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Sled Island 2021 review

By Rachneet Randhawa, September 10 2021—

Sled Island has made a bold yet subtle comeback earlier this summer with both in-person and virtual screenings for Camp Sled Island. Despite the recent easing of restrictions and dismal rainy weather, the organizers managed to pull off a spectacular event programming over three days. 

This year’s formatting was a bit different with the focus being mostly on digital pre-recorded screenings including animated shorts, pre-recorded performances, docu-series and more. Another surprise was how socially interactive it was with picnic tables placed throughout the venue and interactive painting activities. I found it to be a semi drive-in movie theatre — minus the vehicles — and High Park’s parking lot setting was a nice added touch. 

If anything, the skyline of downtown Calgary overlooking 10th avenue and the Calgary Tower amongst the amazing Beltline street art murals splattering around the joint was transcending. If anything, this years’ event was more of a condensed and streamlined version with digital samplings in the celebration of local music.  


The first night was unfortunately cancelled at the last minute due to the impending rain at High Park. Instead, the event was relocated to the Globe Cinema downtown free of charge to the first 150 patrons. It showcased the curated video content and feature film. For the latter, the feature presentation Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche was an eye-opening documentary on Marianne Joan Elliot-Said — also known as Poly Styrene, a death punk icon and front-woman for the coveted 80’s punk rock band X-Ray Spex.

The story is a biography told through the eyes of Elliot-Said’s daughter, Celeste Bell, as she revisits her mother’s musical career journey rifling through her mother’s collections and archives. Overall, the narrative centers on her coming-of age-story as a radical teenager living in tumultuous times and her up-and-coming break onto the music scene in the late 1970s into the 1980s. It has a diverse palette of themes from social injustices youth of that era faced — everything from racism, mass consumerism, political propaganda including the early inklings of environmentalism, spiritualism like the Hare Krishna movement and mental health and minorities.

This had to be one of the best profilings of a BIPOC musician I have seen. Not only was Elliot-Said one of the first Black women to headline in punk rock music history, but she was also the first authentic influencer and broke barriers despite racial and gender stereotypes addressing the early onslaught of controversial issues we still deal with today. This was one of the highlights of Camp Sled Island.


Finally, after being delayed for more than a year in the making, we come across the first in-person encounter on the second day of the festival. I walked onto the High Park rooftop venue a little past 7 p.m. and, despite being late, was surprised to see how low-key it was upon arrival. The setup parted two ways down the middle with half of the space occupied with various tents for a pop-up open bar for drinks, snacks, merchandise including the Sled Island Pen Pal Pale Ale which was a brewed blend crafted especially for the event. The other half was audience seating and the main stage area. Picnic benches were arranged across with each containing a postcard to send to a loved one or acquaintance which would be mailed out courtesy of Sled Island and a fun painting kit with a collection of brushes for leisurely drawing with your family and friends. 

The first live performance, was Indigo Rose, a locally based R&B and soul artist. She was originally scheduled to make her debut at last year’s Sled Island. Nonetheless, her belated return was well worth it as I was mesmerized by her mellow and playful expression alongside her soul and hip-hop musical style. Although a newcomer musician, the way she graced the stage made it seem like a natural and seasoned artist as she effortlessly belted out notes that left you with feelings of a warm nudge with her familiar yet fresh sound. She was definitely the highlight of the evening for me. 

Tagging on right after was Aladean Kheroufi, an Edmonton-based soul singer by way of Algeria who writes songs that are soulful, idiosyncratic and devastating. His niche I found to be heartbreak songs which eventually become melancholy party anthems. Kheroufi’s musical style has this folk vibe to it, allowing him to effortlessly muse and croon about his deepest desires. 

