Though not the first of the major summer festivals, Sasquatch! sure felt like early summer. The Gorge Amphitheatre is nestled in the eastern foothills of the Cascades just outside George, Washington (really), the mountains to the west managed to keep the coastal rains at bay, but the altitude and dry air made for some sunburnt days and brisk nights. We were woefully unprepared for these climatic factors, not to mention the sheer scope of this year’s lineup. Festivals like this one lure you in with a laundry list of bands you would love to see, and then dash those dreams when the schedule is announced and you realize you will only be able to see approximately a third of them – given you’re still standing at the end of the day.
Some tough choices were made to give you the best coverage we could, that is we made game-time decisions and saw whatever we felt like. It would have been lovely to have seen more up and comers but schedule conflicts and the occasional sleep-in (see Day Three) conspired against that notion. Sasquatch!, despite its laid-back west coast feel, is still a commercial festival. If you want cutting edge, beg one of our Toronto writers to cover NXNE, you probably won’t have to beg too hard. What follows is our take on the best of Sasquatch! Music Festival 2010, day by day.
The first day of Sasquatch! 2010 came on strong. It was a long pilgrimage to the Gorge, after a near-miss t-bone collision in Seattle, our journey ended at four in the morning with a two-hour long lineup of cars into a campground designed by anarchists. Far too early the next morning the sun drove us out of a sweltering tent and into the arms of $9 cans of PBR. We present to you five highlights of the day, first our “Top Three” followed by honourable mentions.
Most bands new to relative celebrity would probably find it difficult to follow up longtime festival favourites Broken Social Scene. I imagine The National have wondered about the indie upheaval that has dug them up from campus radio obscurity to NYT Magazine reviewed, NPR favourite. But their performance, third to last on the main stage, proved that this rise to fame was anything but hype. The set was almost entirely from their previous two albums, Boxer and recently released High Violet, with an almost equal showing of each, which is appropriate since the former seemed to mark such a turning point in their trajectory. The material was readily adapted to the expanse of The Gorge amphitheatre, adding bombast without significantly altering the monochrome sombreness of singer Matt Beringer’s lyrics. The highlight of the set for me came when I realized that the middle-aged women camped out beside me didn’t just know more of the words than I did, she knew all of them.
When Laura Marling and co. took the stage and began ‘Devil’s Spoke’ – the first single from the March release I Speak Because I Can – we feared she was blowing her load too soon. Fortunately, her short showcase of parable-like songs shushed the intoxicated noon-time crowd. For a songbird born in the nineties, Marling writes strangely convincing elegiac folk. It is difficult to imagine what someone so young harkens for; lyrically, Marling is wistful, lusty and wise. Onstage, she is delicate and politely British, making for a lovely afternoon listen on the Bigfoot stage.
I only caught part of Patrick’s set, since the stage he was performing on seemed to be in a different time zone. However, he still makes the top three based on the material I did hear. Most impressive was their ability to convey the delicacy and varied texture of their percussion on the outdoor PA. The quiets were still quiet without being inaudible. The crowd seemed at ease with this Canadian act’s, admittedly concise, two album catalogue. Off the Polaris Prize winning Wooden Arms, ‘Beijing’ was much applauded.
It was hard to keep this act out of the top three since the New Kids on the Block of indie rock had the boys ‘Hey Hey Hey’ing and the girls swooning, and let’s be honest, in the age of bromance the reverse was probably equally true. This was the crowd at its most jubilant, which should put them an easy first, except that is exactly what you would expect Vampire Weekend’s music to do. More significant was an almost religious convergence on our parts from a state of trying to hypocritically rationalize our dislike of the band to the realization that we actually love the band in spite of all that. The band inaugurating the “first weekend of summer” with a rendition of ‘Horchata’ as the sun set over The Gorge is exactly the kind of cliché I’m talking about. We loved it.
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes
Either something awful happened to Alex Ebert’s mic or we had no reason to hype up this show to everyone around us. His voice seemed to periodically drop out from the set. Standing forty rows back is also not what we envisioned for our first Edward Sharpe experience, but then, no one was wearing a dirty potato sack either. Also disappointing were the ladies around us screaming “Play the song! Play the song!”, which I haven’t heard since Bedouin Soundclash graced the stage at a frosh concert in 2005. ‘Home’ is great, but that and frequent revelations of “He looks like Jesus!” made us wonder – is this the Sasquatch of new?
Another day wiser, we show up an hour early at the gates with beers not-so-cleverly hidden in a rolled up hippie blanket. If you make your being subject to a search seem like a minor inconvenience the Gorge’s security screeners will relent. This is not the TSA and we are not cabinet ministers. I manage to sneak in a cellphone interview with Kathryn Calder of the New Pornographers (which you can look forward to soon) before the day’s festivities begin. The overcast sky is a relief for our slightly pink and crispy skin.
