Friday, June 24, 2011

“I'm going to fucking die here”.

Cate Francis, art sorcerer and my better half, spat disdainful strings of aggravated nonsense as she white-knuckled the wheel of the car we had borrowed from my mother to get down to 2011's edition of the Sled Island Music Festival. Our trip towards Calgary had been relatively painless, idyllic even considering the amount of construction and lack of double-lane highways, until the second we reached the city. We had haphazardly negotiated our way in to the cities north-industrial area for a pre-fest errand that had proven to be  a time consuming and fruitless venture, but our true nemesis would reveal itself to be reaching the inner-core of Calgary. We were lost, but with myself as the navigator that was the best we could have hoped for. We were probably lucky to have even found our way in to Alberta.

We had stopped only once to get directions from a local, a young Juggalo with a filthy arm cast proclaiming “Clown Love” and covered in many crudely rendered hatchet-men. Trusting a juggalo would be a most regrettable second lapse in judgment as we found ourselves in the early stages of rush hour traffic on a highway that appeared to change its name as often as Keith Thornton, heading nowhere near our destination. Thanks to a text-based play-by-play from Moas guitar giant Chad Munson we realized that we had already begun to miss the CFCR showcase at the gourmet hot dog spot, Tubby Dog.

“Seriously, I'm going to burn this city to the ground,” Cate reminded me for the sixth time.

The highway had spit us off in to some warehouse district without a straggler in sight to send us in the right direction or juggalo tooling for a crack fix to send us in the wrong one. Eventually we called one of our cow-town confidants, the lovely Kieran of reigning noise-mongers Breathe Knives, and he was patient enough to demote me from navigator to spectator over the phone, while at his day-job no less. He would eventually be knighted a Navigation Ninja over the course of our trip. I was Emasculated anew.

By the time we retrieved our festival bracelets and hurried down to the CFCR showcase we had missed everything except Feral Children, who were already mid-set. I spent the first few minutes cruising around apologizing for my tardiness and then settled in for a cheese & bacon dog and some of Ryan Davidson and company's immersive next-level psych. They really manage to bring a refreshing almost alien energy  to a corner of sound often devoid of energy at all. Davidson's powerful voice especially seems to spin so recklessly with passion that Feral Children are a beast I keep my eye on rather than zone out to. It's an almost redundant observation, but the name really does say it all.

After catching our breath for a moment  I felt disoriented with my surroundings. The showcase was in every sense Saskatoon disembodied. I was shoulder to shoulder with nothing but familiar faces, enjoying some of our finest local sounds and I'm pretty sure I could hear CFCR's AVL quoting The Simpsons at the top of his lungs somewhere in the room the whole time we were there. It was an Amigos Cantina show with hot dogs instead of Tex-Mex. Bizarre.

The dash from the CFCR showcase to the Olympic plaza saw us meeting with the Buzzcocks mid greatest hits set. It was an enviable effort on behalf of the punk pioneers, and it was hard not to tap your foot and hum along because the songs still work after all these years, but those interested in vitality over nostalgia were eventually distracted. I'm not of the “If you're old, don't bother” snob class either, in recent years I've witnessed other safety-pin perforated elder-statesmen, most notably the Vanian/Capt. Sensible line-up of The Damned, and lived to eat crow while cleaning my shorts. The Buzzcocks by comparison, legends as they are, simply dissipated in to a muffled backing track to me hovering the grounds looking for water to combat the punishing heat. As a man who gets virtually no sun whatsoever it should be noted that any and all unfiltered sunlight is punishment to me.

Dude-metal darlings The Sword followed to serve as a smoother transition to the headlining Sleep. Of the countless faux-Stoner Rock outfits clogging the heavy music enthusiasts periphery in the last five years, The Sword are among the safest and consequently least vital, and considering how vanilla the majority of their ilk is that is actually a pretty gigantic slight. They are quintessential safe-for-road-trip-with-the-folks-metal and while they do their missing-link-between-Wolfmother-and-Mastodon thing very proficiently, it all counts for naught since they do so without any discernible feeling or purpose. Like so much of their brethren who were on hand as part of Sled Island's cash in on the recent Stoner/Doom popularity flair, they were lauded only because they were as innocuous as they come.

I suppose though that I shouldn't complain too much about Sled's strategic programming this year. Their Stoner-Metal/Rock selections may have been primarily worst of breed (outside of the perpetually raging Bison BC), but they were only really invited to pad one of the year's most anticipated inclusions, the almighty Sleep.