The rest of the evening consisted of pre-recorded sets by old-timey country singer Amy Nelson and experimental improv collective Bug Incision which played a backyard live set using a soundboard of different tunes and techniques. In between, recorded video shorts were short animation features via the Quickdraw Animation Society. Another standout was the short video appearances including that of Thor Harris who does a vlog style monologue series against a series of different backdrops and also a short instrumental-pop music video by Ginger Beef featuring flutist Jiajia Li and MSG — a vibrant performance featuring a melody of East Asian inspired soundtracks. The night rounded off with the American composer’s Sun Ra Arkestra’s symphonic performance of a full-length concert film showcasing an amalgamation of cosmic jazz and Afrofuturism. 


And now comes the finale. Yet again it was gloomy weather with rain spritzing on and off again throughout the evening but despite it, all Sled Island fans braved through it. Again, I arrived just after 7 p.m. and to my surprise the cancelled performer from Thursday, Samantha Savage Smith were given an encore to perform having missed their chance. Another Calgary-based singer, guitarist and songwriter that blends jazz, blues and indie rock as her musical style were by far one of my favourite performers of the night. After this, upcoming artist Uyemi a Nigerian Canadian and Calgary-based artist who uses anecdotes from her personal life to tell a story. She uses her easy vocals and sultry allure alongside experimental beats to get you moving. Although a newbie on the music scene I see great things for her yet to come. 

The rest of the evening was of course followed by pre-recorded video performances the first of which was TeaFannie — a Black hip hop artist from Calgary. Let me tell you, the lyrics and verses she dropped were on fire, nevermind the hot dance moves in the music video. This was definitely the boldest of all selections for the night. Originally from Edmonton, her influences are Kenny Rogers, Whiney Houston, Nas and Amerie. 

Up next was Sun Glaciers, a psych-pop quartet that is Calgary-based who played a set from their ensemble which was filmed in an abandoned office tower in downtown Calgary against a hazy and neon-lit backdrop. Described as moody bangers, their musical style is a blend of lite indie rock and post-punk with I would say a hint of psychedelic. 

Dri Hiev, a returning favourite, played right after with their punk merging man with a machine to make abrasive, industrial punk that has a monotonous backbeat with manic urgency. Out of all the pre-recorded sets this had to be the most out-of-the-box and unique with the sheer amount of provocation and energy and the swapping Jekyll-Hyde backdrop in the video. Moreover, they also screened a short documentary from Australian soft rockers Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy

Finally, we stumbled into the final performance of the night and event itself — SANSFUCCS’ a mini-documentary series from Dispatches From the Calgary Underground showcasing the stories of seven artists, venues and personalities that illuminate our city and movie it forward by sharing their experiences of personal strength and big dreams. This was not only my favourite feature presentation of Saturday, but of the entirety of the event. They saved the best for last and it was worth the wait as the docu-series showcased the local arts and culture scene in Calgary over the years. It had everything from murals and street art and all the controversy surrounding them featuring locally-based artist Jae Sterling to how popular venues like the Hi-Fi club, which launched in 2005, had permanently shut down amidst the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exact order of SANSFUCCS was as follows and included:

  • Chapter 1: the Wall featuring Jae Sterling
  • Chapter 2: Rave Diaries featuring Hi-Fi Club 
  • Chapter 3: The Dreamer featuring Uyemi 
  • Chapter 4: Big Fish In A Small Pond featuring Little Snake 
  • Chapter 5: The Art of Building featuring Benny Johnson 
  • Chapter 6: Journey For The Long Run featuring Wyatt C. Lewis
  • and lastly Chapter 7: Seeing Yourself 

Oftentimes, I realized we’re quick to bash Calgary as the boring and deranged cowtown that it is stereotypically known as, and its lack of nightlife compared to other Canadian cities. I think, for me at least, this was the first eyeopener in a long time that made me realize that Calgary has so much potential, but it’s a matter of authentically and genuinely cultivating it first. For those of you who have lost hope for good ol’ Alberta having anything creative arts related I definitely recommend checking out the flick if it’s ever released and previewed again in the fall. After watching it I almost felt out of the loop now reflecting on how the controversial events of the summer had spillover effects into social justice and exploratory art mediums like visual arts and music, especially here locally in Calgary and if anything made me appreciate the extraordinary potential and beyond we have to offer moving forward.

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