Now that the dirt and shame have been washed away and the effects of that jeffrey I accidentally smoked during the four minutes I spent watching Steve Aoki have reached manageable levels, it’s time to reflect upon a weekend of musical adventuring at the Gorge. City-slicker festivals like MFNW and Pitchfork notwithstanding, the only festival I have to gauge my expectations of this year’s Sasquatch against was an ill-fated trip to Bonnaroo in 2004 that went south within six hours of entering the gates. Roughing it in a field with thousands of people in the name of good music is one thing; enduring 72 hours of ravers blasting STS9 from boomboxes so loud they need their own generator to keep the party going and constantly worrying if my last breath on this planet would be spent trying to crawl out from under a dogpile that overtook me while attempting to get out of a Guster set I accidentally wandered into is something completely different. It’s a dog eat dog world at massive outdoor festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch, and someone keeps feeding these animals high-powered designer drugs to make artists like Rusko and Grimes sound interesting enough to endure four straight days of total chaos.
The scene unfolding as the crowd trickled in throughout Friday afternoon was overwhelmingly optimistic. Canada made a strong showing with legions of the friendliest RV/VW Westfalia enthusiasts you’d ever meet in your life, most of which were already baked out of their gourds by the time we set up camp around 4:30. Southern California was represented in equal numbers with shirtless dudes in board shorts shotgunning Coors Light while their girlfriends—in fedoras, knit sweaters and Aztec-patterned leggings—stood around and schemed up ways to keep the MDMA-induced haze they’ve had since Coachella rolling until Tuesday. I asked a girl in a cheap native American headdress and a neon pink tank-top with a cat on it where she got the cup of coffee she was sipping from while waiting in line for the bathroom, which was met with some guttural mumbling about quesadillas and DMT. Strung out people with lavish face paint and ridiculous costumes were a constant that took me by surprise, but I guess dressing up like a giraffe with a backwards vintage Charlottle Hornets snapback makes plenty of sense after driving down from Lethbridge with a bag of mushrooms and five Red Bulls in your system. I drank half a bottle of Tanquerey and rallied the troops to head out for the first set of the weekend: Japandroids.
As much of a fanboy of this anthemic Canadian garage-punk duo as I may be, there’s no way I can gloss over the fact that the sound for their set was absolutely terrible. This ended up being a recurring theme at the Honda Bigfoot stage, which hosted most of the larger acts that hadn’t quite broken through enough to merit being placed at the main amphitheater stage. I found some rowdy dudes in Canucks jerseys to start a circle pit with and had a blast anyways, but I think the ‘Droids may be best approached in a dark, crowded rock club for now.
My first glimpse of the Columbia River Gorge appeared while I made my way to the pit for Built to Spill. At least every third band I witnessed throughout the weekend made mention of how jarringly beautiful the view is from the crowd’s perspective of the main stage, which is a gross understatement to say the least. Watching the sun set over the massive canyon behind the stage while Boise’s guitar hero stalwarts opened with “Goin’ Against Your Mind” was the first of many surreal Sasquatch moments that I thankfully did not ingest enough foreign substances to quickly forget. The remainder of the set was just the hits: “Stab,” “You Were Right” and “Else” were a few choice cuts that had the relatively thin crowd of shitfaced youngsters and old dudes like myself losing their minds for a solid 30 minutes.
Other stuff from Friday
Father John Misty: The alternate persona of Fleet Foxes erstwhile ex-drummer made a strong case for rooting through your uncle’s vinyl collection and digging out the CSNY records and wondering how much room for this we have in our collective futures. Tillman gets a bit saucy on stage in a PG kind of way, which may help some fans (which there were a lot of) understand why he was jettisoned from Seattle’s premiere alt-folk appropriators for having too much personality (e.g. doing too many mushrooms). His sound cut out at least twice, which was the only part of his set that really caught my attention. That and the shimmying, obviously.
