By Taylor Burgess
After driving to Calgary straight from Winnipeg, what better way to acclimatize myself to the Sled Island festival than head the Royal Canadian Legion #1? It served as two venues in one, had the Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet reunion show, and offered the nobility and decency of a legion so many of us have ironically or unironically come to know.
I entered to see the Ketamines, hulking rockers, with the lead singer barking and singing into trails of echo. After the song ended, the singer breathlessly said, with sweat dripping down, “Okay this is the dumbest song I’ve ever written, but it’s the only one that people like—so fuck it.” They launched into another garage-rock psych tune that found him singing, screaming, hopelessly yelling at the into-it crowd about putting a bullet to his head, and asking why. He shouted this tragic (dramatically tragic) plea for attention of a song on top of the grand Legion stage, between plush red curtains, with grand Royal Canadian Legion crests behind him, and down below, fists were being thrown into the air. Even from watching afar, the Ketamines made for a killer show with all their effects and straight-ahead rock, ranging from mid-tempo to up-tempo.
Before I had gotten my bearings straight downstairs—the Ketamines were done and it was time for Bloodhouse upstairs, in a smaller lounge. There were some amps and a drum kit set up directly on the crimson carpet at the end of the blond wooden bar, really tucked away in the corner. It was the best lit area, however, while everyone else in the audience could moor over their drinks deeper and deeper into the dark maze of chairs.
Bloodhouse, from Nova Scotia, took the stage and held nothing back. Pretty quick, it was easy to see that they were three distinguished parts of some awesome, unforgiving whole. First, there’s the uptight singer guitarist with nice taste—baseball cap, buttoned-up blue shirt, post-punk chord voicings driven with unending fervour. There’s the energetic punk bassist, with his hood covering his baseball cap, eager to jump around, scream along for a refrain or two, then get back down to pummelling note after note. And finally there’s the drummer who took his shirt off after the first song. He obviously knows how to keep a good time going—or at least keep himself from getting sweaty. It’s rudimentary really, but isn’t this what we’re asking for at this point? I’m hooked on their hooks. Their shirtless drummer keeps pounding out the same quick shit pattern until—BAM–there’s one fill (and I mean like one fill in the song) and he nails it. Awesome stuff. They’re coming to Winnipeg soon, so stay tuned.
Around 11 p.m. I went downstairs again for an even tinier crowd. I guess Grave Babies aren’t all that hyped up. They’ve got a solid New Romantics sound and feel though. Maybe, if anything to their detriment, their lead singer tried too hard to emulate the British ’80s—but then again, I thought the same thing of the Horrors’ singer when I first heard Primary Colours. The songs are short and sweet and aren’t building on LOUDquietLOUD dynamics, but instead stick to one vibe and a couple simple hooks per each song. SHIT—then the drum machine kicked in for a song (a bit too loud) and I thought “SHIT—this is heading to contemporary industrial territory, like Cold Cave or Prurient.” I thought it would have been better with a hoard of 16-year-old goth girls. There’s a crowd that’s gathering, but they seem a bit dumbfounded. Grave Babies don’t seem more or less pleased about this—they continue on with their mid-tempo heart-on-the-sleeve slowdance-appropriate tunes. This is definitely in the same territory as Horrors and Cold Cave—paging Ted Turner.
After this, I got way too tired to really enjoy much of the rest of the night. I had to stand or sit far in the shadows, mooring over my fatigue from not sleeping. The only band to perk me up before Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet—their first reunion show in 17 years!—was a mere half-hour before the headline set, upstairs, by Freak Heat Waves. It’s a bit of a shaft to be place right before the headliners at the alternate stage, but these guys seemed rather young and have lots of time to make a name for themselves. I figured I would stay to check them out, and ditch if they weren’t worth getting some good pictures of SMOASP. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get any decent pictures of SMOASP. Freak Heat Waves were straight, narrow, and hella tight! Immediately, there was a crowd, staring at the floor where the single strobing light sat and all were pointedly bobbing their heads, but staying in place. It was like the guitarist had taken several lessons straight out of Women and Joy Division’s songbooks. As a tall fellow, he stared over most of the crowd who were standing on the same crimson (stobing) carpet. The bassist held two-note riffs and the drummer kept steady motoric pace—slowly varying their licks as, I swear, their nine-minute long post-punk epics unfurled like fantasy novels—or maybe these were a select few songs mashed together. Anyway, for me, it was a true treasure of the night.
Getting downstairs in time to get fairly (but not that) close to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, they began a good four or five minutes before 1:00 a.m. (Again, my heart goes out to Freak Heat Waves getting lucked out.) The newly-reunited instrumental Canadian surf band was visceral, and they got a good portion of the crowd swaying or dancing. Without much reference to their catalogue, you’d be lost as instrumental song was followed by…another song. It all felt rather polite though I was feeling a tad sour, so I removed myself from the Royal Canadian Legion #1 to get some mental rest and prepare for other days of the festival.