On the Scene: Sasquatch! music festival

SasquatchIf insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, PopWatchers, then it must be time to up my meds: After a springtime dominated by SXSW, Coachella, and Stagecoach, and two weeks before the four-day march of Bonnaroo, I just took a vacation… to a music festival. Yes, it seems I can’t get enough of unruly crowds, tired feet, blazing sun, frustratingly spotty performances, and expensive/mediocre food, which is why this weekend, I flew up to Washington State for the Sasquatch! (yes, that exclamation point is mandatory) festival at The Gorge, a rather self-explanatory venue hanging off a cliff over the Columbia River.

I recognize that I may have a problem, but I also had a thesis to prove. What if the adorable little festival — just three stages, no teeming VIP area full of L.A. scenesters, located in the middle of the spot where nowhere goes to get away from it all — was secretly the best fest in the country? In my opinion, its lineup was better than Coachella: R.E.M., The Cure, and Flaming Lips for headliners; M.I.A., Flight of the Conchords, the New Pornographers, Death Cab, Rodrigo y Gabriela, The National, Kathleen Edwards, Rogue Wave, Mates of State, Built to Spill, and a comedy tent for the undercard. With a miniscule capacity of 22,000, I knew I’d have some breathing room, and three years at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival have taught me that folks up here are great concertgoers. Most of all: while that Pacific Northwest weather can be unpredictable, it was never, ever going to be 100 degrees outside.

[Also, my friends and I had scored the chance to dance on stage with the Flaming Lips. Um, YOU READ THAT RIGHT. The near-religious experience will not be discussed here; It's 2 a.m. and I want to write about it when I've got my brain on. There will be pictures. Stay tuned.]

After the jump, highlights from all three days, and my eventual conclusion. Here’s a tease: If you’re looking for a Memorial Day vacay for next year, I’ve got just the destination in mind.

We drifted in on Saturday like the fat gray clouds that hung in the sky, relaxed and ready for the weekend ahead. In the distance, the winds lifted a single tent into the air and blew it across the campground; Rainn Wilson wandered from stage to stage, introducing bands and promo’ing The Rocker, which the plane circling overhead (and the 22,000 free bandannas strapped around the necks and heads of most everyone in attendance) told me was coming out sometime in August. We began with Beirut, Throw Me the Statue, and Kathleen Edwards, then learned that the National’s afternoon appearance on the mainstage had been postponed due to bus trouble. Seattle hype magnets Fleet Foxes got to fill in with their hairy, ancient harmonies, after which we kept our spots for a New Pornographers set that featured Neko Case and Dan Bejar, but actually kind of sucked. (I’m prepared to attribute this to either the minimal time in rehearsal the full group gets these days and/or the Destroyer mastermind’s beery presence — he’d just played a full set on the Wookie stage up the hill, and had to be coerced several times to come back out to the mic. Sometime shortly before the Porns closed with a cover of ELO’s "Don’t Bring Me Down," the first raindrops of the afternoon fell from the sky. For this, I blame Neko. Last time she was at Sasquatch, it hailed.

We ditched out of M.I.A. for Okkervil River — thereby apparently missing the Iggy Pop-esque spectacle of Maya calling hundreds of kids up on stage to dance — then ditched out of Okkervil River for the National’s rescheduled set, during which Matt Berninger and his band of brothers put on the Show of the Weekend™. I’ve never been a fan of this band at festivals — something about bright sunlight and wide open spaces do them no favors — but on the tiny Yeti Stage under darkening, ominous skies, they were absolutely captivating, and I’ll remember Berninger’s gut-churning performance of "Mr. November" for a long, long time.

Modest Mouse having been rendered inconsequential by our National glory haze, all that was left Saturday was R.E.M — and the pride of Athens, GA, amazingly, just picked up that momentum and kept it flowing. The rain was falling hard by the time they went on, but down in the front pit, the wind was mostly blowing it over our heads; on stage, a terrifically cheerful Michael Stipe just took off his shoes and socks and kept going. Here are songs they played that pushed things over the top for your devoted R.E.M. acolyte Aunt Whittlz: "Harborcoat." "These Days." "Ignoreland." (!!) An intimate guitar-circle version of the Kurt Cobain elegy "Let Me In," which Stipe sang softly, intently, with his back to the crowd. Plus all the hits, and most of Accelerate, which has grown on me like a pleasing fungus. I was not thrilled with this band after SXSW this year. I am back to being thrilled now.