Vampire Weekend: As quirky buzz bands such as this Columbia-bred NYC four piece dive further in to frilly studio production, it becomes harder for me to appreciate their records from the standpoint of them potentially being an impressive live band. Their latest, Modern Vampires of the City, dives even further down the rabbit hole of keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij’s Pro Tools tinkering, which made me hesitant to even show up to this set in the first place. I digressed and had my mind promptly blown. They kicked off with “Cousins,” and with the exception of two tracks from their new record—“Don’t Lie” and opener “Obvious Bicycle”—the set was a tightly-packed blitzkrieg of massive drums, buoyant guitar scribbles and a lattice of samples and key arrangements that made all the favorites from their catalog explode with equal parts muscle and class. Props to their sound guy for keeping the drums high enough in the mix to keep the crowd moving throughout even the most delicate parts of VW’s set.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: I’m instantly skeptical of any live performance that’s born of an MC and a dude behind a laptop and some decks, but the home court advantage worked to the Seattle-based rapper, allowing for some truly inspired arena-worthy performances that quickly changed my outlook on what I initially wrote off as a one-hit wonder. “Same Love,” albeit well intentioned, got a bit preachy at times, but the crowd ate it up regardless. Macklemore trotted out just about every single special guest featured on his breakthrough record The Heist, including a trumpet player in a kilt that would’ve been a shoe-in for the Outkast troupe in another lifetime. The crowd collectively lost their shit for 90 minutes straight, which is no small feat for a hip-hop group that doesn’t even have a live drummer or massive layers of guitar pyrotechnics.
Indians: Hot on the heels of debut Nowhere and it’s impressive run through the pre-SXSW hype machine, I expected this Danish three-piece to sound like some approximation of Bon Iver with synths in a live setting. Almost, but not quite. They made some pretty noises, but I’ll stick with Beach House for now.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: I’m incredibly picky when it comes to bands that try on the “garage rock band as performance shtick” persona, but BRMC has been at it long enough for me to look the other way and enjoy the druggy, murky stomp that can sometimes feel like the burnout lovechild of Lou Reed and the Jesus & Mary Chain if you close your eyes and focus hard enough. A few cuts from their debut self-titled record satiated my need for loud guitar rock played by cool dudes in leather jackets, then I moved on.
Devendra Banhart: Once upon a time, Banhart was a confidently freaky NorCal psych minstrel that was capable of getting twisted on DMT and red wine, singing in Spanish and bagging starlets like Natalie Portman. Then he cut his hair and started making markedly hi-fi records that spend more time channeling the sparkle power of Roxy Music than the weightless strums of Django Reinhardt. Pair the lack of effort with the Bigfoot stage’s shoddy sonics and I was lost within 15 minutes.
Andrew Bird: Figuring out which brand of Andrew Bird you’re in for is one of the hardest nuts to crack when determining whether or not to make the trek to catch the Chicago-bred violin virtuoso. He brought the band with him this time, but even the steady hands of Martin Dosh on drums had a tough time reigning in Bird’s erratic loop-based reconstructions of his recorded output. “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” had fans in a brief tizzy, but was then immediately deflated by some incredibly strange vocal inflections on Bird’s behalf that made it impossible for me to feel like I was actually part of the experience. I stuck with it and jockeyed for a better spot for Bloc Party.
Bloc Party: After Bloc Party burst onto the scene in 2004 with an airtight barrage of post-punk anthems in Silent Alarm, I find myself wondering when this bands downward slide of unmet expectations will ever find a floor to collapse on. Their “return to form” on Four sounds both forced and half-assed at once, which had me incredibly worried that I would spend the duration of their set motionless, wondering if I’m too old to give a shit about leftovers from the “angular” British guitar-rock movement from the early aughts anymore. Instead of getting us up to date with the lesser half of their catalog, they plowed through instant classics from a decade ago, like “This Modern Love,” “Banquet” and “Helicopter.” I got kicked in the face by a girl who later admitted to crowdsurfing her way to the front just to get a good spot for the XX, which I admired despite having a waffle-shaped footprint on the side of my head.
