400 Bands, a Giant Neon Spider and Not Many Rappers: A Treefort 2016 Recap

The best things we heard and saw at the Pacific Northwest music scene's annual summit meeting in Boise.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times went on strike against the Music Festival Industrial Complex. The paper of record proclaimed it would not be covering Coachella and Bonnaroo this year, essentially as a protest against the homogeneity of the summer festival circuit and the fact that the term "music festival" has become oxymoronic. "Instead of covering the biggest festivals reflexively," wrote pop critic Ben Ratliff, "we'll cover a number of smaller festivals with purpose."

That's all fine and good. But if that's the case, then they've already missed one. I didn't spot Ratliff or Jon Pareles or Jon Caramanica on the streets of Boise this weekend, but Treefort is precisely the sort of small, purposeful festival they're talking about. Strategically scheduled the week after South By Southwest, it is designed as a hangover cure to that longstanding and increasingly unwieldy industry bacchanal out in Texas, a five-day come-down shifting the focus back to a celebration of regionalism and discovery—in other words, putting the "music" back in "music festival."

Treefort has grown each of its five years, but it's not even getting close to a saturation point yet. A friend of mine stayed at a not-expensive hotel in the center of downtown, spitting distance from the main stage and no more than 10 minutes from any venue, and according to the concierge, rooms were still available as of Thursday. At night, lines for a few venues snaked around the block, but the crowds were never unmanageable. Heck, Uber only went into surge pricing once that I experienced.

It's a festival that's yet to outgrow its sense of modesty. Part of that is because, well, it's Boise. It's like a diorama version of a major city—charming, but still rather far from being "the next Austin" or "the next Portland," which I'm sure the locals consider a good thing. But it's also because Treefort is a festival that has yet to lose sight of what it's supposed to be. Drake isn't going to pop in anywhere, and the biggest celebrity you're likely to run into is Built to Spill's Doug Martsch. But if you want to get a gauge on what the northwest sounds like right now, or walk in on the best band you never knew existed, there are opportunities on every block. And you won't have to wait very long.

Here are the 10 best things we happened upon in our four days in the City of (Actually Not That Many) Trees.

Best Old Reliable: Thee Oh Sees

If you haven't seen Thee Oh Sees yet, you will. Maybe at Pickathon in August, maybe tomorrow, maybe on a day you least expect. And when you do, it will look and sound like every Oh Sees show before it. Singer-guitarist John Dwyer will whip his hair around. He'll hold his guitar like a rifle. He'll talk shit about PBR. The band behind him—which actually could change at any point, but for now includes two drummers, for no other reason than the visual of two guys thrashing in tandem is rad—will blast out a relentless set of white-knuckled garage rock. And the crowd will go apeshit. Thursday night's show at El Korah Shrine—an actual shriners hall, with bedazzled fezzes on display behind glass, kitschy Arabian art a wall of photos celebrating a century of old white men—was absolutely no different, right down to the "crowd goes apeshit" part. If you've seen one Oh Sees show, you've seen them all. And they're all great.

IMAGE: Patrick Sweeney. Thee Oh Sees at El Korah Shrine. IMAGE: Patrick Sweeney.

Best Venue: The Shredder

If you're a little surprised to discover Boise has the infrastructure to handle something like 400 bands at once, you're not alone. But at least during Treefort, the city almost has Portland beat when it comes to venues worth writing something about. Some are more "event center" than legitimate club—see the aforementioned Korah Shrine, or the Mardi Gras, a low-slung 90-year-old building that's gone through a number of remodels but still mostly looks like someone built a bar atop decommissioned skating rink. As for the legit ones, my personal favorite was probably the Olympic, a low-ceiling, wood-paneled saloon above a hotel. But the raddest (there's a difference) is the Shredder. It's a classic punk dive, except with a row of old arcade games along the wall, and a video projector showing videos from bands on the upcoming schedule. It's like if Ground Kontrol and the Know moved into an abandoned warehouse together, and then also decided to install a half-pipe in the corner. Because if you can't skateboard during whatever crusty thrash band happens to be onstage, is your venue really as punk as it could be? As it happens, I was there around 1:30 am on Thursday to catch Divers prove that they're still the best live rock band in Portland, and maybe the region, if not the country, and if I had a board on me I totally would've busted out some, uh, frontside grinds or something…sorry, I don't actually know how to skateboard. It was a great set, is what I'm saying.

