We sent Matt Singer to Sasquatch!, and this is his report. Extra photos from Evan Neuhausen are located at the bottom of this post. -Ed.
Festivals are a young man's game, and I'm getting too old for this shit.
Well, I'm not old, exactly. But relative to the age of the average Sasquatch! attendee—who look like they just crawled out of their mother's womb, clutching glow sticks and with belly rings already attached—I might as well be a cigar store Indian. Put it this way: When I went to my first music festival, the annual adolescent punkstravaganza Warped Tour, in 1997, most of the kids packing the Gorge this past weekend were about 3 years old. At 28, I've come to realize I have no idea how to communicate with people that young; they might as well be another species. So to live among somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 of these...things for four days, crammed together in an isolated section of central Washington, is not my idea of a vacation.
That said, as the Pacific Northwest's answer to the sprawling and bloated Coachella, Sasquatch! is, in a lot of ways, the superior festival. For one thing, it's a hell of a lot more comfortable—about a quarter of the size smaller in terms of attendance and in geographical area. And have you seen the view? The Gorge is the most gorgeous venue I've ever been to; maybe that's not saying much considering I spent my youth in Southern California going to big concerts held in parking lots, but it sure beats a polo field. And location matters greatly when you're trying to survive outdoors in schizophrenic meteorological conditions (for the record, other than a brief downpour, it was mostly beautiful) for an entire weekend. Artistically, it doesn't feature megastars on the level of Kanye West (well, it did in 2005, but that's a lot different than booking Kanye in 2011) nor does it draw in-the-crowd cameos from celebrities and pseudo-celebrities, but it succeeds on its own terms. This year's edition—the 10th anniversary installment and first to expand to a fourth half-day—sold out with a very Pacific Northwest kind of lineup, with headlining sets from Portland-affiliated acts like Modest Mouse and the Decemberists and local acts from surrounding areas such as Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and right here in Stumptown (Typhoon, Talkdemonic, the Thermals). There isn't such a thing as “local” in the Palm Desert.
All that said, Sasquatch! is still a festival, and it comes with all the trappings: overpriced carnival food, the horror of portable toilets (although Honey Bucket deserves credit for keeping their johns relatively clean), bands more suited for theaters and clubs (i.e. Beach House) forced to play on huge stages in the middle of a hot day, and lots of kids on drugs—emphasis on kids. As someone who’s been to plenty of these things over the past decade, it’s interesting to see the audience demographics shift. A few years ago, a set from reunited ‘90s college rock heroes Archers of Loaf would’ve been a big—or at least medium-sized—deal; here, it just served as a way to gather the 200 or so people at the festival aged 35-and-up in the same place. Same with Guided By Voices, who played to that same small bunch of fans on the main stage just after electro-dance duo Chromeo performed to a nearly headliner-level audience. Indie-come-latelies Foster the People—seriously, it’s like a bunch of rejects from The Real World started a synth-pop group—drew an ungodly-sized crowd to the tiny Yeti Stage; meanwhile, Wilco, who closed out the festival on Memorial Day, apparently performed to a half-empty amphitheater. I say “apparently” because I wasn’t actually there. Due to forces beyond our control (read: complete exhaustion), my friends and I left early. Like I said, it’s a young man’s game.
Still, there are reasons why a handful of old men go these kind of events. Here’s five of my own.
My Top 5 Sets of Sasquatch! 2011
The rapturous response that greeted Swedish pop artist Robyn’s Bigfoot stage-closing set Saturday night rivaled any of the weekend. It was well earned. Backed by a band decked out in lab coats, the singer—whose career has traveled from mainstream ‘90s dance hits to her more sophisticated Body Talk album series that has earned her cred among the hipsterati—the singer bounded out from backstage sporting close-cropped blonde haircut, multi-colored spandex tights and a West Point jersey and spent the next hour gyrating, preening, posing and dancing goofily while running through a set of songs that should be chart-toppers in a more perfect part of the universe. It was the most purely joyful performance of the festival.
Although I enjoyed 2009’s critically lauded Hospice, I didn’t necessarily expect to be as enraptured as I was by the Brooklyn band’s mid-afternoon set. The group ran through tracks from its beautiful and equally praised new album Burst Apart, each time building to bracing emotional crescendos that made the Bigfoot stage feel impossibly intimate. Now I feel bad for thinking of them as a poor man’s Grizzly Bear.
You're probably already aware of this, but the Flaming Lips have quite a stage show: balloons, confetti cannons, about two-dozen audience members dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, psychedelic video projections and, of course, frontman Wayne Coyne's famous man-sized hamster ball, which he took for a roll across the top of the audience. And this was all before the first actual song. The Lips recreated their 1999 milestone The Soft Bulletin in full here, a practice I’m not normally a fan of—there are very few albums that actually deserve to be played live front to back—but that record, generally considered one of the best of the ‘90s, is perfect for a truncated festival set, moving from the rapturous (the opening “Race for the Prize”) to the contemplative (“What is the Light?” and “Waiting for Superman,” which Coyne introduced by discussing the death of Elliott Smith). Plus, in honor of Sasquatch!’s 10-year anniversary, Wayne sang “Happy Birthday” to an actual Sasquatch, then threw cake into the audience, which is pretty much the closest I’ll ever get to taking acid and going to a Gallagher show.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
Let’s be honest: This retro-soul revival is reaching an end. It was plenty represented at the festival, with appearances by the great Aloe Blacc (one of those guys who is better served by a club setting) and the more raw Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears (who ended their set with a “Louie Louie” cover and the audience spontaneously tossing rolls of toilet paper in the air), but when hackneyed purveyors like Fitz and the Tantrums start getting booked on the main stage, it’s time to put a bullet in the trend. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, however, were doing this long before it became omnipresent, and as such have, by a wide margin, the best live sound of the bunch—not to mention the best front-person. The 50-something Jones was a fireball of energy, dancing nonstop through the band’s 45 minute main stage set, even boogying with a skinny, pale kid she pulled on stage. Unlike so many nostalgia-minded groups who’ve followed in the Kings’ footsteps, the show felt like a genuine soul revue, not a Disneyland attraction.
What better way to cap Sasquatch! than with a dude in short-shorts running through the crowd with rain clouds forming overhead? !!!—for the uninitiated, that’s “Chk Chk Chk”—were blog darlings back when the phrase “blog darling” first got coined. Their status has faded a bit the last few years—probably because the group takes its dance-punk cues from the actual masters of dance and funk, like Zapp & Roger and Chic, rather than secondhand post-punk resources—but their deep rhythmic knowledge hasn’t. As the band burned through selections from its last two albums, singer Nic Offer spent most of the set in the audience and against the Bigfoot stage barricade, stealing audience members’ hats, posing for media photographers, and grabbing his crotch as lightning crashed in the distance. As everyone’s energy dwindled, Offer harnessed what was left for one last, great burst. Then we all collapsed.
BONUS: Sasquatch photos from Evan Neuhausen, featuring (in no particular order) The Thermals, Typhoon, Ratatat, Das Racist, Matt & Kim and the Globes.