Push open the doors of Calgary’s Palomino Smokehouse on a Friday night and you’ll be greeted by: the sweet smell of BBQ, a mosaic of curiosities from gaudy neon signs to long-horned taxidermy and, if you time it right, the sound of music.
I’m at the delightfully divey smokehouse-stage (only in Calgary could this hybrid thrive) checking out our August NEXT cover stars, swaggering sister rap duo Cartel Madras, in their first homecoming performance since the pandemic. In classic rapper fashion, they’re not slated until well after midnight.
In the meantime, the basement beckons. Glowing, absinth-green lights and vibrating techno beats waft up from a subterranean stage. Sled Island, Calgary’s music and arts festival with a taste for the eclectic, has curated a killer lineup of Canadian indie artists to fill the joint with blood-pumping sounds all night long. It’s the closest this cowboy city will come to Berghain, the famously impossible-to-get-into techno club in Berlin. Full of multiple floors offering different atmospheres, it sweats with released inhibition.
Descending the well-worn wooden stairs to the basement rave reveals a David Bowie-like figure screaming into the mic while tousling the most luscious mullet I’ve ever seen. It’s CC, the lead of noise punk outfit DRI HIEV, and they’re an immediate icon. I’m magnetized by the juxtaposition of their gothic pageant-queen beauty and shrill sound. The chaotic sonics are tethered by skittering hi-hats that have me fighting the urge to bop around like a jumping bean. I, and the rest of the crowd, quickly give in.
As the set winds down — not before CC demonstrates the suppleness of their leather pants by hip-thrusting on the ground mid-performance — I wander back up the stairs and see lo-fi soul act Sargeant X Comrade starting their set. The band is an impressive mix of moustaches and beat pads, drums and dreadlocks, but lead singer Yolanda Sargeant is clearly the main attraction. Her rich, soulful drawl reminds of Amy Winehouse while the laid-back, sunny beats incorporating retro samples feel touched by Erykah Badu. In a minidress with an abstract pattern and holographic sneakers, Sargeant glides effortlessly from song to spoken word. At this point, I’ve developed a big fat crush on her.
Duty and PBR on tap call as I realize it’s past midnight — I descend the sagging stairs to Cartel Madras territory.
It’s a funny thing to be a music writer in the pandemic; without seeing the artist perform live, it’s tough to fully capture their essence. You miss some of the magic. Now that I finally have the chance to see Contra and Eboshi live, I’m dying to know how their booming beats and audacious personas will translate onstage. It’s not entirely unlike hoping your date lives up to their Tinder profile.
Walking out in Matrix-inspired shades of black, leather and tinted frames, they arrive on a custy, carpeted stage lined with beer and Soju. Launching into the bass-fuelled throttle of Red Notice, a 2018 track from their debut EP Trapistan, it’s clear this show is for the OG fans. Back when we spoke in the summer, the sisters told me their very first performance was at a massive house party. Tonight’s floor-level stage and basement setting feel like a full-circle moment. The crowd is clearly ecstatic, if not overzealous, to have them home. A mosh pit forms almost immediately, accidentally spitting a fan out onto stage. Smiling as they rap, the sisters are clearly enjoying the super fandom — but they restore order to the crowd and tell us to behave.
Put simply, this show is a rager. Sweaty and smiling fans know all the words as Contra and Eboshi jump around, swivel heads with their whiplash bars and chant cheeky lines like “Leonardo DiCap-in-your-ass.”
“Can we cut the lights?” Eboshi shouts to nobody in particular as she looks above the crowd. Some mysterious force obliges, and the final track bursts through the pitch black. Menacing and visceral, the beat courses through our bodies. Random camera flashes puncture the darkness, illuminating sweat and tears on the sisters’ faces.
The absence of sound when they strut off stage to AP in the green room comes as a shock. Ears ringing, the room is left damp and drunk. Perhaps this night isn’t so different from Berghain after all.