Promoters work to salvage flooded out Sled Island Festival

View from Kevin Maimann's hotel room on June 21 morning

View from Kevin Maimann’s hotel room on June 21 morning

CALGARY – I woke up Friday morning to see downtown Calgary covered in brown water no more than a block from my vantage point at Hotel Arts, which was on evacuation order after power and water had been shut off.

I’d spent the previous two nights getting soaked walking from venue to venue, trying to catch as many bands as possible at the Sled Island Music Festival, considered to be Alberta’s indie-rock Holy Grail. Despite highly anticipated shows by bands like Swans, Superchunk and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the streets felt strangely empty. But no one braving the downpour could have expected what happened that morning as Calgary’s Bow and Elbow rivers overflowed into the city, causing record-breaking floods. More than 75,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Schools were closed. The rest of Sled Island was cancelled. Several venues, as well as the festival’s main office, were blacked out or under evacuation order.

In the midst of the sudden chaos and devastation, however, promoters in Edmonton and Calgary wasted no time picking up the pieces. While Wunderbar owner Craig Martell spent four hours navigating flooded roads out of Calgary, he was co-ordinating with Aaron Getz, Mark Hayes and Linda Ha to assemble gigs at Wunderbar and Whyte Avenue barber shop Barber Ha.

“I think it dawned on me when the people I ran into, whether they were musicians or just friends from Edmonton, a lot of them were saying that the places they were staying were evacuated,” Martell says. “The logistics of that started hitting me …I was thinking, you have a bunch of displaced bands who literally don’t have a place to stay in Calgary. So we may as well get them to come to Edmonton, do a show, and get to recoup a bit of money and play for some people.”

Barber Ha pulled off the extraordinary task of bringing Sled Island bands together for a Friday night show with help from Long & McQuade, which supplied gear free of charge. The show was volunteer-driven, with door money going to the bands, and liquor sales split between bands and charity. Peace, Slam Dunk and several more played to a packed house.

Martell has booked nearly a dozen bands to play his off-Whyte venue Saturday afternoon from 1-8 p.m., including UBT, Doug Hoyer, Brazilian Money, Heaven for Real and Matthew A. Wilkinson. An extra Sunday show is a possibility. Hog’s Head Brewery stepped up with a free keg of beer for the bands. The rest of the Wunderbar staff worked tirelessly, and sound man Andy Mulclair put in several hours doing sound for no cost, despite having to attend a wedding Saturday afternoon. Andrea Yacyshyn helped the out-of-town bands find places to stay.

“It’s just amazing how people come together. Besides trying to navigate all the messages from bands while I was on the road, I probably had five or six people message me that if bands need food or lodging they’ll take care of it,” Martell says. “It’s kind of special. I don’t know how many towns this could happen in, where things are sort of un-cliquey enough that we could make this work.”

Bands that stayed in Calgary put on house shows, and venues like the Tubby Dog forged ahead as scheduled.

Complaints about missing the rare chance to see Sled Island headliners like Jesus and Mary Chain or Explosions in the Sky were quickly replaced by excitement in a massive show of strength and teamwork from Alberta’s independent music scene. Of course, the inconvenience to out-of-town music fans was nothing compared to the 75,000 Calgarians who had to leave their homes and possessions behind.

Sled Island executive director Maud Salvi and her crew – members of which have been displaced from their own homes – scrambled to get bands out of the city safely while the military poured into the city to provide aid. As of Saturday afternoon, most bands had left and some had transportation arranged for Sunday morning.

Speaking on Saturday afternoon, Salvi was admirably optimistic.

“Everyone is really tired and disappointed, but we’re also really overwhelmed by all the support that we’ve been receiving over these last two days,” she said. “Spirits are really high today and we’re trying to power through this.”

Evacuated from their own office, and with the city of Calgary in a state of emergency, Salvi has not been able to sift through the festival budget and gauge the impact the severe flooding – which has caused at least hundreds of millions in damages to the city – will have on the future of the festival.

Sled Island plans to offer refunds to people who bought festival passes, but many have said they won’t ask for a refund. Some artists who missed their chance to play have already offered to return part of the deposit they were paid, and only keep enough to cover their hard costs.

The city of Calgary has a long rebuilding process ahead, but Salvi and her team believe Sled Island will be able to get back on its feet.

“I think it’s going to depend a lot on our partners and artists, even people,” Salvi said. “I’m really confident that we’re going to make it work.”