Best Non-Performance: Willis Earl Beal

You never know what you're going to get from Willis Earl Beal, and I suspect he doesn't know, either. At the Boise Contemporary Theater, a small performance space just outside Treefort's main drag, the temporarily Portland-based avant-garde bluesman and occasional street musician insisted continually insisted he wasn't actually performing during his set, that he was still just soundchecking, and it was so "stream-of-consciousness" that calling it a "performance" indeed seems like a stretch. Dressed like the Green Hornet, with eye-mask and fedora, Beal fidgeted with cables and his iPod, wandered in circles, climbed atop a stool, tied himself up in a cape, did some kind of tai-chi-inspired interpretive dancing, threw a series of mini-tantrums and offered philosophical bon mots rendered completely unintelligible by the heavy reverb on the microphone, to a soundtrack of glacially-paced ambient compositions overlaid by his deeply resonant, gospel-informed voice. Afterward, he thanked the crowd that remained for their patience. Certainly, it was a test of willpower to stay the full hour, but the strange unpredictability of the whole thing made staying put worth it—not to mention that, where I was seated, on the far opposite side of the exit, made escaping a bit awkward. As the house lights went up, a kid behind me, who was probably about 8 years old, offered his own review: "I was so bored!"

Best Spaghetti Western: Roselit Bone

It's hip for bands to cite composer Ennio Morricone as an inspiration, but his influence often manifests as either just a touch of guitar twang or a full-on homage (see: Federale). In the case of Portland's Roselit Bone, they've absorbed Morricone's Spaghetti Western soundtracks and refracted it through the swamp-rock of the Gun Club and other rootsy punk bands, coming up with a cinematic country sound uniquely their own. You'd think something so sweeping and vivid would only work on record, but the project really comes alive onstage—even if the stage can barely hold the entire band. With the horn players shoved in the back and singer-guitarist Josh McCaslin decked out in a sparkling suit from the Roy Rogers Collection, Roselit Bone transformed the already saloon-like Hotel Olympic into an apocalyptic desert cantina, which it eventually burned down in a final storm of noise. Portland has yet to really latch onto them, but the crowd in Boise went pretty wild.

Roselit Bone at the Olympic. IMAGE: Matthew Singer. Roselit Bone at the Olympic. IMAGE: Matthew Singer.

Best Cacophony: Band Dialogue V

Public art is a big thing in Boise, so it's appropriate that one of Treefort's singular traditions would take place in the middle of a street. For the third year, Akron/Family member Seth Olinsky's commandeered half a block just down the road from the main stage for his annual Band Dialogue event, gathering together 20 bands for what he calls "part orchestra, part installation" but which can best be described as a "happening." Arranged in a large circle, the assembled guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboardists and other musicians—including Portlanders Aan and Au, and even Built to Spill—followed Olinsky as he conducted from the center, most of the time hammering a single note in unison. Doug Martsch, in a beanie and sunglasses, stood inconspicuously with the rest, dutifully bashing out the chords Olinsky had written on pieces of paper to help guide everyone through the piece. One guy thrummed a standup bass, while another blew into two saxophones at once. At one point, the composition broke down to all cymbals, creating the effect of a hail storm battering a tin roof. Another portion called only for screaming. Unsuspecting pedestrians covered their ears. Small children cried. It was as overwhelming as you might expect—viscerally entertaining thanks to Olinsky's wild gesticulations, while also approaching the transcendental battering of Swans. Olinsky's Sunday night set with his band, Cy Dune, was noisy and off-center, but it just couldn't compare. He probably felt the same way.

Best Spectacle: Magic Sword

In normal situations, Boise's Magic Sword is a bizarre sight to behold: two mysterious druids in black robes with light-up facemasks playing booming electronic music that either sounds like Daft Punk scoring John Carpenter movie or John Carpenter scoring a Daft Punk movie. Add a giant LED spider to the equation, though, and the spectacle gets ramped up tenfold. After White Denim's set of progressive Southern soul, the duo mounted a mobile scaffolding unit, as a massive neon arachnid—named Gertie, as I later found out—and her handlers made their way from the street into the fenced-off main stage area. It changed colors to the music, and even "danced" a little, though it mostly just hung out, watching the band and the lightsaber-wielding crowd, and wriggling its legs. It was all very Burning Man. Surprisingly, I was totally cool with that.

Best New Thermals: Dude York

Whenever "post-Thermals" becomes an officially sanctioned genre, I'd like to nominate Seattle's Dude York for the tag. Its tuneful power-punk is less straightforward and has noisier edges, but the candy-sweet boy-girl melodies and propulsive three-piece energy of its set at the Watercooler—another makeshift venue, a business development center resembling Union Pine in Southeast Portland—are clearly descended from Portland's favorite trio. Singer-guitarist Peter Richards is hammy enough onstage I wouldn't be surprised if he started doing stand-up, too.

