Sasquatch! Music Festival ’11 | Part 1

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: my heaven is a music festival. Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

This year, Sasquatch! Music Festival, the annual party held over Memorial Day weekend at the Gorge Amphitheater in Quincy, Washington, celebrated its tenth year. The mind bogglingly scenic location coupled with a polite crowd ready to get the party groove going each year has helped this festival evolve from a seven-act, one-day festival (in 2002) to a four-day, multistage extravaganza featuring almost 100 acts (2011).

I got the awesome opportunity to see and hear around 40 performances. Wanna hear about them? Coverage of the festival will be divided into segments by day, followed by a post containing my lists of festival highlights, lowlights, philosophies, and experiences. There are also links to NPR’s All Songs Considered website throughout the articles, where many performances are archived for our listening pleasure. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: my heaven is a music festival. Thanks for stopping by.

Bob Mould

He played early on Friday, and I got stuck in traffic. Bummer! His timeslot was my only quibble, though that’s probably because I missed him. However, thanks to NPR’s kick-ass coverage of Sasquatch!, which includes many archived and downloadable performances from the festival, I was able to listen to Bob Mould rock out with only his voice and guitar. I’m truly disappointed that I missed him but psyched I can hear it now.

Foo Fighters

I have never been a huge fan of the Foo Fighters. I have enjoyed a few tracks from their albums over the years, but I often find many of their songs to be somewhere on the Nickelback / Creed branch of the musical tree, which is not really my thing (no offense if it’s yours). Yet, while watching the Foo Fighters’ performance at Sasquatch! festival I was both entertained and deeply moved. So much so, in fact, that it actually set the bar for all of my favorite shows of the weekend.  

First of all, regardless of my opinion of the Foo Fighters, I recognize and respect Dave Grohl as a rock legend. He sings, plays the guitar, writes songs, and famously smacks the drums. He has had a hand in shaping and changing the musical landscape for the past 20 years by playing in multiple bands (most notably, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures, and a little game-changing band called Nirvana) while collaborating with everyone from Tenacious D and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Queens of the Stone Age. This year at Sasquatch! the stage was his office.

This guy seems to purposely set out to do everything that makes a live show worth seeing. He is generous musician who does not appear to have any trace of rock star ego. At one point he brought out Bob Mould, who plays on a song on the new Foo Fighters album, and paid gracious homage to the man who mixed loud, screamy punk rock with pop melodies. Later, during my favorite track from the new album, “Alandria” there was a grinning guitar duel between Grohl and one of his band mates, followed by the drummer’s explosion into a drum solo. The vocals were refreshingly raw. The Foo Fighters’ albums include lots of vocal overdubs and studio polish, which is exactly what has turned me off about them in the past. All of that is gone on the stage. What remains is hard, celebratory, dirty rock and roll. Finally, even though much of the music was loud and intense, Grohl and the band laughed and enjoyed themselves throughout the set, head-banging like drunken teenagers doing karaoke. But unlike a self-indulgent drunk teenager (see Modest Mouse), Grohl played to the crowd and thanked them joyously.


The Head and the Heart

This Seattle-based band of transplants’ meteoric rise from obscurity to “buzz band” is mythic in Seattle’s local scene. They met at a bunch of open mic nights, moved in together, wrote songs, and built a following. I think their album is good, despite its getting mixed reviews. Critics point out the band’s overly romanticized and naïve lyrics, however, it was that romantic naiveté that elevated their live show to something special.

On stage, multipart harmonies and big smiles brought the crowd right around to the band. In fact, during their single “Lost in My Mind” some random people appeared onstage (they seemed to be friends with the band) jumping up and down and singing along, though they didn’t really serve much of a function other than to have fun. Female vocalist/violinist, Charity Rose Thielen, told a story about the keyboardist, Kenny Hensley, who somehow was able to get backstage at least year’s Sasquatch! and refused to remove that wristband until the band reached their goal of playing the festival’s main stage—and now there they were.

Everybody loves a Cinderella story, and the crowd loved everything about the wide-eyed, innocent joy of this band. Everyone was bouncing and dancing throughout their set; every song was a sing-along. After the show, I listened to the performance, which is archived on NPR’s website. While it is a solid listen, it doesn’t convey the magical energy exuded by the crowd at Sasquatch!. Some things are at their best live, and this band is a great example.

Local Natives

These guys rocked way harder than I expected. I was initially drawn to them by their vocal harmonies, and I was expecting a show similar to the Head and the Heart.

