At bigger, more ostentatious music festivals, the sense that you’re always missing out on something better is a pervasive, even debilitating feeling. “What if Future and Justin Bieber show up during Martin Garrix’s set, and I’m stuck in a tent watching Calvin Harris and all we get is an Alessia Cara cameo?! I’ll just die!” Then you end up stress-eating gourmet s’mores on a patch of grass miles from any stage, paralyzed by indecision.
That’s not the Treefort experience. First of all, if Justin Bieber and Future can find Boise on a map, or just the state of Idaho, I’ll personally fund your $7,500 Coachella glamping excursion. Moreover, those sort of shock-and-awe moments—the kind that reverberate across Twitter and turn giant grass fields into a constellation of cellphone cameras—aren’t what the festival aims for. Sure, there’s a main stage set up in a downtown parking lot, where this year, hundreds gathered to swoon over Angel Olsen and watch a King Kong-sized gorilla puppet twerk to Lizzo. But unless you live there, you’re not going all the way to friggin’ Boise to see the band you already know. You’re going to discover the best band you never even knew existed.
At its heart, that’s what Treefort is built on: thousands of tiny moments of personal discovery. A lot of times, they happen by accident. You walk into the nearest fast-casual Mexican joint for lunch and have your ears blown out by a raging two-man punk band. Or you go grab a cup of coffee and stumble across a husband-and-wife duo playing traditional Sufi music. You follow the sign into the basement beercade and find a DJ playing sci-fi synth music while Flight of the Navigator plays on the screen above him. (And…is that a Smokey and the Bandit arcade game?! What?!) It’s one of the vanishingly few festivals you can go into without a plan and leave without any regrets. After all, you can’t fear missing out on something when you truly have no idea what you’re missing.
But, man, if you weren’t there, you really missed out. Allow us to get more specific.
Best Case for the Emo Being Back For Good: Whereling
Boise isn’t exactly a college town per se—Boise State notwithstanding—but they do have enough bespectacled, sensitive youngsters with an affinity for shimmering jazz riffs, crushing dynamics and off-kilter vocals to produce a band like Whereling, so we’ll count it among more storied scenes like Champaign, Ill., and Lawrence, Kan. Taking obvious cues from Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate and, more recently, Empire! Empire!, what was even more shocking about Whereling than the enthusiasm and respect they pay their elders is that their impossibly tight Thursday night set is that it was their second set ever. They’re bound for greatness provided they get in the van and tour as soon as a proper album is released, but the seven-inch they’ve uploaded to their Bandcamp page is an exciting jumping-off point that’s sure to make the rounds among “twinklecore” sub-Reddits and the like. PETE COTTELL.
Most Evil Electro Group: Carpenter Brut
Aside from the requisite dubstep drops emanating from the patio of Fatty’s all weekend long, electronic music was mostly underrepresented at Treefort. To further confound things is mysterious French terror-house artist Carpenter Brut’s Wednesday night headlining slot at El Korah Shrine, a literal shriners hall that housed acts slightly too big for bars like Neurolux or the Shredder. In practice, the show functioned much better as a rock show than not. A live drummer and a guitarist who clearly learned his licks by playing along to Castlevania games were in tow, and the band’s deadpan nature was immediately forgiven thanks to the most bizarre and violent reel of grindhouse and exploitation films any non-film major has ever laid eyes on. The effect was metal-as-fuck, which begs the question as to why people are still hyped on Survive when Carpenter Brut scratches the exact same itch for dark and disturbing synth music and is much, much easier to start a circle pit to. Speaking of which, the closing cover of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” lit the room on fire, with a stray crowd surfer or two trying their best to not get dropped and trampled by the dance party that erupted adjacent to the stage. This was by far the weirdest and most chaotic set I saw all week, and I don’t regret a single minute of it. (PC)
Best Garage Rock Revival Revival: Arc Flash