Best Two Turntables and a Microphone: Oddisee

One glaring problem with this year's Treefort: If you wanted to see anyone rap, you pretty much had only one option. It highlighted the curatorial deficiencies of a still-maturing festival, which is still dominated by various strands of guitar-driven indie rock. Hopefully the booking will continue to get more adventurous, or at least more diverse. But for this year, unless I missed something (which is possible), the lone opportunity to see live hip-hop the entire week was the Aesop Rock show at the Knitting Factory. That wasn't so bad, though, because at least one of the artists on the bill was Oddisee. The D.C. rapper has been kicking around the D.C. scene for a decade, and finally had a small crossover moment with last year's The Good Fight. It wasn't clear what percentage of the rust-colored beardos waiting for Aesop were familiar with his work, but it didn't matter: He took control the moment he stepped onstage, alone but for his DJ, leading the audience through his warmly soulful songbook. While much of it scans as a golden-era throwback, Odd is hardly a boom-bap traditionalist—though he did bust out a trap remix of one tune that seemed to make light fun of rap's current dominant subgenre—but an MC cut from the same earthy mold of Chance the Rapper, almost more soulman than rapper, and the crowd stayed with him through every verse and sing-along chorus. It was a sterling example of how live hip-hop can succeed with the most minimalist stage show—and a great argument for why more of it should be invited to Boise next year.

Best Foil Party: deCollage

My final day at Treefort began by walking into the Olympic and catching what looked like a low-budget public access kids show meant to entertain the kids who live in Colonel Summer's Park in the summer. Draped in foil, plastic wrap and other accoutrements that it eventually threw over the audience, Denver's deCollage is basically Animal Collective on a budget. Like a lot of shroom-pop disciples, there's good stuff in the clutter—rhythms and melodies that warp and shift shapes just as they're beginning to stick—but the clutter is often stacked a little too high.

deCollage at the Olympic. IMAGE: Maggie Mattinson. deCollage at the Olympic. IMAGE: Maggie Mattinson.

Best Psychedelic Comedown: Cat Hoch

I will admit that I was surprised to see Cat Hoch perform so well in this year's Best New Band poll, but after seeing her live a few times, I understand why she ended up finishing a very tight second: No one in Portland does immersive, drifting psych-rock better. (Maybe her contemporary Jackson Boone, but he leans more on the spacey folk side of the spectrum.) All dreamy melodies, fluid bass and fog-machine guitar solos—no actual fog machines needed, thank you—her set at the Olympic ended up being just the bed I needed to sink into after four days of more beer than sleep.

The Best of Everything Else

Some more stray observations and anecdotes from my inaugural visit to Treefort:

— As I alluded to in the intro, the alleged "City of Trees" is really no more trees-y than Portland. But there is an inordinate amount of goose shit everywhere.

—If you're in town, stop by the Bleubird, the most popular lunch spot in town, and get the pastrami reuben. It beats anything on Bunk's menu.

—I don't know if this is some kind of ordinance but it is really hard to find convenience stores in downtown Boise.

Whoever decided to book Acid Mother's Temple and Acid Dad the same year deserves a gold star.

Edna Vazquez is a Portland treasure. Not just a breathtaking singer and guitarist, but a hell of a whistler, too.

—While Treefort really never got overwhelming, there were a few agoraphobic moments, particularly the overstuffed crowd at the faux-tropical Reef for Papi Fimbres' cumbia orchestra Orquestra Pacifico Tropical on Friday, which stretched around the bar in the center of the room. It was much more comfortable for Chanti Darling the following night, but no less turned up.

Chanti Darling on the main stage. IMAGE: Kristen McPeek. Chanti Darling on the main stage. IMAGE: Kristen McPeek.

—There really isn't a more legit "throwback" soul singer than Charles Bradley. I've seen him a bunch and marvel every time.

—I know hyperactivity is White Denim's whole thing but I can't help feeling there's a better band in there if they drew back just a little.

—In line for the Knitting Factory restroom between Oddisee and Aesop Rock's sets, a gentleman commented on how much longer the wait was for the men's room compared to the women's. "It's because ladies don't drink as much," he offered. I felt compelled to inform him, and the rest of the group, that no, it's because there are, like, five women in the building, because only bearded white dudes like Aesop Rock. The line of bearded white guys looked at the ground, silently nodding in sad agreement.

Chairlift, who advanced past its precious indie-pop sound with this year's more robust Moth album, was pretty good in its main stage set on Sunday. But singer Caroline Polachek gives me distinct Anne Hathaway vibes. Take from that what you will.

—Before Cat Hoch at the Olympic, I caught a few minutes of Boise's aka Belle, whose darkly jazzy country, augmented by bursts of loud guitar, would fit in great at Pickathon.

—One night, I ran into drummer and WW freelancer Parker Hall, who plays in cosmic folk singer Jackson Boone's band, and he raved about how Treefort treats its artists. He'd just played SXSW, and told me one venue they played monitored their decibel levels, while another made them rent a dolly to help unload their equipment. Pretty sure that spells out the stark differences between Treefort and SXSW better than anything.

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