They did meld positive energy and vocal interplay with elements of indie rock, but where the Head and the Heart go folk, these guys go rock. Also, with two percussionists the rhythms are complex and fun to watch being created. Their archived performance represented the set pretty effectively.

After commenting with reverence that the main stage crowd was the biggest crowd they had ever played, they ended their set with their high-energy foot stomper, "Sun Hands," and joyfully announced that they were heading down to LA to work on a new album. Good luck fellas!  

Sharon Van Etten    

Though I was standing next to a metal barrier, this charming lady’s set had a homey, backyard feel that made me feel as if I were sitting in a wicker chair on a wraparound porch.

Many of her songs focused on heartbreak and loneliness, but she still played with the crowd (calling out, “All the ladies say what! All the dudes say yeah!” in between songs). She joked self-deprecatingly that she would “play a sad one for a change.” This angst, while certainly present in her music, is absent from her onstage banter, which also involved asking the crowd if anyone was drunk yet and giving a sweet birthday wish to NPR’s Robin Hilton (hear her performance here). Her unexpectedly positive energy and humble confidence completely won me over.

Wolf Parade

These guys are closing up the Wolf Parade shop soon, and I was bummed I missed them. Thankfully, their set is archived on NPR’s website.

J. Mascis 

A small-ish crowd gathered to check out this legend. The former lead singer/guitarist of the fuzzed out Dinosaur Jr. had his own grey fuzzed out beard blowing in the wind. His set was pretty understated on the surface, with just his guitar and voice.

However, sometimes the gentle singer/songwriter-y tunes would crescendo into an impressive mess of chunky, on-the-fly, haunting guitar loops. I am a sucker for looping things on the fly (see Reggie Watts) and left this performance eager to get my hands on his solo album when I returned to civilization.

Jenny and Johnny   

With Rilo Kiley and her solo records, Jenny Lewis has proven that she is a lifelong musical professional. I haven’t had a chance to dig into her recent work with Jenny and Johnny. I figured it to be boy/girl harmonies of heartbreak and happiness, similar to She and Him.

While Zooey Deschanel (the “She” in She and Him) and Jenny Lewis have similarities (hot women who started out as actresses), they are also very different. Lewis brings a bluesy bottom and grit to her tunes, which Deschanel doesn’t (yet) have. I have not heard Jenny and Johnny’s studio work, but if it is like any of their live set, I’m sold.

Iron & Wine

Sam Beam, the brain behind Iron and Wine, started out his musical life with an acoustic guitar and understated, almost whispered, stories about all manner of things. His songs are lyrically dense and often tell complicated tales that require a lyric sheet to follow.

For his past two albums he has added major instrumentation, back up singers, and all of the musical textures that come along with that. His Sasquatch! set highlighted some of his older songs with new instrumentation, but mostly it celebrated the new band (which had something like 10 people in it). There was a crazy, jazzy electronic horn freak-out that would usually send me running to another stage, but instead it kept me riveted as I tried to figure out what was going on. Check it out yourself at NPR’s website.

The Thermals

This is a great NW band that I have seen a couple times and loved. Unfortunately, I missed them. Fortunately, we can all hear it on NPR’s website, right here.

Matt & Kim

With just two people and not a ton of musical variety (drums, vocals, and keyboards), it is surprising how well these guys can whip the crowd into a frenzy. Their live show is something to experience. Kim, with her buff arms and infectious smile, is a force to be reckoned with behind the drums. Matt, her fella’, lead singer, and keyboardist, is no slouch in the enthusiasm department either. Like The Head and the Heart, their studio work doesn’t rise to the heights of their live performance. The audience is integral to the experience—they contribute like another band member.

In Jerry Lee Lewis fashion, Matt stood up banging at the keyboard and shouting into the mic while acting as host to the impressive Matt and Kim party. Kim surfed out into the crowd, and when she returned to the stage she ran around whooping it up, climbing on risers and speakers, and whipping the crowd into the passionate frenzy that she was feeling.

With giant, celebratory, gracious smiles infused into everything they did, they exuded positive energy infecting all within earshot. Even the people in the nearby bathroom lines danced, jumped around, and shouted along. These two are genuine in their love for what they do, and they are honored that people share in that love. Kim thanked the crowd enthusiastically, yelling, "I see every one of you!" She then proceeded to rattle off descriptions of people in the crowd she was watching—a classy move.

