Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How the hipster communes with nature: The Sasquatch! Music Festival

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
The view at Sasquatch - both on to the stage and of the surrounding Columbia River gorge - is best when it's shared. Photo by Doug Bonham

The one thing you must remember before going to any concert is your ticket. This is a rather simple rule to follow, and a vital part of the experience. As the night of Friday, May 25 inched toward the witching hour and my car hurtled down Interstate 90, cutting down the highway through the Cascade Mountains, it didn’t matter that I put myself and my friends an hour and a half behind schedule. I left my tickets for the sixth-annual Sasquatch! Music Festival back in my traveling companion Tyler’s Seattle apartment. The extra gas my car used stung my wallet, and the ignominy of the mistake stung my pride, but there was something greater to focus on: the two-day concert festival and a lineup of great bands under the wonderful, springtime Northwest weather.

After driving into the campgrounds of the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash., approximately 150 miles east of Seattle, Tyler and I set up a tent, drank a beer in celebration of arriving and fell asleep, prepared for the festival’s arrival. It certainly is something to prepare for, between the epic scale of the amphitheater and the task of getting to it in the first place. After that long drive from Seattle into the campgrounds, one must walk a half hour down a dusty trail through rolling farmland, past the campgrounds of fellow concert-goers, and up into line to enter the amphitheater. Tread farther down an asphalt path that snakes past vendor booths and the “Wookie” side-stage, and one finally crests the hill of the deepest edge of the venue’s great grassy bowl and can take in a view that is as breathtaking as any of the performances held on its main stage.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Welcome to the Sasquatch Festival: The running of the concert-goers after the gates open Saturday morning. Photo by Doug Bonham

This is fitting because the ample crowd – making the 20,000-spectator capacity amphitheater seem rather cozy all weekend long – isn’t just at the Sasqutach Festival to enjoy live music, they’ve come from all around to enjoy a spectacle: surviving a weekend without showering, imbibing in the campground, seeing a plethora of tattoos under the Northwest sun, and overpaying for amphitheater food is included along with the music.

The first Sasquatch Festival was in 2002, and since then it has grown into a large, multiple-day and multiple-stage concert festival. In 2006, the festival added a six-band set on the main stage Friday evening onto the full three stages worth of bands on Saturday and Sunday. The festival always features an eclectic lineup slant toward indie and alternative rock, singer-songwriter groups and alternative or underground hip-hop acts; the 2006 lineup reflected this, including such diverse headliners as Nine Inch Nails, the Flaming Lips, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, and Beck, to name but a few who graced the main stage. Though the scope drew back in for the 2007 festival, held over the Memorial Day weekend of May 26 and 27, the headlining acts – Bjork, the Arcade Fire, Interpol and the Beastie Boys – had just as much star power, and the side stage lineups held many quality smaller artists and local favorites.

Representative of the local music scene in the Northwest, many of the best local artists from Portland and Seattle traditionally earn side stage slots, and this year was no different. Seattle artists Minus The Bear, The Long Winters, Common Market, Tacoma’s Neko Case, and Portland groups the Dandy Warhols, Stars of Track and Field, the Helio Sequence and Viva Voce all performed at Sasquatch. For Anita Robinson, the lead singer and guitarist of Viva Voce, just being at the festival this year was a goal; performing was even better. “I’ve been wanting to go to Sasquatch, but it seems like we’ve always been on tour,” Robinson explains. “Plus, getting to play is really exciting.”

Viva Voce: Portland-based duo played a powerful set in the Saturday afternoon sun. Photo from vivavoce.com

Though Viva Voce – which includes Anita and her drummer, co-vocalist and husband Kevin Robinson – have recorded four albums since forming in 1998 and toured extensively, including to Europe, Robinson still represents her adopted hometown, which sparked interest in the festival. “I just know I wanted to be a part of it because it’s a northwest festival and we’re a northwest band, this is our home and we want to be a part of what’s happening,” Robinson says. “I think it’s cool the way it worked out, whoever put the lineup together has a real sense of what Portland bands and Seattle bands and national and international bands would work together.”

