Sasquatch Music Festival
29 May 2010: Gorge Amphitheater George, WA
I’m sitting next to Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady in the media tent at the Sasquatch Festival. We’re shooting the shit, discussing the merits of a good festival and how Sasquatch stacks up.
“A great lineup and a good atmosphere is all it takes,” he tells me. It’s a typical response from the bare-bones storyteller, but I can’t help but agree with him. Earlier in the day, while Ok Go were working their way through their flamboyant set on the mainstage amidst a picturesque backdrop, lead singer Damian Kulash Jr. reiterated what Finn had to say.
“A lot of times at festivals, the bands are shit and the venue sucks. But whoever planned this festival is a fucking genius.” The buoyant crowd agreed, still remarkably fresh faced, as the festival was still early on in its first day. The sun was high overhead and already, things seemed as close to perfection as one could hope for. Perhaps what sets Sasquatch apart is not only how excited the thousands of fans are to take the festival in, but the genuine appreciation bands show to the communal, genial atmosphere. But like I said, the 2010 Sasquatch Festival was still a fresh-faced child by this point. There had to be more, I thought to myself.
The Gorge Amphitheatre is an oasis. It takes some fight to find. Ideally, it lies two hours and change east of Seattle. You’d imagine any festival situated in the Northwest would be mired with rain and complacent apathy. And in the night, sometime after 11 PM on the Friday before the fest began, apathy was starting to kick in for my road-weary crew and me. After a few wrong turns, we sat in the mother of all traffic jams. There’s just one road that takes fans from the interstate to the Gorge. It had been pouring for our entire trip down from Vancouver. We turned off the interstate and became part of the last scene from Field of Dreams.
In the distance, a winding road lit up by thousands of headlights. We moved a few feet every 10 minutes, getting excited when the RPM’s in our cramped Hyundai Accent might rise above two. Cranky and bored, the five of us began to wonder if this trip would be worth it. A few joints and some watered-down American lager amped our spirits, if only slightly. After four hours in this monstrosity of a line-up, we set up camp in the darkness, still unsure what exactly it is that draws everyone here.
The next morning, we understood. We awoke to a sea of tents, hippies selling dope and playing hackie sack, college kids brushing their teeth with beer and a colorful desert which would prove to be our home for the next three days. Just seconds after awakening, everything seemed possible. And no one had even taken the stage yet. So, with abandon, we took to the festival proper. Day 1 was filled with the kinds of headlining acts that could very well fill the gorge on their own. For the first time (though there would be more, no doubt) our anticipation reached a feverish pitch.
After a massive line-up that had to filter through a few security guards, we perched ourselves on the top of the hill overlooking the main stage and the Columbia River Gorge. A stellar cast of stars, including two bands part of indie rock’s “May Madness”, Broken Social Scene and The National, who both released immensely-hyped records in early May, took to the stage to premiere new material. The crowds flooded in, eager to take in the battle of these giants.
Broken Social Scene is the very epitome of Sasquatch. Having travelled 22 hours to be at the Gorge after playing a festival in Barcelona a day earlier, the band pushed through sound issues early in the set (as so many bands were forced to do) and deliver a rising, bombastic set. What’s more, their balance of tunes from the luminous Forgiveness Rock Record and old standbys was a thing of beauty. As they closed with the epic charge of “Meet Me In the Basement”, the indie kids finally began to let their guard down. BSS beseeched the crowd to scream not for them, but for themselves. The large, crowded airliner that was Sasquatch had finally taken off. While The Hold Steady, who also released new material in May were relegated to the smaller, Bigfoot stage, The National managed to utilize the last bits of sun on the Gorge. Their set was healthy and at times, rather vibrant. Lead singer Matt Beringer exposed a vocal range rarely heard in the band’s moody tunes, screaming through “Secret Meeting” with the kind of passion normally reserved for young upstart artists.
If Broken Social Scene epitomised Sasquatch, then The National personified all music festivals in general. Both the band and the crowd, who were now drinking and growing in unison. And though The National are now the toast of the town with High Violet, a fucking brilliant piece of catharsis, they, like the crowd, still have secrets. The hippie chicks danced without regard for their surroundings. The mainstage was now packed, and those hippie chicks showed a pain in their faces that expressed longing for a quiet seat under the sun. And even the attention seekers, (who weren’t as omnipresent as originally expected) those with the terrible breath and worse timing? Even they wanted to hide, and make things a little more personal with The National.
And that’s fair. Festivals may allow fans to take in dozens and dozens of acts over a few days, but because true fans of these acts are hoarded in with those just passing by, it becomes tough for bands to make things personal and festival sets become terribly generic.
Yet when pressed on the issue before the gig, Beringer seemed unaffected and wasn’t too sure The National would do much to change things. “We just do what we do. We just try to focus on the songs. We try to put on as good a show as we can, regardless of whether we’re at a festival or not. We don’t do anything different, but it can be hard with those big crowds. And I’ve seen bands do it, and I don’t know how they do it. I’ve seen R.E.M do it, and I think they just manage to invest themselves emotionally in the songs. That’s the best you can do. I don’t know if shooting confetti or that sort of thing is going to help you connect with the crowd. It doesn’t work for us.”