Operating as a guitar-and-drums duo goads the same kneejerk assumption out of anyone who’s been invested in guitar-based music for the past two decades: either you’re riffing on the kind of nu-blooz that’s doomed to miss the bar set by the White Stripes or you’re bombarding listeners with esoteric art-noise a la Hella or Lightning Bolt. Arc Flash, from Lawrence, Kan., found an electrifying halfway point between the two, spastically pivoting between thundering swamp funk and jittery math licks that barely gave the small crowd gathered at the makeshift all-ages venue set up inside a Mexican restaurant a chance for a breather. If the dudes in PWR BTTM went to Brown rather than Bard, they’d sound a lot like Arc Flash. (PC)
Best Dream of the '90s: Minihorse
Don’t let anyone tell you indie rock is dead. At Treefort, at least, it’s alive and thriving, arguably at the expense of other, less represented genres. But hey, if you’re gonna do it, do it well, and Michigan’s Minihorse do it in a way that shoots straight for the heart of ‘90s college radio programmers everywhere: tender melodies, fuzz-drift guitar, langorous rhythms, a bassist wearing a rather unnecessary beanie. One imagines their main motivation for schlepping out to Boise was to become BFFs with Doug Martsch. Luckily for them, Treefort is where all your indie rock dreams come true:
Analog synth music is big in Boise right now, probably because the ‘80s only happened there, like, five years ago. (Oh man, just wait until they get Netflix in 20 years and see Stranger Things!) But seriously, for a relatively small town in a state known for football and potatoes, there’s an inordinate amount of musicians making what sounds like music for an imaginary John Carpenter film about dancing robots. There’s Magic Sword, the shadowy duo that played the Treefort main stage last year and this year performed an impossible-to-get-into show with the Boise Philharmonic at the city’s largest theater. There’s Deeveaux, a local producer whose name is either ridiculous or genius. (Somewhere in the middle, probably.) And then there’s Nightwave, who I came across after being lured into Spacebar, a retro beercade about half the size of Ground Kontrol. As scenes from the 1986 sci-fi adventure flick Flight of the Navigator projected onto a screen above him, he conjured up the kind of stomach-knotting, sweaty-palmed dread that matches perfectly with the pressure of trying to break your own Galaga high-score. Sadly, I did not get to try the arcade’s custom-made Smokey and the Bandit game—you drive an eight-bit Trans-Am attempting to pick up cans of Coors—but it’s always good to have an excuse to come back. (MPS)
Best Music for Nocturnal Cry-Driving: Shady Elders
Like Beach House snapped out of their love buzz, Denver’s Shady Elders make dream-pop better fit for the tearful midnight drive away from your lover’s coastal vacation home. While the shoegaze hallmarks are familiar—hazy guitars, a general sense of beautiful melancholia—the rhythms actually move, even if it’s mostly in a straight line. Singer Fox Rodernich is the band’s not-so-secret weapon: Armed with a voice described in their press materials as “like a drugged Ella Fitzgerald” (I really can’t do much better), she cuts through the fuzz when many of her peers wrap themselves up in it. Cloistered inside Neurolux during a grey mid-afternoon misting, I couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate. (MPS)
Best Weather Machine: Grouper
As rain fell outside, Liz Harris sat cross-legged on the floor of the Boise Contemporary Theater and conjured a very, very quiet storm of her own. Surrounded by pedals, Portland’s queen of ambience unfurled a gentle tone poem built from looped guitars and whispers which, over the course of an hour, evoked the feeling of fog slowly enveloping a city then slowly moving out at the coming of dawn. It was typically gorgeous, though you really should give your friends fair warning when you’re taking them to a seated hourlong ambient performance in a crowded theater that’ll make it awkward to take off early from. One of mine fell asleep during it, though I don’t think Harris would take that as an insult. (MPS)
Best Conversationalist: SassyBlack
SassyBlack likes to talk. A lot. During her set at the Linen Building, it’s possible the Seattle soul singer—formerly of galactic hip-hop troupe THEESatisfaction—did more talking than singing. She talked about going on bad dates, and her hatred of sexy baby talk. She talked about how going to see the Spice Girls at the Tacoma Dome as a pre-teen acted as the preamble to her queer awakening. She talked about her love of Comic Con. She talked about studying classical music, which inspired her to write an ode to Beyoncé. She polled the crowd to help name her Ableton Push 2 (suggestions included Alanis, Veronica, Fiona and, naturally, Abbi). Somewhere in there, she did some songs. If that sounds more like The Moth than a concert, it actually made a ton of sense, considering the sound of her debut solo album, No More Weak Dates, is basically a set of melodic conversations set against minimalist arrangements and earthquaking bass. It’s really all part of her uniquely personable charm, as much as the bright green fanny pack she wore onstage. She also talked about her upcoming album, which is called New Black Swing and is indeed inspired by early ‘90s new jack swing, and I’ll tell you, I am all the way down for that. (MPS)
