This year’s edition of the Sasquatch! Music Festival (the Northwest’s premiere music fest) found two of the Weeping Elvii perched on the precipice of The Gorge for what has to be the most awe-inspiring setting of the festival circuit. Though we did see some acts separately (and will report accordingly) we took in many acts together and thought it worthwhile to share our respective thoughts.
The Festival (Overall)
Clem: I love this festival (this was my third) and you could not ask for a more beautiful backdrop against which to hear some amazing music. Even though Sasquatch! was already on my radar for this year’s festival circuit, the line-up punched my ticket. A four-day festival is a bit of a marathon and you can certainly reach a point of musical saturation, I managed to stay objective (one hopes) all the way through the last night. The location is fairly remote but, for me, that makes it a bit more like a vacation. The size (40,000) keeps everything manageable and it’s rare to find a total conflict in which acts you want to see. I’ll be back.
Behrnsie: As Clem notes, Sasquatch! provides the most unique setting of any festival I’ve attended, back-dropped by one of the largest gorges in America (You may have heard of the largest: The Grand Canyon). Four days is a bit much, particularly when one factors in the extensive drive required to reach any urban area. Its remoteness didn’t detract from a wide geographic range of attendees, with an informal survey of license plates indicating a strong Canadian contingent (British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba in particular) as well as attendees from throughout the American west. But, it means that some people clearly skip the last day and return from whence they came: much lighter attendance was clearly anticipated as multiple food and beverage stands were shuttered. Not that Memorial Day’s rain helped, even in the rain gear haven that is the Pacific Northwest.
The overall level of organization seems a bit lax. Sometimes — like when it allowed us to park our RV about 50 yards away from the festival’s entrance, that’s a good thing. Sometimes, like when they had ZERO schedules to hand out on the first day, that’s a bad thing. And sometimes, it is just bizarre: how is it possible that they didn’t have a mobile app in 2013 when they did in 2012? Maybe they figured that since only Verizon customers could really use their phones, it was a waste of time and money. (Alternatively, they could have worked with mobile carriers to improve service, as other festivals have clearly done). Overall, beer and food lines were reasonable, although the options are the weakest of any major festival I’ve recently attended. I thought we’d moved on from that day and age when food options were limited to prefab pizza, chicken fingers and related 1980s arena concourse fare, but not at Live Nation’s Sasquatch. It’s time to upgrade those options. Beers are generally $12/$13 for the 1.5 pounders, and food almost always clocked in at $9/$10, no matter what was ordered.
It was generally a very good lineup, one showcasing a fairly wide-range of acts from Europe and North America (although there is significant lineup overlap with other major festivals). The arrangement of the schedule also left something to be desired; sound bleed frequently became an issue when a nuanced, quiet band was placed on a stage a bit too close to one featuring loud, bombastic bass lines. This obviously destroys the vibe for the more subtle act, and is a problem that could be easily rectified. It would be better to have less bands play then to ruin the experience in this manner. That being said, the booking is generally very good and diverse enough to satisfy a wide range of tastes.
Takeaway: This festival specializes in natural beauty (rather than Coachella‘s corporeal beauty), suffers from Live Nation’s cookie cutter management and sound bleed, and its lineup – while interesting and diverse — is illustrative of a trend: the homogenization of festival circuit content.
And now to the music…
Behrnsie: Japandroids are simply a lot of fun. The Vancouver duo is a great festival act because they throw down and get everyone in a good mood, not only with their music but also with interspersions of comedy between songs. They almost certainly win the prize for the band you’d most like to have a beer or ten with on a Saturday afternoon boating excursion. There are moments where their exuberance led to vocals (particularly the drummers’) sliding out of tune, but not so far as to earn significant demerits. Bands like Japandroinds will always have a place in this type of setting unless up-tempo, pounding and riffing rock and roll goes completely out of style. Let’s hope that bridge is never crossed.
Father John Misty
Behrnsie: Talk about one of the weirdest transitions possible: Japandroids into Father John Misty. OK, I threw a few minutes of Built to Spill in the middle, but still, it’s weird to see an all-out thrashing performance and then attempt to pivot emotionally into slow to mid-tempo songs containing plaintive pathos and esoteric themes. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the artist, but rather to convey that I wasn’t in the correct frame of mind to see this type of set at this point of the festival. If the order of operations had been flipped, it would have been a fantastic way to start the festival. What your fourth grade math teacher told you was true, order matters. I look forward to seeing FJM at his own gig in the near future.