Still, The National speak to the core that resolves to be heard. They are the tiny voice that screams if only in a baritone howl. They are the cerebral, and their set was an early contender for best of the fest.
But if confetti was what fans wanted, then they got it when Vampire Weekend took the stage. Not literally speaking of course, but there was a party-like atmosphere that surrounded these four, clean-cut dudes. They garnered the most energy of the festival, and though not everyone, (including this writer) finds their brand of Afro-pop enjoyable, or even slightly interesting, it’s tough to argue with thousands of benign white college kids dancing as if they were on acid. Though most of them left for My Morning Jacket’s spacey and transcendent set, (if there’s a more perfect juxtaposition of bands, I can’t think of one) the damage was done: day one was a success and it was time to really sink our teeth into the festival.
Grey skies may have dampened the picturesque setting on day two, but the crowd was still remarkably fresh faced, showing no signs of wear and tear from day one. Of course, if a hipster looks like shit, then ultimately they seem that much more appealing. Snobby as hipsters might be in real life, at Sasquatch there was an air of congeniality that swept the fest.
The vibe was tangible, and remained so for the rest of the festival. Local Natives, the first hipster-approved band was greeted by a large crowd, though their set didn’t quite gel with the grey skies. Still, it was hard for the weather to dampen anybody’s spirits. Their joyous, rising harmonies almost benefited from the wind. Their airy, Beach Boys inspired set travelled with ease.
Over on the main stage, Midlake channelled the energy of My Morning Jacket. Reverb-heavy, it was too bad they dressed like normal dudes instead of thrift store models. The paltry crowd that greeted them might have a been a little larger, as they deserved.
Back on the smaller, Bigfoot stage, The Tallest Man on Earth manned the stage alone, with an angelic, honest and heartfelt set. Kristian Matsson is one of those classic male singer-songwriters; dudes want to be him and girls want to be with him.
Cymbals Eat Guitars were one of the loudest acts at that point, with their punishing guitars invoking a different kind of emotion, albeit a discernible one. By this point, most people were kicking into their mid-day buzz, which made things easy for Kid Cudi to seduce the main stage with his upbeat, optimistic (though slightly self-serving) brand of hip-hop. The enthusiasm from the crowd came close to that which Vampire Weekend garnered, and his set invoked a barrage of poor, but elated dancing.
But how can I complain? In the Northwest, nobody dances for rain. Instead, we dance for sun. And apparently, the goofier you look while dancing, the better chance you have of impressing the sun Gods. Avi Buffalo, over on the tiny Yeti stage, were the first to get the best of Sunday’s sun. Their tuneful indie rock went over like gangbusters. If Saturday was the day for fans to find their footing and take in the big acts on the main stage, then on Sunday, the hipsters went mobile. The festival booths, a predictable but worthwhile blend of socially conscious groups and movements and faux-conscious corporations probably saw the most traffic. My personal favorites were the (Free!) posters at the KEXP tent and that sweet (Free!) button-making machine adjacent to it. With $12 cans of Molson Canadian (from the “Beers of the World” tent no less) it doesn’t take much to impress swag-thirsty hipsters, I suppose.
Tegan and Sara were a genuine treat to catch on the main stage and earned the “Friendliest performer” award at Sasquatch, without a doubt. For a band that has made their name on sharing personal anecdotes with their crowds and making gigs seem more like bedroom shows than club shows, their succinct set went over remarkably well.
“For a band like us,” Tegan told me before their set, “You have to be careful because you don’t want to disconnect from the crowd because that can feel like an epic, epic disappointment. When you’re in front of that many people, for us at least, you’re just like, ‘Wow.’ You have to rock as hard as you can and then get the hell off the stage.”
True as that sentiment might be, there was no doubt that the swarm of fans on the lawn could have enjoyed a little more of Tegan and Sara’s bashful indie-pop than the hour or so they were given.
LCD Soundsystem came next, but between the epic, bouncy push of the aforementioned band and Vampire Weekend, it seemed like many of the alt-rock purists in the crowd had had enough. Their asses were firmly planted in their spots, eagerly awaiting the reunited Pavement. For many (younger) purists like myself who took hold of bands like Pearl Jam and R.E.M when first becoming emotionally attached to rock and roll as opposed to Pavement (an intense discussion with a friend minutes before Malkmus and Co. took the stage lead to the realization that I missed out on Pavement by one year and three months) their set was more about discovery than vindication. Apparently Pavement had some discovery to do of their own. Their set was wrought with technical problems, enough for the slacker-legends to appear a little pissed off. Yes, there was definitely something “Off” about their set, even from a newbie’s point of view. But they didn’t care. And why the hell would they? They’re Pavement. They could have come out onstage, farted collectively and all the ‘90s stragglers would have deemed it the greatest show ever to take place on any stage, anywhere. I was sceptical, but finally, during a rousing “Stereo”, everything seemed to click. Pavement still have it, and folks like me, who were never subject to their ‘90s cult domination finally got “it.”