The XX: I’ll just come right out and say that I find this bands ice-cold blend of Portishead grooves and touchy-feely Sade sendups to be oppressively boring. But I was standing 20 feet from it, so why not? Well, consider me a convert to the highest degree. This is not music to listen to on a long drive with nothing to think about, which may explain why I skimmed over it in the first place, but if you’re looking for a lesson in the careful construction of dynamics and climaxes, you’ve got it in spades with the XX’s live show. Metronomic beats pulse in time with a mind-bending array of smoke and lights, and just when you expect the tension to explode in to a heart-wrenching crescendo of canned beats and tremolo picked guitars, the bottom drops out and you’re left reeling in a massive expanse of emptiness. I spent the last 20 minutes of the set with my mouth agape, wondering which part of my soul just exploded and floated off with the smoke in to the dead air above the Columbia River.
Tame Impala: Sticking around for the entirety of the XX yielded an abysmal spot and line of sight for the highly anticipated set from this Aussie four-piece, but I could tell from a long way back that they were firing on all cylinders as usual. The light show was a kaleidoscope of throbbing primary colors, which paired well with a Moog keyboard placed so righteously high in the mix I was worried the kids in front of the stage would let their heads drift in to space if they weren’t careful. “Elephant” was too sexy for it’s own good, but I’m sure John Lennon was looking on with pride from whatever alternate universe Tame Impala channels his soul from.
Sigur Ros: I bolted back to the main stage to catch Sigur Ros from the hill, which turned out to be the perfect vantage point for the alien sounds of Iceland’s premiere post-rock outfit. A dad with an RVCA tank and sleeves of tats had to deal with his two sons pestering him about what kind of music they were about to see, which is tough for even myself to explain to interested peers that have trouble understanding the appeal of Jonsi’s nonsensical elven warbling over a cascade of bowed guitars and orchestral ccrescendos. Well, uhh—you had to be there, I guess. The panoramic screen of visuals fluctuated between fireworks and children leaping off cliffs while turning into birds, and the closer, the final untitled track from their 2002 record, unraveled like a nuclear detonation in slow motion.
DIIV: Ex-Beach Fossil Zachary Cole Smith makes jangly post-punk that cleans up real nice in a live setting, but his live persona made me incredibly nervous for some reason. His bleached hair and ‘90s teen idol uniform—a girl next to me name-checked Jonathan Taylor Thomas, which seemed spot-on—and his penchant for skewering indie rock in general via Pitchfork interviews had me wondering if we were only one botched drum fill from him telling the audience to screw off and stop listening to rock music in general. Thankfully they just knocked out the bulk of their debut, Oshin, with “Doused” getting a little more action from the crowd up front than the usual confused head bob here or there.
Radical Face: Jacksonville, Fla.’s Ben Cooper has gained a modest amount of success in the folk-rock world with the soundtrack-ready single “Welcome Home,” but he seemed genuinely confused as to how he ended up on such a large stage staring out at a natural landmark so unlike anything he’s ever seen in his native state. Cooper teetered between earnest and self-deprecating, often making ridiculous asides about how depressing his music is and how you should stop cheering for songs about “people that kill themselves with piano strings and end up haunting their families homes.” “What the fuck is this place? Where are we?” he quipped to the audience before he nudged everyone into helping him with the chorus of his aforementioned “hit” single. A healthy dose of humility was something this festival was missing up to this point, and he knocked it out of the park with “Wrapped in Piano Strings” and “Glory” as well. Oh Florida.
Fang Island: If Andrew WK’s endless prattling about the “Power of Positive Partying” is a bit too silly for you to digest as part of your steady diet of extreme arena riffage and party-metal posturing, I shall recommend this newly reconstructed Brooklyn-based shlock-rock four piece as a reasonable facsimile. I easily cruised to the front for “Daisy” and chanted along like a barbarian with the rest of the shirtless air-guitar-wielding rawk enthusiasts that assembled a small but rambunctious circle pit in front of the stage. If you’re craving bite-sized doses of massive guitar anthems without the half-hearted stabs at being “meaningful,” Fang Island is exactly what you need.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros: Speaking of Bonnaroo, it’s somewhat comforting to know that a band of shoeless drifters can assemble around an acid casualty and climb their way to the top of the same charts that are commonly dominated by clinically insane hip-hop byproducts like Niki Minaj and 2 Chainz. That being said, I’ve seen this before, and so have you. Sharpe & the Zeros get an A+ for milking the crowd and creating a unified front that stands for not a whole lot in particular, but I had a hard time buying it. Then they brought out Marcus Mumford for a song he clearly didn’t know the words to. Then they passed the mic around the audience and asked some of young ladies that had way too much sun to tell stories during a break in the song “Home.” One of them started blathering in about India, and I left.