Work together they certainly do. Fans gather at the gate to enter the amphitheater early Saturday morning, with many people leaving the campgrounds by 10:30 a.m. to make the trek to the entrance, where security guards search bags for contraband, including full and opened water bottles or soda can or my friend Tyler’s cigarette pack. Though side diversions exist on the outskirts of the stages, including booths presented by Major League Baseball, local Seattle radio stations 107.7 The End and 90.3 KEXP, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 video game console, concert-goer focus aims solely on the stages and the main stage in particular.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Blackalicious rocked the house early on Sunday afternoon with their live set. Photo by Doug Bonham

With the most well known artists taking the stage throughout the day, a Sasquatch-goer could hypothetically get a great show solely by parking themselves on a blanket on the grassy bowl of the main stage, breaking only for brave trips to the portable toilets. Saturday main stage highlights include the party atmosphere of Ozomatli and Manu Chao, the folky indie rock of Citizen Cope and Neko Case, the rampant energy of The Arcade Fire, and the eclecticism of singer Bjork, whose trademark piercing voice struck like lighting around the amphitheatre. On Sunday, hip-hop group Blackalicious wowed the main stage crowd, early ‘80s hardcore pioneers Bad Brains followed them and alternated between lead singer H.R.’s solo-recording reggae tunes and the band’s trademark whirlwind punk rock. After Bad Brains, the Polyphonic Spree had their set cut short due to high winds.

The Sasquatch Festival is no stranger to bizarre weather – in 2006, Neko Case ended her set when a hailstorm of significant magnitude poured down for half an hour. That also delayed the day’s show for nearly two hours, and left many a concertgoer soaked to the bone; some returned to the campground to change, some bought merchandise to add a dry layer, while others reveled, including a group who sledded down the grassy bowl. The 2007 festival’s high winds did not leave anyone soaked to the bone, though it did cause Sabzi, the DJ for hip-hop duo Common Market who performed on the Yeti side stage at that time, to use abort using his turntables.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Beastie Boys' Sunday night set divided opinions. Photo by Doug Bonham

Common Market was not the only good act to see on the side stages this year. The Beastie Boys, who closed the show from the main stage Sunday night, played an instrumental-heavy set on Saturday at the Wookie side stage to a packed audience. Dressed in sharp three-piece suits, sunglasses, and the wisdom that comes from their years of performing, they did not disappoint in either show – though some fans, including Tyler, grumbled about the song selection on the main-stage show. He ever-so eloquently stated walking to the campground that night, “People there were expecting old-school Beastie Boys, not instrumental masturbation.”

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Slip performing on Saturday at Sasquatch. Photo by Doug Bonham

Boston’s The Slip performed early Saturday at the Wookie side stage as well. The three-piece band, formed by Andrew Barr on drums, his brother Brad on guitar, piano and vocals, and Mark Friedman on bass and guitar, ripped enthusiastically through their set, which featured many extended solos and trips into the realm of jamming. Andrew Barr always looks forward to the festival performance experience, and explains, “I think the biggest opportunity is to get out of that tunnel vision of touring (on your own).” Barr also looks forward to the social side of the festival for bands; finding out around a campfire or over a bottle of wine that musical peers have the same inspirations, Barr says, is a liberating experience. “That’s why we went on the road with My Morning Jacket,” he says. Robinson agrees, adding, “Usually there’s a lot of guys wearing shorts trying to bark at you and telling you to hurry up…It’s the kind of thing where you think and feel like you’ve survived something together. We’ve got some really good friends from shows like that.”

Shows like the Sasquatch Festival offer an experience for everyone – musicians and fans alike, through the good, bad and the ugly. Despite the high winds (as host and comedian Aziz Ansari implied the crowd to yell, “Fuck the wind!”), high food prices ($10 for a 24-ounce beer!), strange campground neighbors (Tyler remembers the drug-dealing ones next to us shouting one morning, “DO YOU REALIZE THERE ARE PEOPLE IN ALL THOSE TENTS?”), it all seems to be worthwhile on the long drive back from central Washington. Even if the heat burns you to a crisp, the bands kind of let you down, and you have work Tuesday morning, at least driving back home on Memorial Day, it is impossible to forget your tickets.

No comments: