For many, one of the most odd announcements coming out of this year’s Sled Island Music Festival took place well after the release of a lineup of more than 230 bands, playing at 32 Calgary venues in only four days.
No, it wasn’t that Sled Island would curate a five-day film festival that included the hotly-anticipated feature-film New Jerusalem, starring alternative rock trailblazer Will Oldham a.k.a Bonnie Prince Billy. Nor was it that the rarely-seen-live metal outfit Sleep would be making an appearance at this year’s event. Rather, the shocking announcement was that the city’s newly elected mayor, Naheed Nenshi, would introduce Chad VanGallen —one of Calgary’s most beloved alternative rock musicians — before he plays this Saturday evening under the vibrant lights of the Olympic Plaza.
But for Sled Island’s Festival Director Lindsay Shedden, having Nenshi enter the fold was a logical step in the maturation of Calgary’s cultural development.
“The city supports this festival right to the very top. Mayor Nenshi said ‘Of course I want to be involved.’ It’s amazing that we are a part of a city and a province that embraces arts and culture. We aren’t just an oil and gas province. Music is huge here," Shedden says about Nenshi's involvement in the festival.
Sled Island has finally made it. The little-train-that-could festival has captured the imagination of an entire province and is now one of the most anticipated summer music events in Canada. It’s become entrenched in Calgary’s consciousness.
What began in 2007 as the brainchild of Zak Pashak, the owner of downtown Calgary music venue Broken City, has grown into a spectacular rallying call for musicians across Canada. Five years ago, just holding the festival was a gamble: bringing in international acts was an expensive proposition and the organizers could never be sure if they could garner the support of the community.
But over the past five years Sled Island has exploded into something even larger than itself. It’s become a mobilization of Albertan music, a platform to promote the music of a province that is often stereotyped as being a vapid, cultural wasteland.
“I think it puts Calgary on the map as being a progressive city,” Shedden says. “Even without Sled Island, the musicians that come out of this city — the scene is amazing. There are thousands of bands in Alberta that have the potential to be the next headliners of this festival. We’re just providing them an opportunity to get their music out there.”
This year alone, Sled Island is featuring 60 bands that originate from Alberta. It oozes with homegrown talent and with every guitar strum ringing throughout the city, it’s clear that this festival is turning heads.
“I don’t know what that secret ingredient is, but from my own experience, Sled Island is this infectious, electric, ball of positivity that the city is just engulfed in,” Shedden says. “Everybody that you see on the street is just smiling, laughing, and hugging each other. Everybody gets so excited about planning their nights, running around to shows. People know that they are partaking in something that is just magical.”
Sled Island officially begins its festivities this afternoon and runs until Saturday, June 25. If you can’t make it to Calgary to take it all in, a pair of Gateway editors have you covered. Matt Hirji (@matthirji), Madeline Smith (@meksmith) and The Gateway (@The_Gateway) will be tweeting and writing daily entries on the website to fill you in on all the exciting comings and goings of this year's festival, so tune in and happy sled islanding!