Baths: I met with Will Wiesenfeld, a.k.a. Baths, before his show at Holocene on Thursday, and discussed his ambitions to fill out his sound to what may one day evolve in to a full band. His set consisted mostly of tracks from his forthcoming second record Obsidian, which sounded a hell of a lot like the best stuff from his debut Cerulean. “Earth Death” and “No Past Lives” were heavy enough to benefit from a scenario that included live drums and bass, but he kept it lean and mean with just himself and Morgan Greenwood of the Calgary electro group Azeda Booth. Wiesenfeld employs Greenwood to play guitar and assist him in moving away from being another “dude behind a laptop” that gets mistaken for a DJ who’s mostly just checking his email while the crowd dances haphazardly when the mood strikes them. Set closer “No Eyes” hit small swath of the crowd in the Chupacabra tent from left field, while familiar tracks “Lovely Bloodflow” and “Plea” had me and about 20 other people genuinely engaged, but beyond that, the tent was mostly populated with people camped out and ready to get their roll on for later acts like Azari & III and the Presets. Regardless, Baths is well on his way to sharpening his live set and becoming huge in the very near future.
Grimes: Attracting one of the largest crowds gathered at Bigfoot up until this point, the sentiment I felt from the outer reaches of the audience was anticipation to be utterly disappointed. “I’m stoned enough to enjoy two more songs of this mess,” said a bored-looking guy in a wrestling singlet and a horse mask lighting up a j about four inches away from me. The vocals were completely lost in the mix, which wasn’t terribly loud to begin with, so I gave up after three songs as well. I heard the plunking bass of “Genesis” rolling over the hill half an hour later, which was met with a cacophony of screams loud enough to hear all the way by the main stage, so it seems plausible that someone eventually pulled their head out of their ass and fixed the mix. Not too sad about missing it.
Mumford & Sons: Sasquatch 2013: The Year of Arena Folk. The groundswell of lose-your-shit enthusiasm that erupted as soon as this gang of merry Irishmen hit the stage was an experience unto itself, so I decided to suspend pretense and have a big dumb fun time with the rest of ‘em. I am fully capable of comprehending why the Mumford & Sons brand is officially a Big Deal right now, at least on an academic level. Enough songs in the key of D that wrangle the same minor chord turnaround and multi-tracked chorus to dramatic effect will make anyone lose their mind if they feel like it will lead them to some sort of transcendent revelation about love, God, whiskey, suspenders, whatever. Beware, Dave Matthews: Your days may be numbered. Big dumb fun with a pounding kick-drum beat pouring out of the metal shed at the bottom of the hill has a new face, and that face is red and sweaty and bloated from caring too much about nothing in particular.
Chvrches: The hangover of the weekend’s debauchery was finally starting to catch up with people, which was a shame for this highly-danceable Scottish three-piece that’s hastily encroaching on Grimes’ palatial estate atop what’s left of the “bloghouse” heap. With a full length slated for release in September, the crowd had precious little to go on besides an EP that includes the infectious single “Recover.” The new tracks featured far more male vocals from former Aereogramme guitarist Iain Cook, each of them sounding massive and perfect for a closing slot in the dancier Chupacabra tent. Getting stuck at the Bigfoot stage at 1:25 in the afternoon, in the middle of an endless drizzle that nonetheless reminded Lauren Mayberry of her native Glasgow was a major buzzkill for an otherwise promising young electro group with sugary vocals, pristine productions and a tremendous amount of upside. You’ll need to know about Chvrches very, very soon.