The next two afternoons, we took things even slower. Rolled in late on Sunday to catch Rogue Wave’s almost-impeccable set (sorry about the blown amp before "Lake Michigan," guys; let’s assume the waiting just made the crowd like you more). Stayed to hear Mates of State who were plagued by technical difficulties — and are suddenly sporting two new members on strings and horns — but charmed their way through as usual. We then inadvertently wandered into a mosh pit for Death Cab, the thrashing teens around us leading me to wonder 1) who moshes to "Soul Meets Body"? and 2) when did this band stop belonging to my 30-something generation and start belonging to the kids? Is it Seth Cohen? Really? That’s all it takes? Because I’ve never seen so many happy high school/college-age kids in one place in my life. They bounced, they hugged, they sang every.single.word. It made me miss my twenties something fierce. So Death Cab are yet another band for whom redemption was found at Sasquatch — I’d been underwhelmed (and a little bored) at Coachella, but ended up buying Narrow Stairs on site this weekend as a nod to their fine sunset accompaniment.

The night finished with us lying on a blanket, far from the sight of Robert Smith’s bloated corpse but well within earshot of the Cure’s nostalgic wonderland of songs, then taking a deep breath to steel ourselves for the Flaming Lips’ Christmas on Mars, a feature film that will be discussed in my upcoming Lips-centric post but which you’ve really got to see to believe. Lots of dead babies and vaginas. No, really. Sleepy and (somewhat) visually traumatized, today, my gosh, our leisurely pace darn near ground to a halt. We told ourselves we were taking it easy, saving up energy for the dancing to come, but really, we were just content to hear Built to Spill, RodGab, and the Flight of the Conchords (who tend to put me into a coma for some reason) from a distance, their music wafting in the steady breeze like that tent from Day 1 as we sipped our beers and stared out at the river. I was on vacation, after all, and the craziest thing is: When I’m not running myself ragged trying to capture every last moment of these things on paper and film, I really do love just sitting and listening to bands play. Maybe that does not always include the endless nightmare soundtrack of the Mars Volta, but I was so blissed out by the time their cacophony pulled in it barely even registered. My festival buddy Josh reports they kicked things off by throwing a guitar into the crowd and menacing a cameraman; I would just like them to chill. The world is beautiful and people are good. This may be the Flaming Lips experience talking, but I would like to hug the Mars Volta, and tell them everything is going to be all right, even in El Paso.

Conclusion time, PopWatchers! Is Sasquatch a "better" fest than Coachella or Bonnaroo?

From a musical perspective, probably not — there’s not the same diversity here (no dance tent, very little hip-hop or world music), and that magical feeling of discovery dims the farther one gets from the hype of the majors. Plus, the food is wretched, and nearby lodging is painfully sparse. But in terms of overall user-friendlyness, the yeti takes the cake: the crowd is kind and filled with music lovers, it takes no more than like 45 seconds to travel from stage to stage yet there’s very little sound bleed, the traffic and parking are exceedingly manageable and efficient, the bands seem happy, the security seems really happy, and if you don’t mind a few raindrops, the weather is spectacular. Frankly, I thought the rain clouds just made the view more dramatic. Bottom line: I expected different results… and I got them. Great. Now I’m never gonna learn. But I am in terrific festival shape for my Tennessee trip, which is nice.

Hey, were any of you there? Thoughts? Favorite moments? Care to add anything to my thesis and its resolution? And if you were elsewhere: did you listen to any particularly memorable music this Memorial Day?

Comments (24 total) Add your comment
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  • Zod

    Every year I tell myself that I will go to Sasquatch! and every year I never make it out there. It is the festival I want to see most. I’ve driven that stretch of road a hundred times on the way to see relatives in Seattle and everytime the scenery of the part of Wa leaves me wonky, it is so awesome there!
    Next year..for sure! Jeez, I’m only 10 hours away

  • anne

    the Gorge is one of the best places to see a concert! One of my fave concert memories of all time is sitting on the hill wathcing the sun set, waiting for R.E.M. to come on stage which they did right at twilight, Magical!

