There’s something interesting happening in Boise, Idaho: It’s the Friday morning of a busy festival weekend, and the locals are still in town.
The Treefort Music Festival, celebrating its third anniversary this year, is the pride of a changing town. Stylistically, it's loosely related to SXSW, fit with music, tech, film and literature showcases. Seventeen venues share roughly 350 bands over a five-day stretch. It’s an event wherein attendees suffer headaches designing daily itineraries that will send them all over Boise, chasing live music.
But this is not SXSW, which Austinites flee in terror every March as their city is taken over by thousands of bands and thousands more hungry followers. It’s a significantly smaller, younger festival, sure, but Treefort is also the product of a city eager to host outsiders and spotlight its own bustling music community. And there seems to be a sibling-like relationship with Portland. Nearly 50 PDX bands make up this year’s bill, bested only by the number of bands born in Boise.
The locals aren’t only staying put this weekend, they are attending the festival and making it feel like the inland Northwest’s best-kept secret. Headliners this year included RJD2, the Joy Formidable, Polica and Boise locals Built to Spill—but many of the best moments at Treefort are also the smallest.
(All photos by Emma Browne)
6 pm, Linen Building
“Is there a curse-word policy?” asks Elijah Jensen-Lindsey. As Boise-based solo act With Child, die's an artist known for unpredictable sets. Most of the audience shouts back “no,” but a few parents with children give a thumbs-down gesture. He agrees to censorship, tunes his guitar and plays on.
The sets are lightning quick at Treefort, averaging 40 minutes, but With Child manages to pack in a lot. He begins as a David Bazaan type, offering quiet folk-rock renderings made of stark guitar and cutting lyrics. By the end, With Child is a slave to dance-pop, looping simple beats, detaching the mic and singing amid the small crowd. There’s a tongue-in-cheek gospel aspect to his words and I’m not sure the message is being received. I’m also not sure how he went from acoustic folk to dance party in less than two songs.
7 pm, El Korah Shrine
The El Korah Shrine is a century-old fraternity in the vein of an Elks Club. Members—one of which is rumored to be former President Gerald Ford—wear funny hats, the walls are adorned with Arabian portraits and the place proudly produces on its own currency of wooden tokens. It also boasts one of the largest stages in Boise, which Portland quartet Genders happily stretched out on.
Genders appeased the midlife-crisis folks in the crowd. Its wandering, Hum-meets-Sonic Youth rock is a sound guy’s nightmare but a '90s-rock enthusiast’s dream. Culling mostly from last year’s Get Lost, the band walks a tightrope that bridges indie-rock and experimental minimalism. Vocalist Maggie Morris manages two roles, coaxing the crowd to sleep with her soft vocals while jostling them awake with her volatile guitar work. It’s no wonder Genders toured with Built to Spill last year.
8:30 pm, Neurolux
“Are you guys ready to rock out?” Gaytheist asks. “Great, we’re not going on for another 13 minutes.” So went the perfect intro for a band as comical as it is musically gifted. Which is to take nothing away from the hardcore trio, which grabs rock‘n’roll by the nape and shakes it silly.
The Portland trio is playing Neurolux, a club that reminds me a lot of the late Berbati’s. Throughout the weekend, the venue plays host to scores of punk, metal and post-rock acts, and the name I kept hearing come end of the festival on Sunday was “Gaytheist.” These guys make metal fun—like Ted Leo as a evil sorcerer. Though it’s hard to keep up with, most of Gaytheist’s material clocks in a two minutes per track, giving you many chances to recover.
The band punches through memorable versions of “Stomach Pains” and “Taking Back Sunday." Of course, it wouldn’t be a Gaytheist show if the band didn’t poke a little fun: “Thanks to all the Christian rockers out there,” kids frontman Jason Rivera.
Run The Jewels
8:30 pm, Main Stage
Hip-hop and EDM played large roles on this year’s Treefort bill, with Run the Jewels ascending the Main Stage, an outdoor affair right downtown. "Old school" is the prominent theme. From the bottle of Courvoisier passed around onstage to the silent member sporting a sweatshirt simply reading “Blast,” there's a delightfully tried and true aspect to Run The Jewels’ performance. This type of rap has been done before, but just long enough ago that the world is kind of craving it again.
The slick delivery and contagious demeanor of El-P and Killer Mike only aids their cause. In a world inundated by lazy verses, Run the Jewels is a savior, pushing pace and poetry to grabby beats. The duo manages to get the whole crowd—which ranges from college students, new parents, old timers and teenagers en route to the nearby skatepark—up and dancing.