 

Pink Martini

Though I only caught the last few minutes of their set, I saw something remarkable. On stage was a full orchestra, with everyone decked out in formalwear. Musically, it sounded like I had wandered into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The many pockets of impromptu Broadway dance parties scattered throughout the audience certainly helped to cement that impression. I imagined it to be every theater geek’s dream, and I was glad to get a glimpse of it.

Bright Eyes

At 31 years old, Conor Oberst is still a young man. But, he has been prolifically making music for about 16 years and has shared the stage with enough rock legends to be considered one himself at this point. I am a fan of the new Bright Eyes album, The People’s Key, as well as his recent work with the Mystic River Band. The People’s Key has some guru named Denny talking in between several songs. These rantings are both paranoid and joyous, and they tread close enough to crazy to turn me off. I was expecting the show to shine, thinking that the new songs would sound great without the crazy rants.

I was also hoping to hear “First Day of My Life” from 2005’s Wide Awake It’s Morning, an uplifting song with huge personal significance (it is featured on a “Nigh Nigh CD,” a mix of mellow tunes my kids listen to every night). I was still smiling from the Matt & Kim show, a festival high point, as I crossed over to the Bright Eyes show that was already underway. My smile faded as I listened to Conor rant about the "pig," which is what he calls the Internet. He goes on about the Internet being a greedy place and disdainfully mocks those in the crowd who are without their Wi-Fi. I try and ignore his negative energy and focus on the music and the sunny day.

Eventually, though, he starts talking again. I largely share his political views, but I didn’t really want to hear about them at the moment. Or maybe I didn’t like the way he was presenting them. It seemed like a one-sided argument. For example, he railed venomously against the celebrations over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, making the point that violence begets violence, and violence is bad. But he went on a little too long and seemed to be using the audience as a proxy for the opposing viewpoint.

Even within an attempt at a positive message in shout outs to Death Cab for Cutie, Iron and Wine, and Jenny and Johnny, his “musical friends since the late ‘90s,” he brings the message down by claiming it was a better time then. That kind of angsty nostalgia is one of my pet peeves. As is the case with other politically vocal artists (think Bono and Michael Stipe), these rants are part of the Bright Eyes show. For artists like Conor Oberst it is dissatisfaction with the state of the world that largely drives their musical passion.

Yet musically, he is a consummate professional. He has learned to use his vocals more effectively over the years, and he is a fantastic songwriter. His guitar and keyboard playing stays on topic and as a bandleader he moves everything along nicely. It is true that he brought me down, but that boy had a fire in his belly. Ultimately he left with the positive message that “everyone should give a shit about each other.” Like Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, this is man whose struggle with his inner demons can simultaneously elevate and bring down a live performance.

Sleigh Bells

The fizzed out vocals were too fuzzy and the setup of the “dance tent” where they were playing annoyed me. At a festival with only four stages a tent isn’t necessary or conducive to skipping around. I was way in the back and couldn’t find any openings that would get me inside the tent and close enough to rock out the way this kind of music requires. Also, the enclosure upped the number of drunken stumblebums running into me, which was unpleasant. Though, they were always polite and apologetic about it. So there was that.

Death Cab for Cutie

From time to time, Death Cab for Cutie has been one of my favorite bands. Because of that I have seen them live many times, so I hadn’t planned on catching them this time around. However, as I looked at the options for a story here, I realized seeing them was a requirement. Like the Foo Fighters, these guys have grown into one of the top bands from the Pacific NW. Also, they have to be included in a conversation about modern legends at Sasquatch! this year.

I came to this realization after trying to see Sleigh Bells. As if to drive the point home, I crossed over into the main stage area as Death Cab’s lead singer Ben Gibbard (and the entire crowd, myself included) sang “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” This song has all sorts of emotional baggage for me, since it is another song on our kids’ “Nigh Nigh” CD—and one that I often sang to them as a lullaby.

The set was like seeing an old friend. As a testament to both their longevity and cultural changes, the song “Los Angeles” sounded like a snapshot from the ‘90s with the line “save your film and fifteen dollars.” No one uses film anymore, and you can actually download a “Hollywood star map” as an App now.

Death Cab played a wide variety of songs from their catalog and kept the banter to a minimum. These are professionals who are going to be around for a long time. Check out the performance here. | Tony Van Zeyl

Photos: Kyle Johnson, Christopher Nelson, Jackie Kingsbury via official Sasquatch! Music Festival photo stream on Flickr. You can check out all of the photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasquatch08/collections/72157626698690947/

 

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