacked two drummers at the front of the stage and pummelled everything within earshot. John Dwyer led the quintet through ferocious, groovy, loud, perfect garage punk that draws from his so many decades and albums of music. OHSEES were relentless, the crowd kept up the chaos, stage divers flew about like so many fireflies on a hot summer night and the LA crushers proved once again why they’re some of the best going on right now. Everyone has a memory of their legendary 2011 Broken City set during Sled, but if the excited, sweaty bodies piling out into the cool night were any indication, 2023 surpassed that banger in style.

 Saturday, June 24

OK, here we go. Last full day of Sled programming and this is where you gotta start to dig deep. My legs hurt, my ears haven’t stopped ringing since Wednesday, and I’ve only been at home to shower and sleep what I can each night. Still, the show goes on.

Saskatchewan’s Chunder Buffet performing at the Palomino (upstairs).

I post up at the Palomino for the afternoon slot. Saskatoon’s CFCR showcase is going on and I’m reminded of why I love prairie bands so much: they’re all punching well above their weight, each one unique and wonderful in their own way that can only really happen in small artistic scenes that have to scrap and scrimp every step of the way. The standouts include Grey Light District, who bring noisy, heavy, weird and wild to the front, and Chunder Buffet, a raucous, high-struttin’, hedonistic rock and roll foursome fronted by a blonde bombshell daring you to fall in love before she rips your heart out.

Some good news for the afternoon: WAIT//LESS announce on Instagram that they’ve picked up a last minute show at Pin-Bar, providing me an opportunity to catch them (got caught up at the Palace on Friday night and missed their set at the Legion). The hardcore Vancouverites are hyped for a reason: unrelenting, unapologetic and so, so pissed off, their set was a real shot of adrenaline for the festival-weary.

I’ve been looking forward to Empanadas Ilegales and Helado Negro to cap off Saturday night all week. As soon as I get to the Legion, I’m greeted by a huge dance party, the crowd just eating up Empanadas Ilegales’ psych cumbia. Groovy and impossibly smooth, everything riff and rhythm feels like a perfect bop. It’s a nice respite from the unrelenting punk and garage that’s dominated my Sled sched and everyone on the dance floor seems to have a goofy grin plastered across their faces. 

Empanadas Ilegales performing at the #1 Legion.

Helado Negro closes off Saturday night and everything feels right in the world. Roberto Carlos Lange is comfortable and confident on stage, working through an expansive, masterful catalogue that belies just how good he actually is. It’s a bit less frenetic than Empanadas, but no less groovy and dancey, a perfect wind-down for the slow wander home at the end of the night.

Another Sled year in the books and this one felt particularly successful. Everywhere I went, shows were packed, people were stoked, and the festival continued to cement itself as one of the best gems in Calgary’s packed summer festival season. A huge congrats to all the crew, bands, volunteers and staff that work so hard to bring so many amazing bands to Calgary for the best week ever. Onwards to the rest of summer!