In their absence, which lasted from 1998 till 2009, riff druids Sleep have assumed the unenviable status of Legend. It sounds nice, but its a long drop. Despite their high quality output since dissolving (Matt Pike with High on Fire and Al Cisneros with Om), it was the perfect timing, as I've already inferred, to tarnish their past glory by using Sleep as a relentless cash-cow to ride heartlessly through the summer festival circuit while a splinter genre they helped define was peaking in its popularity. Intentions aside, when a group reemerges after so much time, steeped in as much fable and mystique as Sleep, its hard for a fan to get everything they wanted to get out a monster they never thought they'd meet in person.

Everyone always expects Snake Plissken to be taller, right?

Well, Sleep managed to side step nostalgia and novelty quite entirely through sheer, boundless power and assume relevance by brute force after a lengthy dormancy, reminding the world that those who have tried to follow in their footsteps have failed so miserably. Their cocktail of wanton sloth, vulgar muscle and alchemical psych-prowess threatened to burn the lens-less glasses and po-mo mustaches from the smug throngs of largely uninitiated hipster set who dominate Calgary come Sled Island every year, and ushered in a wave of stoned riff-raff so unfashionable that the side by side comparison was nearly Neil Hamburger funny (okay, not quite). The sprawling opening of the notorious “Jerusalem” (“Dopesmoker” to the latter-day converts) was called to order through guitarist Matt Pike's endless Sabbath-obsessed dirge which seemed in appropriately hypnotic fashion to roll on forever before being sharpened to focus by the addition of Vocalist/Bassist Al Cisneros and Jason Roeder (of Neurosis fame, sitting in for original drummer Chris Hakius who retired from music in 2009). Cisneros eventually wandered aloofly across the stage to proclaim his now legendary stoner-rock agenda: “Drop out of life with bong in hand”. Judging by the rank stench wafting off the audience they were already way ahead of him. Despite the awkward scrum of crust-kids and hip youths trying to ironically slam-dance, the initiated congregation gathered near the front pulsed uniformly for the duration of the hour and half long set unaffected as the band plowed through most of “Jerusalem” as well as handful of favorites such as “Dragonaut” and “The Aquarian” and some new material which blended seamlessly into their set. This was no scam, Cisneros and Pike aren't fly by night preachers, this was all that legend shit we heard about. A pure resurrection.

The stupor induced by Sleep saw Cate and I along with most of the members of Shooting Guns as we wandered aimlessly in to the streets of Calgary. They said something about trying to get in to another venue to which I simply nodded dumbly. We got lost on our way over, loudly harangued scene scum in an alley about heatscoring their blow deal, and then found a place for Jim Ginther to piss, which ended up being out in the open in front of an unusually tolerant cop.

We eventually found ourselves in a long line up waiting to see Kurt Vile. After a minute or two my show buzz had started to wear off and I wondered what the fuck I was doing waiting in line for Kurt Vile. Another quick text conference with Munson who was camped out down front at the Palomino for Quest For Fire let us know that the venue wasn't sold out yet but was, in the two words of his text, 'Fucking Close.' Cate and I abandoned the Guns guys and raced in to the basement of the Palomino. As we entered the room the Sled Island staffer made a signal for the doors to be closed behind us. We  were the tipping point. We turned the corner and faced a wall of plaid shirts and shaggy hair blocking our view of the stage. Surrounded.

Claustrophobia creeps in.

Within moments we deduced that if the inebriated indie-psych lovelies succeeded in their in their titular quest that we would all be singing “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” in Hell with a bunch of scene royalty, and I had no intention of dying before seeing Neil Hamburger, and certainly not with these people. So after only a minute of Quest for Fire, we turned around to climb the steps again only to find them virtually non-negotiable with other late-comers. We forced our way up the snake of bodies out of the building as “Bison Eyes” hammered through the floor. It sounded good. On the street I heard sirens and enough voices that I couldn't make out the stupid things any one of them was saying. That sounded even better. We beat it a few blocks down to the Local 522 where Saskatoon's Auld Beak were closing out the Bart Records showcase.

I'll admit, the scheduling of Auld Beak as a closer on a show so top heavy with championed in-province talent  rubbed me the wrong way. Really, the scheduling allowed me to see them in the first place, so I should be thankful, but I already know how awesome they are, this would have been the ideal opportunity to show the rest of Calgary. They wrapped the evening up to a small-but-attentive audience with their brash and catchy  rock n roll. Their short, punchy tracks were the perfect remedy to pull me out of the fathomless void Sleep had produced mere minutes earlier until tragedy struck as guitarist Evan Vrinten's guitar rig was choked out very shortly in to their set. Vocalist/Bassist Kyle Martin made the best of a bad situation by treating the audience to an acapella rendition of “He's Not Heavy” before admitting defeat to technology and ushering us back out on to the street. Auld Beak is a great band and they should have had a better spot. They also should have had working gear though, so the moral might just be "Shit happens."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We started the second day off a little on the late side at the Olympic plaza once more. It was a marvel of architecture the place was still intact after Sleep's punishing set the night before. We arrived just in time to catch The Ravonettes shamble their way through a set of their patented noir bubble-gum. I hadn't seen The Ravonettes since “Pretty in Black” dropped in 2005 and was pleased to see them stick to their story so resolutely. Their output on record has seemed redundant for me for quite a few years (I haven't been inspired to pick anything up since “Chain Gang of Love”), but they always seem to hold up on stage. This afternoon Sharin Foowas was handling both bass and vocals, and put on an infinitely more sober performance then last I had seen them. Still though, band leader Sune Rose Wagner's resemblance of Spenser Rice as a lost Reid sibling will always be a personal distraction for me.