James Murphy is larger than life, and it has nothing to do with being projected on two giant stage-side jumbotrons. The man’s music has something transcendent about it. Genre constraints were never really an issue for LCD; post-electroclash, post-punk, post-dance. Whatever you call it, Murphy invented it. But watching this performance made me realize Murphy makes more than music, he makes art. If you’re skeptical of this assertion think art as in Warhol not as in Rembrandt. Appreciating his work doesn’t require any gallery chin-stroking. The proof that the crowd got it came during the rambling spoken word ‘Pow Pow’.
If you’re not familiar with the topography of the Gorge, it offers seating on dramatically steep terraced strips of grass. This means that everyone can see the stage no matter how tall the person in front, it also means performers see a wall rather than a sea of fans. There is also a pit which offers a closer view of the band, and if one turns around, a similar view of the rest of the crowd. It is from this point that I was tapped on the shoulder and indicated to look behind me. The crowd had begun some sort of synchronized arm-waving routine, and not just a few eager fans, the whole crowd. It did not take long for the rest of us in the pit to join in. Murphy may be massive, but he’s also modest, this is a guy who spends his first thirty seconds on stage adjusting his band mates drum kit, needless to say he seemed genuinely grateful for the crowd’s response.
Who is tUnE-yArDs? What is a tUnE-yArD? Is it tUnE-yArDs or TuNe-YaRdS? Let me answer some of these questions. For the latter, the correct spelling is the former. For the former, the answer is a force of a woman named Merrill Garbus supported live by Nate Brenner and others. As to what, imagine if Owen Pallett traded in his violin for a ukelele and a two-piece drum kit to loop instead. Further imagine that Owen’s boyish good-looks and charm are replaced with a face-painted warrior woman whose voice sometimes sounds like St. Vincent and sometimes like a dancehall MC. Now imagine, which will not be very hard, that she makes music like nothing else heard at the festival or on the planet.
The bands filling the lineups of the various summer festivals can be broken into roughly two categories: bands with large followings and a proven track record of drawing festival crowds such as Ween and My Morning Jacket who seem to be billed at virtually every festival every summer, and bands of any size with a new album to promote, e.g. Caribou.
I was familiar with Daniel Snaith’s newest effort Swim after having a few good solid listens to it in preparation for an interview with him (which you can also look forward too soon). The artist formerly known as Manitoba was on my must-see list as a long-time fan, but despite Snaith’s Skyped assurances I remained skeptical of Swim’s ability to readily transpose itself to the summer stage. Snaith says he wants to make music that could be from anywhere, but I was not sure that meant that it should be played anywhere. I was wrong. Caribou, which live is a four-person act, took to the main stage first thing at noon, the ambience was the exact opposite of the darkened discotheque conjured by the new release. Yet, the crowd, myself included, ate it up. It was not too early to dance, and dance we did, the only skepticism remaining on the face of one security guard who seemed amused by the one-word ‘Sun’.
If you are the kind of person who does not know what to do or how to move at a concert, you must see Kid Cudi. The mainstage act drew a massive and eclectic crowd, one that swiftly became one under the straightforward directives of the quirky rapper. When he said “Kid”, we said “Cudi.” When he said “good”, we said “music.” When he yelled “make noise”, we erratically screamed and punched the air. When he occasionally changed up the lyrics to include secret crowd directions, such as crooning “make a peace sign to me now” during ‘Soundtrack 2 My Life’, we ate it up. It was this organizing factor, Kid’s unrelenting confidence, and a setlist full of soulful (and surprisingly ubiquitous to this reviewer) songs, that so captivated a gleeful crowd of thousands.
The Tallest Man on Earth
We enjoyed The Tallest Man on Earth’s set from the comforts of a picnic blanket, far and away from the maddening crowds. His pared-down man with guitar act worked well as background music to the Sasquatch lunching hour, and while we couldn’t even see him on the jumbotron from our vantage point, powerful renditions of ‘King of Spain’ and ‘You’re Going Back’ managed to reach us. The Tallest Man deserves honourable mention for covering a great – arguably the greatest – Paul Simon song ever recorded. If you missed it at Sasquatch, The Tallest Man’s rendition of ‘Graceland’ can apparently be found on the King of Spain CD single. Yes, it’s as if Dylan covered Simon. But more mustachioed.
Never let your guard down. Not even when you’re at a music festival just trying to get your drunk on without interference from the man. Sasquatch! has hired highly trained Beverage Enforcement officers who can spot the difference between a tall can of PBR (which is available for sale) and a regular can (which is not) at a distance of no less than three yards. They’re not even using binoculars for that shit. Giddy and slightly nervous about our contraband we carefully placed our regular cans into our free promotional Gorge cozies leaving some space at the bottom so that even a professional Bev-Off like the two shown above would not know the difference. As we soaked-in Passion Pit from our wee knoll vantage we threw caution to the wind and drank our regular cans in the open. Like Icarus we were quickly burned. We were forced to shamefully poor out the champagne of Milwaukee right there on the ground while the bad-cop of the duo menacingly uncapped an oversized permanent marker. Little did they know we simply took it as an opportunity to remember our fallen homies. It was a dark hour that even the ecstatic melodies of Passion Pit scarcely could mend. Thankfully this event was no harbinger and the rest of the day was full of good music and legitimately acquired refreshments.