10 pm, The Crux
Divers’ drummer breaks three drumsticks in the first song and they doesn't even finish it. It's an explosive introduction, compounded by the coffee shop’s tiny size. “Does anybody have a band we can borrow?” the Portland band jokes, fiddling with cords and equipment and trying to get back online.
The venue struggles to keep up with the band, but that’s probably not unusual for Divers. The act delivers a frayed brand of rock‘n’roll that’s gritty, satisfying, and doesn’t like to stay in one place for very long. It appears Divers’ mission is in the punk-rock tradition of old, which leads to broken equipment, broken eardrums and a deliriously giddy crowd.
11:30 pm, Knitting Factory
Holy shit, how have I never heard of this guy before? Droning music aside, Magic Sword is a masked artist seemingly delivered from either the gates of Hell or Narnia. The Boise-based hardcore electronica act debuted at Treefort last year, sporting his now traditional black cloak and white mask adorned with a glowing red strip.
Standing next to Knitting Factory’s tower of amps is probably unwise. Locals seemed to know about the wattage this guy deals in and many back away from the stage as he tuned. The set, fit with resonating power chords and electronic noodling, felt like a dark homage to Battles. Every song feels like a heroic battle against evil.
1 am, The Crux
Boise’s TEENS mention something about this being its last show as a band but I could never substantiate it. If it’s true, locals are gonna be pissed. Far from sharp, this quartet is the epitome of a garage act, unkempt and in your face. It takes but a few riffs of TEENS’ white-knuckled rock to bring crowd surfing back from the grave and into the cramped confines of the Crux.
Band Dialogue II
2 pm, Rhodes Skate Park
Ten bands playing simultaneously under the freeway—that’s the gist of Band Dialogue. Aan, AU, Wooden Indian Burial Ground and others strum and drum in harmony, following the lead of a conductor with a bullhorn and signs with chords written on them. Sonically, it's an impressive display. The physics of sound-travel are less obvious when you’re in a cramped club watching a single band. Here, with many members strewn over a space a couple of basketball courts in length, there’s a slight delay. The bands adjust to that—as well as the funny acoustics beneath the Interstate overhead—to create something I wouldn’t pitch to a studio but recommend everyone witness. It’s a Flaming Lips-like experiment that could be truly special if the bands had enough time to iron out a real song.
Hustle and Drone
7 pm, Linen Building
After the sad news that Sun Angle had cancelled due to a bad case of tinnitus (“I think the dude broke his ear,” I overheard a sound guy say), enter Portland dance-pop trio Hustle and Drone. This is Ryan Neighbor’s (formerly of Portugal The Man) feel-good project.
Lingering, 007-esque bass lines collide with blazing guitar hooks and high-register vocals. It's well crafted and fun with a healthy hint of self-indulgence. The slow and synth-y track “Bobby Wish” sees the crowd trying on its best Bee Gees harmonies.
8 pm, El Korah Shrine
The much adored surf-rock quartet from Seattle has become more legend than real life, attracting a following so large that it’s tough to see through the crowd. But the Korah suits the band’s recent explosion and offers a little wiggle room to spare.
La Luz plays like a band that had been together for a decade. The band’s signature electric organ and guitar combo is straight out of a Tarantino film. The only problem is the sound mix: way too low, and conversation from the bar begins to invade the set. Still, La Luz shines, turning out spot-on renditions of “Clear Night Sky” and “Call Me In The Day,” one of the best tracks of the last couple of years. The banter is minimal at first, with vocalist Shana Cleveland finally admitting that the last time they were in Boise, the band almost died in a car accident.
That sobering moment only lasts so long, as La Luz quickly returns to its role as beach-party curators circa 1962. Cleveland has the crowd form a tunnel at the end of the set, asking that the crowd file in and show off their best dance moves. The results are mixed.
9 pm, Main Stage
RJ Krohn is having the most fun at Treefort thus far. He’s setup before four turntables, with a stack of records behind him. He’s moving constantly and diligently, scratching here, prepping a record there. The result is a panting “best of” RJD2 set that includes snip-its from his impressive catalogue.
Naturally, the Mad Men theme song draws the loudest applause. Krohn pulls a fair amount from 2003’s The Horror, such as the soul inspired, sample-heavy “Bus Stop Bitties.” Critics have called RJD2 one of the best DJs on the planet, and this set confirms it.
Built To Spill
10 pm, El Korah Shrine
Doug Martsch is beginning to look like the South Bend Shovel Slayer from Home Alone, but we love him all the same. The Built To Spill frontman is a big part of Treefort’s existence and the reverence with which the indie-rock deity is greeted with is always impressive, doubly so in the band’s native Idaho.