Dirty Projectors: A combination of set-time delays and drum machine failure caused Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors to take the stage about 10 minutes late, but they still managed to pack a generous helping of off-kilter melodies and impressive vocal acrobatics into their truncated set time. Their set was split evenly between tracks from 2009’s knockout Bitte Orca and the 2012 follow-up Swing Lo Magellan, which had a sizeable chunk of the back half of the audience enthralled with the labyrinth of Dave Longstreth’s pitch-bent guitar noodling and Amber Coffman’s soaring vocal passages. “Useful Chamber” managed to rile up all the whack-jobs that showed up early for Death Grips, which was one of the stranger I experienced all weekend
Death Grips: One of the few bands I am completely OK with admitting that I do not “get.” I caught two songs (and the false start soundcheck, which had the sausage fest in the front row going completely bonkers within seconds), before deciding to leave before I got my head kicked in and my ears blown out. Zach Hill eschewed his usually frenzied time keeping behind the kit for a position behind some electronics that he messes with every now and then between nervous convulsing. Neither him nor MC Stefan Burnett looked particularly healthy, and after a hectic year that was bookended by the duo getting dropped from Epic Records for releasing an album cover with the title written in Sharpie on an erect penis, it’s possible that they need to stop for a second and catch their breath.
Twin Shadow: More soundcheck and equipment calamity pushed George Lewis Jr. and co.’s set back by a good 10 minutes, so there was little fucking around to be had by the indie world’s modern bastard child of Prince, Morrisey and whoever was responsible for arranging the montage music for every John Hughes movie. Twin Shadows set was short and succinct, with “Five Seconds,” the lead single from 2012’s excellent Confess, getting things started. Lewis’ womanizing swagger was propelled by a giant bottle of champagne and an undulating bed of synths courtesy of a keyboard player that looked like a dead ringer for “the weird new wave friend” that every lead character in every ‘80s teen movie has at some point. Sleazy guitar solos doused in chorus brought Twin Shadow’s futuristic vision of the past to life in a huge way. And then it was over immediately.
The Lumineers: These guys caught fire this past year, and I have to admit that they’ve made a commendable effort at scaling their sound upwards to meet the expectations of being the runner-up headliner for the main stage on the final night of Sasquatch. The music itself has about as much flavor and meaningful content as a rice cake, but hey, who actually hates rice cakes? Judging from the crowd’s reaction, every single cut from this Denver groups lean catalog is eligible for “OMG FAV SONG EVR!” material, so I checked my contrarian attitude at the door and found myself enjoying almost all of it. As far as maximalist folk-rock bands that attempt to get as much mileage as humanly possible out of a relatively narrow spectrum and tones and ideas goes, the Lumineers are masters of their craft. The band’s excursion into the VIP section of the lawn for a more “intimate approach” for a few songs in the middle of the set turned out to be icing on the cake for people who, like myself, were mostly there to jockey for choice real estate for the impending Postal Service set.
The Postal Service: I met most experiences this weekend with the lowest of expectations, which I imagine speaks volumes about how jaded I’ve become with the live music experience in general. The hippie quotient of Sasquatch was dialed down to an absolute minimum, which is something I embraced with open arms, but I soon found myself replacing my loathing for trustafarians in patchwork pants and grungy wool hats with an aversion to the throngs of costumed EDM-enthusiasts that came to burn out a year’s worth of dopamine in a matter of hours. I saved my sincere enthusiasm for an event that my peers and I have been patiently anticipating for almost a decade: the brave return of the Postal Service. The folklore and speculation leading up to the reunion isn’t even worth mentioning at this point; the very fact that it was about to happen right in front of me was absolutely surreal. Jimmy Tamborello queued up the bass line that opens “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” and the rest of the set was a warm, fuzzy blur. A lingering worry that the lack of live instrumentation would sully the blissful human element shared by Tamborello, Ben Gibbard, Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood that makes the 8-bit pulses of the Postal Service so easy to hang your heart on was quickly dashed when Gibbard jumped behind the drum kit for “Clark Gable” and “We’ll Become Silhouettes.” With the exception of the group’s cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” not a single track was left off the list. The pre-encore set was capped off with a louder, fuzzier rendition of “Natural Anthem” that borrowed several pages from the Trent Reznor playbook of bit-crushed digital cataclysms, with “The Dream of Evan and Chan” and “Brand New Colony” rounding out the encore. For a band I left for dead when I was 20, the sheer joy and pandemonium I felt when I heard all these old tracks (and three new ones to boot) felt like some kind of revelation. Maybe I should start expecting more again. I almost forgot how good it feels.