The New Pornographers
The Vancouver supergroup, like Broken Social Scene, are mainstays of Canadian indie rock and form the hub of a web of related artists and acts each with their own touring schedule which sometimes makes it difficult for all members to attend every show. However, unlike BSS, it doesn’t feel like something’s missing when the live-act is pared down from the studio version. So when Neko Case graced the stage it was admittedly exciting, but it was simply an added bonus not a requirement for a good show. Bejar, not exactly the siren that Case is, still sealed the deal for the best Pornographers performance I’ve seen when he arrived on stage. The group is every bit as good as their Toronto-based counter part but never seem to be taken as seriously. Perhaps that’s because they don’t take themselves as seriously, and that’s a good thing. Kevin Drew embarrassed himself with his proselytizing, ego-tripping rockstar shtick, it just doesn’t look good on Canadians. Newman, on the other hand, was all smiles and laughs and the audience was actually enjoying themselves. Go figure.
The Mountain Goats
Kudos to The Mountain Goats’ brainchild John Darnielle for delivering a relatively comprehensive set in under one-hour, given the 17 studio albums worth of material he had to slough through. Prefacing each song with a pithy anecdote and grinning like a preacher, Darnielle navigated through some of his most emotionally-trying songs with an affability that was borderline manic. Best of all was the unexpected rendition of ‘Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’ off 2001’s All Hail West Texas, but it wasn’t until ‘This Year’ that the devoted crowd found themselves forever inducted into the church of Darnielle. Hail Satan!
The last day of the festival kind of blurs together for me. I would attribute it to some sort of musical palette fatigue, or over-stimulation, but I would be lying. As the festival wore on alcohol costs became prohibitively expensive, this was a serious concern lest we become dehydrated. Drink water you say? No time. When you’ve paid money to attend a festival you’re accustomed to a lot of waiting; waiting for port-a-potties mostly, but when you get to attend for free on a media pass you become accustomed to a certain lifestyle like complimentary mini-bags of Cheetos, you don’t wait to fill up your water bottle, the line-up for beer is shorter. What I am trying to say is I don’t really remember if Japandroids were good, I only heard them as I walked the extra ten minutes past the stage they were on to use the queue-less media port-a-pottie. They were singing about french kissing french girls and it sounded like a great idea. I like these guys and feel bad about spending more time drinking and peeing than listening to them.
The band’s two albums are so different that we didn’t know what to expect from this show. What ensued was a bizarre experience. While songs off Congratulations were relatively well received, the huge success of MGMT’s first album was evident from the crowd’s insanely hyperactive reaction to songs off Oracular Spectacular. The dance parties during ‘Time to Pretend’ and ‘Electric Feel’ just felt different from anything encouraged by Congratulations, and at times the band seemed frustrated by the nostalgia. They ended the show by abandoning their instruments and playing a karaoke-style version of ‘Kids’, which may have seemed strange if anyone was paying attention. Alas, there were just too many giant balloons to punch, too much fist-pumping to do.
I have to be honest about something: we didn’t see Phantogram. That is we didn’t see them play. We have seen them play before, opening for The Antlers at the Biltmore, and they were great, you should check them out. Sometimes on the last day of a festival, when the lack of internet is preventing you from doing any real coverage anyways, you just want to wake up and have a late, liquid lunch. Phantogram’s set was a bit too early to fit into this plan. We did spot Phantogram everywhere though, and I have got to say I respect a band that takes time out of their schedule to just soak-in a festival and be amongst the common folk.
The Gorge’s geography couldn’t help but lend a sense of gravity to the weekend’s proceedings. Lollapalooza has the backdrop of the Chicago skyline straight out of Adventures in Babysitting. But the Gorge’s baby Grand Canyon topography abutted by rolling, parched sagebrush hills to the west and Washington’s agricultural heartland to the east makes it seem more special, more like the romanticized folk-festivals of my parents. It makes it seem plausible that more than just an economic transaction occurred here. Sure bands were paid and beers were purchased, but there was also a communion of man, music and nature.
Tags: Caribou, Edward Sharpe, Japandroids, Laura Marling, LCD Soundsystem, Local Natives, MGMT, Patrick Watson, Phantogram, Sasquatch Music Festival, The Mountain Goats, The National, The New Pornographers, The Tallest Man on Earth, tUnE-yArDs, Vampire Weekend