Tonight marks the second of three consecutive nights Built To Spill headlines. Last night, the band played “new material” and tomorrow they’ll tackle covers. Tonight they play “old songs,” and having grown up on the stuff, I simply couldn’t resist. Nor could everybody else, as the line outside stretched over a block long.
Tracks like “In The Morning” and “Some,” now 20 years old, don’t yet sound dated. The band’s searing guitar-rock and frequent jammed-out bridges remain fresh, even if bolstered by classic '90s maneuvering, like slack guitar, plenty of feedback and Martsch’s disenchanted tone. Much of Built to Spill’s material offers room for live experimentation, and it’s never quite the same twice.
12 am, The Crux
One doesn’t always think of Arkansas as a hotbed for textured, tropical electronica. That's where solo act Messy Sparkles calls home, and he is very much from the Panda Bear school, looping vocals around busy, beach-y songs with intricate effects.
The Crux is probably the smallest venue of Treefort, but Messy Sparkles manages to be one of the loudest acts of the weekend. There's a palpable “fuck it, it’s midnight” attitude, evidenced by the sound guy’s all-or-nothing approach and the impromptu dance party that formed over house music. Messy Sparkles fitS right in, testing the electrical grid—which fails him a few times —with jumpy steel drum beats and glittering rhythms.
3:15 pm, Main Stage
Portland’s Modern Kin features Drew Grow and that far-reaching wail of his. The trio released an excellent self-titled LP last year, produced by Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. Grow is a man possessed, singing like a heady byproduct of Win Butler and Cave Singers’ Peter Quirk. It sounds like he’s being shaken while singing.
Songs like “Abandon” are reminiscent of early Band of Horses, freewheeling and folk-minded. It's good to see Modern Kin commanding on a larger stage. The band is in really good form right now and is certainly winning a wider following after this electric set.
4 pm, Woodland Empire Brewing
Scheduled to play Linen Building later in the evening, Portland prog-rock trio Bearcubbin' treats Woodland Empire Brewing to a quick impromptu set. The band is heavily influenced by Battles, with constantly shifting structures and a propensity for depth and abstraction.
The set incorporates math-rock, jazz and a circuitous nature. Beacubbin’ rarely takes the obvious path from one rhythm to the next and keeps the audience on its feet. There’s a funhouse quality about Bearcubbin’, too, the late-night stuff of brainy clowns who love to jam. Walking out after the set, I can hear Aan wrapping up its set at the Main Stage. There was a misprint in the schedule, apparently, one that proved upsetting, as the Portland band’s long awaited self-titled record is already on my “best of the year” list.
The Joy Formidable
7 pm, Main Stage
One of the biggest acts of the weekend, Welsh outfit the Joy Formidable does not disappoint. I expect a safe set from a fairly seasoned band but I'm instead handed an involved and contagious one. Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan bounces about like a musician on her first tour. And when technical difficulties strikes—in this case a percussion malfunction—she handles the crowd with ease, going acoustic, effortlessly.
The cleanness of the the Joy Formidable’s radio singles contradict its natural rawness. Live, the trio is mostly a potent brand of post-punk, coming from the same lineage as Wild Flag, Helium, etc. Used to bigger stages, Bryan and company could just as easily brush off the smallish crowd. To the band’s credit, it does the opposite.
8 pm, Neurolux
Brooklyn’s Milagres is the best dressed band of the weekend. The drummer is shirtless, but the rest of the group seems set for a fashion shoot. After a lot of tweaking and testing, the quartet delivers its Walkmen-meets-Prince sound, with a little psychedelia on the side. Catchier than expected, Milagres manages to take spacey indie-rock and distill it into pop form. Frontman Kyle Wilson’s rich crooning turns every head in the building during “Terrifying Sea.”
Run On Sentence
9 pm Pengilly’s Saloon
Run On Sentence is one of those bands I’ve always respected but haven’t seen in years. Dustin Hamman left Portland for New Mexico just recently, but left a trail of stories about his memorable live shows. He and his drummer deliver a barn-burning saloon set, easily one of the best of the weekend, yielding table-top dancing and extra large whisky pours from behind Pengilly’s 113-year-old immaculate Brunswick bar.
Throughout the weekend, the saloon played host to a slew of folk and country acts, from Boise’s impressive Hillfolk Noir to Horse Feathers. Run On Sentence, though, goes the way of raucous, playing a combustible set of twangy soul. Hamman has the presence of a gypsy, a roots-y, stirring, self-made guy who plays organic music as hard as possible. Boise takes to Run On Sentence almost at once, finding his nostalgic sound a perfect fit.