“Oh my God, it was beautiful,” says Netson, now a member of Built to Spill. “It was everything I ever wanted: drugs, prostitution, espresso drinks and art.” Coming from Boise, where cheap thrills were limited to pulling a steelhead out of the town’s eponymous river, the urban rot was exotic, even intoxicating. He’d been to Seattle, but found it too high-minded. Salt Lake City was, well, Salt Lake City. This place, though? It was the sleazebag paradise of his punk-rock dreams. “Back then, Portland was dangerous,” he says. “Boise’s not dangerous.”
These days, of course, “dangerous” isn’t the first word often associated with Portland. But then, Boise has changed, too. It’s not exactly the new capital of sex, drugs or even espresso, but its arts scene has developed to the point that it can now support a huge, multi-day music festival. This week, 360 bands—including 48 from Portland—will descend on the City of Trees for Treefort, a sort of slimmed-down South By Southwest, with shows spread across multiple venues in downtown Boise. Now in its third year, the festival is headlined by national and international acts, including Run the Jewels, RJD2 and the Joy Formidable, and also features a film and tech component, but its true function is as a showcase for the emerging Pacific Northwest music scene. And by hosting, Boise is sending a message: We’re not just about the Potato Bowl anymore.
“There’s a sense in Boise of forward momentum,” says Treefort founder Eric Gilbert, frontman of indie-pop group Finn Riggins. Moving back to Boise from Hailey, Idaho, in 2009, Gilbert found a city resembling the Portland of 10 years ago, with a music culture expanding just below the rest of the country’s radar. He started Treefort as a means of galvanizing that growth. But he says the goal isn’t necessarily to make Boise the next Portland. “A lot of us like it for its quaintness,” he says.
In the days before the Internet, though, that “quaintness” is what drove a lot of bands out of town. Historically, Boise has acted as a developmental league for artists who’d go on to greater success elsewhere. Seminal Nuggets-era garage-rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders formed in Boise but didn’t notch their biggest hits until after moving to Portland in the early 1960s. Tad Doyle was the city’s answer to Greg Sage in the ‘80s, leading the DIY punk scene before departing for Seattle, starting the band Tad, signing to Sub Pop and getting credited as a grunge pioneer. Until Doug Martsch founded indie-rock guitar heroes Built to Spill in 1992, the closest thing Boise could claim as a homegrown success story was Providence, a ’70s soft-rock group whose lone album went gold in the U.K.
“Portland was in the shadow of Seattle, and we felt we were in shadow of both,” says Todd Dunnigan, a fixture of the Boise music scene for 30 years.
That inferiority complex still existed when Gilbert came back to town five years ago. “The general populace was not listening to a lot of local bands,” he says. That changed in 2011, with the launch of Radio Boise, the city’s first free-form community radio station. Treefort followed the next year, capitalizing on a mindset shifting toward supporting local music rather than regarding it with cynicism.
“It’s changed drastically in the last few years, like big-time,” says Ryan Peck of Boise synth-pop duo Edmond Dantes, one of the 150 Boise bands playing Treefort this year. “Maybe Boise is still an awkward teenager and not an eloquent adult like Brooklyn, but man, so much has changed.”
“Boise hasn’t seen its golden age,” Gilbert adds, “but it feels like it’s in reach.”
Other residents, though, think it’s still got a long way to go. Netson, who’ll play Treefort with Built to Spill and a reunited Caustic Resin, acknowledges the strides his hometown has made. But for a guy who grew up pining for the grittiness of Old Portland, the city is still too polite for its own good.
“Everyone’s still in the romance period, but for me personally, I’m looking forward to the time it gets more real,” Netson says. “Hopefully it keeps going to the point where people get a little less nice.”
SEE IT: Treefort Music Fest is Wednesday-Sunday, March 19-23, in downtown Boise. See treefortmusicfest.com for a complete lineup.