Festival highlight they might not have been, but the fact that we got to witness Pavement made the fest worth it. It was right around “Stereo” that the crowd, who came from places far and wide (though the immense ratio of Vancouverites was undeniable) now rendered themselves citizens of Sasquatch nation. If it was your first time at Sasquatch, you understood the mystique of this carefree meeting of like-minded souls. And if you were a returning Sasquatchian, you understood why you keep coming back again and again, year after year.
Miles away from the real world, the Sasquatch monster was now riding high above the clouds, looking down on all the tanned hipsters with equal parts appreciation and excitement. The sun may have been making its way into the Columbia River, but once again, the entire world seemed possible. In an age where monetary concerns have become commonplace, it was nice to know that there still existed a currency that possessed intense value and couldn’t be traded for a thing, (though cheap cans of PBR were also at a premium throughout the weekend).
And as if one ‘90s legend wasn’t enough: Public Fucking Enemy. To see thousands of privileged white kids holding their fists in the air while Chuck D and the wildly entertaining (although clearly lip-synching) Flavor Flav stomp through “Fuck Tha Police” was something both comical and extremely potent. No technical issues here: their high-energy, intensely political set defied all expectations. Chuck D even served up a harsh reminder: when he compared present day Arizona to Nazi Germany, it wasn’t as if the crowd felt compelled to speak out and make a difference in the world. He simply reminded the crowd that the real world continued to happen outside the festival gates. Had the entire crowd not been stoned out of their tree or drunk on a potent mix of freedom and contraband, Public Enemy’s set might have been a little too heavy. But when the band left the stage and Flav remained alone, preaching about the benefits of love and harmony and ragging on racism and segregation before proclaiming himself the “Greatest entertainer alive”, he injected a benevolent spirit into the crowd that set off a chain of parties in tent city that will forever keep Sunday at Sasquatch 2010 as indelible a memory as possible.
Monday. Memorial Day. What was the crowd (who had dwindled considerably) attempting to remember? Last night, apparently. Everyone looked groggy, but still adept. The 90210-ready, cookie-cutter rock of The Temper Trap were a forgettable start for many, though by that point, having something to complain about actually benefited everyone.
Only the persistent country-rock of the Drive By Truckers could have saved the crowd. Their set, during which I heard four people compare them to Tom Petty, served two purposes: it got the crowd ready for another day of carefree indulging and unfortunately, with its honest, Southern soul, the Drive By Truckers reminded us that the real world will indeed continue, so we best soak it up while we can.
If the indie dudes in the audience were to soak up anything, it was the big, mesmerizing gaze of Zooey Deschanel. Alongside M. Ward, She and Him played the kind of sunny pop that further enticed everyone to set up shop at the Gorge for life. The sun was out, Zooey looked good and M. Ward was crazy talented. Why the fuck do all good things have to come to an end?
We travelled over to the Yeti stage for hometown heroes Japandroids. Best suited for tiny, sweaty clubs, one couldn’t help but wonder how their intense punk would go over. It was nice to see the eclectic duo, but while they blasted through “Sovereignty”, with its intense chorus, my crew and I began to lament in a big way.
“It’s raining / In Vancouver / But I don’t give a fuck / ’Cos I’m far from home tonight.” David Prowse, drummer of Japandroids, who I spoke to just hours before they took the stage, appeared ill at ease after flying in from Spain that day. But still, the idea of performing late in the festival didn’t seem to bother him. “Easy access to alcohol really makes a good festival, along with good bands too. Also, as far as do’s and don’ts, make sure you take some time to take in the festival and really enjoy it. There’s a lot of things that are really stressful about festivals, like rushing to get your stuff onstage, sound issues. But you’ve got to enjoy it. Take a second to soak it in.”
Tomorrow, people would go to work. Tomorrow, a ridiculous oil spill would still be spreading faster than the speed of sound off the Gulf Coast. Tomorrow, everyone would have to look each other in the eye, though not without the protection of hip sunglasses and a glazed-over, alcohol-induced state of mind. Sasquatch, the utopia that it is, has an expiration date. Band of Horses were next, and it was clear that their recent stint opening for Pearl Jam had served them well. Jangly yet still ragged, their honest approach to the set fell in line with so many of the other performers at Sasquatch, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
It was time for our last act of the fest. The whole thing had become a story, one that had only brought out the best in people. Would the New Pornographers, who we chose to close the fest, provide us with the dramatic climax necessary to close a beautiful story?
While Sasquatch did indeed feature all the necessary requirements of a great story, that being a beginning, middle and end, great characters and a setting only the most talented of writers could dream up, the fest had no climax. It had no peak. From waking up to its picturesque backdrop, from the healthy vibe that swelled early in the festival and never relented and finally, to the rising, talented performances that weren’t hard to come by, Sasquatch did everything right.
Now, a week after the festival, I’m continually asked who the best performer was at the fest. Maybe the fact that I can’t really answer the question is a testament to the power of Sasquatch. All good things do come to an end, but all great things do come back, year after year.
// Notes from the Road
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