  • Winona

    Sasquatch! certainly sounds interesting, but my Memorial Day weekends are always taken up by Abbey Road on the River, a wonderful five-day festival in Louisville, KY celebrating the music of the Beatles and other great bands of the 1960s. So yeah, I listened to a lot of great music this weekend!!!

  • Rachael

    I was there, I saw The Whigs and they brought the FUN!

  • mel

    Well, mid-May got damn hot here in Oregon, and a quick look shows Quincy, WA got to 98 degrees and 61% humidity on May 16. To my taste (and look where I live), you got lucky with a little rain ;)

  • Daniel

    I thought the best performances on Monday came from Battles, The Mars Volta, and the Flaming Lips. People seem to confuse hostility or anger with just a really good show and the “organized chaos” they bring. The Mars Volta isn’t angry at the crowd or life by any means; they’re just giving it their all on stage and providing one of the best live shows around. Throwing objects into the crowd happens occasionally on their tour..which usually means you’re in for a good show. The last thing you want is for them to be frustrated, bored, or not wanting to be there. Then you’re in for a dull, no stage presence, backs turned to the audience, type of show…but some people seem to prefer that.

  • josh

    … but some of those 45 seconds require scaling a steep hill very quickly.

  • Kate

    I didn’t get to make it to Sasquatch this year, but I was there in ’06 when it hailed on Neko Case (and then I got sunburned at the next day of the festival!) I think the Gorge is the best place to see a concert, but I do only live an hour from there! It can be really hot, but there’s nothing better than sitting on the hill listening to great music with great friends and a world class view. I love Sasquatch, and it’s always fun to see Dave Matthews Band there… they always end their summer tour at the Gorge in George.

  • Kate

    I didn’t get to make it to Sasquatch this year, but I was there in ’06 when it hailed on Neko Case (and then I got sunburned at the next day of the festival!) I think the Gorge is the best place to see a concert, but I do only live an hour from there! It can be really hot, but there’s nothing better than sitting on the hill listening to great music with great friends and a world class view. It’s always fun to see Dave Matthews Band there… they always end their summer tour at the Gorge in George.

  • Bella

    Never going to get to 100 degrees? You missed the heat wave, when my hometown, like Quincy, was also pushing 100 degrees. Eastern Washington can get hotter than blazes. Anyway, it’s great to see Sasquatch mentioned. It may not be the best, but it’s my favorite- the scenery can’t be beat.

  • Rebel_Joo

    you were one of the costumed creatures and not one of the naked ladies were you? still can’t believe that happened….

  • Chris

    Wrong. The last time Neko Case played Sasquatch! was last year and it didn’t hail. You’re obviously thinking of 2006.

  • Lemonade

    Nice summary. Also excellent were The Kooks (on the Wookie stage) and Michael Franti on the mainstage. For NW weather, I’d say the weekend was pretty much as close to perfect as you can get in Washington State. However, as you mentioned, the food at the Gorge is wretched. The seven-dollar “yakisoba” that tasted like movie-theater butter mixed with 10 day old noodles was vomit-inducing and made for plenty of disgusted conversation in the lines for $4 water bottles. But overall, the security was cool, the people were great, the campground wasn’t too obnoxious, and the bands were overall wonderful. Only disappointments: The Blakes (work more on rehearsals, less on your hair), Stephen Malkmus (the sound was horribly mixed and all you could hear was shrieking Les Paul), and the order of the lineup on Monday (WHY was the Mars Volta not on the Yeti stage far away where they belonged?). I’m out of money, I’m brain dead, and I can’t wait to go back next year!

  • Anonymous

    The National’s performance was absolutely incredible! Fake Empire followed by Mr. November just blew my mind. Wish I could have seen Modest Mouse too but it was definitely worth it. Being at the front for Flaming Lips was probably the happiest moment of my life! Nothing beats Sasquatch!

  • Victoria

    You shouldn’t have missed M.I.A.! She is absolutely amazing. Her and the Hives really brought a special energy to the mainstage. I caught the beginning of Ghostland Observatory and then ran over to the Flaming Lips (worst conflict of the festival) just in time to realize that I missed their fabulous opening, giant inflatable plastic bubble and all. But Ghostland was fantastic so I still think it was worth it. Sasquatch really is one of the best festivals, for the venue location if nothing else. Nothing beats lying on the grass with the sun shining down looking out at the gorgeous view, with some really phenomenal bands rockin out onstage. Ahh I love it.

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