Our next detour from the festival came in the form of a barbeque with two-thirds of Breathe Knives and some family. Hot-dogs for day one, bacon-wrapped chicken wings on day two. Calgary didn't seem very health conscious, but it sure was hospitable.

The second night of Neil Hamburger's two-night stand at the Auburn Saloon was met with some odd anticipation. By the wee hours of Friday night word had already spread about the bedlam that befell the Auburn hours earlier that saw 'America's Youngest Comedian' calling a young lady a whore (not uncommon at a Hamburger performance), said young lady retaliating with violence, Hamburger throwing a drink in her face (again, not uncommon), and then a frantic pummeling before security was forced to take over, finally leaving poor Neil to soldier through his set. This fiasco turned one of the festivals more bizarre (and certainly most inspired) choices in to a last-minute hot ticket item.

The bacon-wrapped chicken wings of my dreams ended up being a double edged sword of nightmare. Cate and I, along with our personal chef and Breathe Knives member Cory, arrived late due to our gluttony and were met with a daunting opponent in the form of a line-up. I cursed my satisfied belly. As time stretched out more and more we watched other hard-nosed “I'm not going anywhere” types drop like flies (including Jim Ginther and Charles Lemire, shaming Shooting Guns and The Foggy Notions respectively). Festival ambassadors came out at one point with earnest faces to warn us that the chances of getting in were growing unlikely. Within minutes the length of the line-up doubled and eventually tripled in size, stretching down the plaza steps on to the sidewalk. We held on, nervously. A quick glance at the program guide only irritated matters, reminding us that there was no consolation prize for missing this show.

“Look at all the people leaving...” Cory Assured us over and over again. He had a ticket and was getting in regardless, we were lowly wristbanders. “There's no way you're not getting in. Seriously.” As the line thinned we were able to see inside of the club. The front row was mainly Saskatoon residents, including Friends Electric icon Drew Davies who had warned us to get there early. He had even tried to save seats for us. Steve Reed waved at us and laughed.

For our faith we finally received admission with only minutes to go before 'America's Funny Man' took the stage. As we surveyed the room for the best available vantage point we were nudged out of the way by Hamburger himself, three overflowing drinks dampening his suit jacket sleeve. Cate apologized with a hint of pleasant surprise in her voice as he took his time staring each of us down, his bottom lip protruding grotesquely, nondescript grumbling sounds denied exit through his closed mouth. He looked like some awful gargoyle turned flesh, trying to settle in to sentient life as a 70s game show host. Cory patted him on the shoulder and he pulled away. Neil Hamburger wasn't built for warm embrace.

Once on stage he went through the motions, selling his schtick for all it was worth, and thank god for it. Hamburger executed a very calculated set of old favorites (no way of winning a twenty-something crowd over than with 15 vitriolic minutes of heroin jokes directed towards the Red Hot Chilli Peppers) and carefully placed duds which are often themselves old favorites, broken up by his trademark throat-clearing and Gilbert-Godfried-after-throat-cancer mantra of "Whyyyyyyyyyyy?"

A quick glance around the room was very telling and if I had to guess I would say that more than just a few completely dumbfounded tables had only taken up valuable real estate in the crowded Auburn hoping to see a reprieve of the violence the night before.

At one point during a particularly drawn out and completely lame joke I decided to be 'that guy' and booed the stage, at which point Hamburger tore a few strips off of me and accused me of being a plant from the Schmirnoff Ice people.

I also found out for the umpteenth time why Courtney Love won't be having any craaaanberry sauce for Christmas dinner this year, which is always helpful.

Our Sled Island experience ended there, with so many options still available to us, but frankly being told off by Neil Hamburger could not have possibly been topped and our last stop in Calgary that night was to a technicolor living room (think the shock moments in Romero's Creepshow frozen in time) attended exclusively by people dressed as the elderly, surrounded by snakes, mantises, and dozens of tarantulas, listening to the police and debating latter day Lynch (Eraserhead's Lynch, not Dokkens').

Don't tell me I missed out, I know how to party.

Skot Hamilton
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