Prairie dog‘s somewhat-official Sled Island contingent—myself, actual prairie dog writers James Brotheridge and John Cameron, and James’s wonderful Rhiannon friend—set off for the Calgary festival Wednesday morning. None of us had been before, but judging from the line-ups we were guaranteed a terrific time. Plus, the festival’s diffuse network of shows, as opposed to having one or two outdoor stages, meant there’d be less time and frustration spent waiting, having heat strokes, etc.

We rolled in around 5 p.m., got to our hotel, set off to collect our wristbands (our GPS refused to believe that the stated venue for Discovery passes even existed, though in its defence, “Confluence Road” sounds completely made-up), and set off for some beer cocktails and our first real meals of the day at the Unicorn Pub downtown.

Our first official festival stop was supposed to be the Auburn Saloon for their comedy showcase, featuring the likes of Hannibal Buress and Graham Clark, but the Auburn had hit capacity by the time we arrived. Instead, we hoofed it to the Commonwealth, to make sure we got ourselves a decent spot for Lou Barlow later in the evening.

We showed up about halfway through a set from Edmonton’s Field & Stream, whose festival bio references Will Oldham, Jason Molina, and “hot dogs that taste of Muskol.” There were traces of those, but they sounded mostly like a sleepier Baby Eagle (though I could see Bonnie Prince Billy taking a crack at their final song of the evening).

Following them were Vancouver’s No Sinner, who seem to be a vehicle for vocalist Colleen Rennison and who performed with a modified line-up of piano and voice. The set felt really out of place at Sled Island—our party agreed she sounded a lot like KT Tunstall or Natasha Bedingfield—but Rennison is a hell of a singer at any rate. Frankly, I spent most of these sets considering the Commonwealth’s fine cocktails. There were definitely flames involved in prepping my Old Fashioned—resident booze dork John Cameron tells me that lighting the orange peel “expresses the oils.” Knowledge!

Lou Barlow was up next, and while I had always planned to stop by for his set, I grew more and more excited for it throughout the day, to the point that seeing Barlow standing by the entrance earlier in the evening literally made me squeal and clamp my hand over my mouth (sorry, folks, I’m taken). The set certainly wasn’t a letdown. Equipped with a nylon-string guitar, he moved quickly through his extensive catalog, from Deep Wound up through some soon-to-be-released Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr tracks.

Having never seen him before, I hadn’t expected him to be as outgoing onstage, but his banter showed him to be a warm, charming guy. His humour showed through his banter (“[J. and Murph] are like my older brothers. … I feel so sorry with anyone here with older brothers.”) as well as his setlist (a cover of Bryan Adams’s “Run to You” because he loves Canada; a medley of Smog’s “A Hit” and Folk Implosion’s non-hit “Natural One”). His voice was in top form as well—his name probably doesn’t come up first when you envision a great singer, but he has a foggy, pitch-perfect baritone that works so well with the nylon guitar. He set the bar pretty high for the rest of Sled Island, basically.

But, as anyone might expect, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet further raised the bar so high it’s no longer visible. We headed to the Legion following Barlow’s set, to catch the remainder of the Mammoth Cave showcase there. Regrettably, we were too late to catch Fist City, but we were right on time for the most historic set of Sled Island (and the one I was personally most excited for): the first Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet performance since 1996.

With Dallas Good of the Sadies filling in for the late Reid Diamond, who was honoured with a mid-set glass-raising, the men of Shadowy Men ripped into their set without a word of introduction. Pausing maybe twice to tune and chat, they played nigh on two hours of classic material, from “Bennett Cerf” to “They Don’t Call Them Chihuahuas Anymore” to “You Spin Me Round”, the latter replete with delightfully cheesy organ. They of course played “Having an Average Weekend”—you know it; it’s the Kids in the Hall theme song—at which point the crowd, already shoulder-to-shoulder, started a bona-fide pit. Honestly, I’ve seen less movement at an SNFU show. The band seemed overjoyed at it, though they insisted they’d basically been dragged to the festival. They couldn’t have played more tightly, their tone couldn’t have been more impeccable, and the set couldn’t have been more delightful. Two hours wasn’t enough.

Stray observations:

– Lou Barlow takes requests. He won’t play “Mary Hair” by his one-off group Belt Buckle, because “it’s a shitty song”, though he’ll commend you, “That’s a deep cut!” He will play “Brand New Love”, though, and it’ll make your night. He won’t play “Lou’s Anxiety Song” (“I wish!” was the response) but he’ll happily take on one of J’s Deep Wound songs instead.
– There was some seriously poor settiquette during Shadowy Men. If you come to a show 30 minutes late, you don’t get to elbow your way to the front of the stage. About eighty hundred people tried this, though.
– I managed to lose my voice within the duration of “Shadowy Countdown”, which is about 45 seconds long and consists of counting down from ten to zero twice.
– Shadowy Men closed their encore with “16 Encores”, their classic medley of the first four bars of conceivably every song that’s ever been popular, from “Rock Lobster” through “The Boys Are Back in Town” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s realistically around 60 encores, which only drew out the fun.
– Wikipedia told me this morning that Dallas Good is more than familiar with the Shadowy dudes: he spent time in Don and Reid’s post-Shadowy band Phono-Comb. Knowledge!

Stay tuned for more Sled Island updates through the week. Maybe I’ll even figure out what blogging is along the way.