Best Pogo Party: Xenia Rubinos
Critics marvel over Xenia Rubinos’ eclecticism, but there are plenty of artists blurring genres into an uncategorizable patchwork these days. What makes the Brooklyn singer-songwriter stand out is how she mashes everything into a single, cohesive sound that’s really all her own. Backed by only a bassist and drummer—down one musician, if I recall correctly, from when she played Holocene last year—while adding a smattering of keyboards herself, her Linen Building set managed to touch on everything from funk-punk to glimmering R&B, from sassy hip-hop to Spanish-language hardcore and something akin to stoner soul-metal (for real), all linked by her inimitable voice and hyperactive spirit. The highlight was a rousing version of “See Them,” from last year’s Black Terry Cat, which sounds like the music to one of those arcade claw-crane games rendered as a kind of jumpy eight-bit disco. “Where you gonna put the brown girl now?/She’s tearing it up,” she sang. And then she bounded into the crowd and proceeded to, indeed, tear that shit up. (MPS)
Best of Portland: Boone Howard
A fixture on the Portland music scene of the last few years, Boone Howard has grown into one of the city’s best hungover balladeers. His songwriting is self-effacing, clever and bleary-eyed, in the same category as Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, but onstage, he manages to bring together the hair-in-the-eyes insouciance of Julian Casablancas and the drunken energy of Ty Segall. Supported by an ace backing band featuring members of the Domestics, Minden and his old group, the We Shared Milk, Howard staggered and swaggered across the stage at the Olympic, climbing atop monitors, blowing kisses to his keyboardist, bopping himself in the forehead with the mic and, most often, simply collapsing straight onto his back. If only he had a signature hat, he might already be as big as Mac DeMarco. In due time. (MPS)
Best Goth Punks: Sculpture Club
If you want proof that Salt Lake City isn’t completely populated by squeaky clean Mormons and ski bunnies in neon spandex, look no further than Sculpture Club. From their goth-punk aesthetic to their harrowing and howling sendup of Disintegration-era the Cure, there’s not a smack of irony to be seen or heard in their presentation. Their set felt hurried, but their excellent debut, last year’s A Place to Stand, barely hits the 25 minute mark, so don’t expect the young trio to bog down the urgency with ambling 4AD-inspired ambience like other goth acts. Singer-guitarist Chaz Costello, who sported fingerless gloves and what looked like orchids dangling from his guitar and mic stand, saves the synth-driven moodiness for his other project, Human Leather, which is making waves in other corners of the web for it’s oddly compelling marriage of ‘80s soft-rock schlock and goth-lite atmospherics. Either way, Costello is creating required listening for fans of bands like Eagulls and Cold Cave, and you’ll be able to catch Sculpture Club in the pale white flesh on April 7 at the bar formerly know as the bar formerly known as Tonic Lounge as part of the third iteration of the Out From the Shadows Festival. (PC)
Biggest Bore: the Growlers
I’ll accept that I’m a crank for knowing that the appeal of Orange County’s premiere “beach goth” outfit is beyond me, but the point of this superlative is not actually a knock on “the kids” and the grating, tuneless surf-pop they listen to while shopping for ironic tube socks at Zumiez. Ostensibly billed as one of the main stage headliners Treefort brought on to sell wristbands to the youngsters, the Growlers’ tepid yet well-attended Friday night closing slot is a pretty good indication that we’re still several years away from the lineup getting bloated and top heavy. As a matter of fact, if you’re completely over jockeying against neon-clad EDM bros for camping space and peace and quiet at the Gorge, I cannot speak highly enough of this festival. The focus on smaller regional acts filling space between slightly bigger touring acts that are maybe popular enough to sell out the Wonder Ballroom is a formula that the folks behind Treefort should be proud of. It’s certainly on the upswing, but besides the patchy cell service around the crowded main stage on Saturday, it never once felt too big for its britches. Get in while the gettin’ is good, my friends. (PC)