Mumford & Sons
Clem: As I have written extensively about them in the past, I will not belabor my well-known views about how great a band this is. I’m sure someone else has come up with this, but I am officially dubbing their “Americana from across the pond” style as “Brit-a-cana”. See Laura Marling, Jake Bugg and Mt. Desolation for other examples. A quick look at their dress and instrumentation makes it a bit hard to believe that these guys are rock stars, but they are changing the definition of that word. Or, at least what the word can encompass as the 30,000 screaming fans at The Gorge seemed to agree. I was eager to see if a live performance of “Below My Feet” would have the same impact as it does on their 2nd effort, Babel, and it was even more anthemic and transcendent than I had hoped. It would be easy for the group to say, “Well, now that we are one of the biggest acts touring this year let’s add a drummer so that Father Mumford can be more free to perform.” But, the group realizes that what was (probably) born out of necessity is now part of their signature and there is Marcus Mumford singing his face off, one minute playing a guitar so passionately you are surprised the neck doesn’t break and the next pounding away on his kick drum. This serves to keep the sound consistent with what I fell in love with 3 years ago — when I first saw them live and before everyone knew the chorus to “Little Lion Man.” Which, by the way, is pretty powerful when sung by a crowd of 30,000.
Behrnsie: I’ve seen Mumford blow away clubs during their early U.S. shows a few years back, and, as their audiences have steadily multiplied, I’ve seen them do the same at large outdoor venues. Their Sasquatch! performance was as good as any, and showed a massive crowd their unique knack for dramatic pauses and soul-elevating crescendos. Which brings up a point: we would all be richer if popular musicians understood the basics of music theory. We would be richer if they were able to deploy that knowledge to either lift their crowds up into the heavens or pull their audience down into the depths via the magical powers of musical symbolism. Knowledge is one thing, obviously, and skill is another. Mumford possess both in spades, and are probably as good as any pop band out there at spiriting their audience away on an emotional journey, often from bar to bar, let alone song to song. Their purity of purpose is wisftful rather than actual, rooted in the traditions of church music rather than strict spirituality, and their infectious desire to reach higher provides a rare, aspirational experience for music fans. They remain at the top of their game, and their game is as good as any. Their second album was widely and unfairly criticized for sounding somewhat similar to their first, which seems less strange when one is reminded that they were playing a handful of the songs on Babel at shows three years ago. They all play exceedingly well live, and it’s fair to say that no one puts on a more authentically joyful show than Mumford and his (not biological) sons.
Clem: I think we both truly loved this act and for both of us it was certainly one of if not the best overall act of the festival. Kick Ass and butt rockin’ are the best words I can use to describe it. I’m sure Behrnsie can be more articulate but he just works for me on EVERY level. Great writing, great performing by Mr. Bingham himself as well as a KILLER backing band plus it’s just a hell of a lot of fun. It’s rock, it’s contemplative singer-songwriter fare and it’s even the good kind of country at times. I sat down with the man himself for a few minutes so look for that interview in the near future.
Behrnsie: Ryan Bingham’s set was a barn burner of a hootenanny. It’s musicianship was incendiary, it’s vibe was thoroughly enjoyable, and it was clearly one of the best overall performances of the 2013 edition of Sasquatch!. The band is absolutely killer, and Bingham’s gravel-soaked-in-whiskey voice scratches your back while massaging your frontal lobe. While it was either misting or flat out raining the entire time, the elements did not distract a hardy band of partisans from dancing with abandon and smiling from ear-to-ear the entire set. His performance was truly one of the most memorable, not for any particular song or theatrics, but more for its overall feeling and clarity. It was one where all your troubles disappeared, and the audience was united with the music (an all-too rare thing these days extant chit chat disappears entirely). No one left this performance without a smile on their face, except those sad that it had to come to an end. Grab a bottle of bourbon, take a swig or three, and go see Ryan Bingham at your earliest opportunity.
Shovels and Rope
Clem: Again, I think we both were massively impressed with this act…me maybe more than Behrnsie as it is right up my redneck alley. I will try to be concise here as I was truly blown away by what I saw. The musical and emotional connection between performer and audience, enabled by massive amounts of talent, is what makes this duo so special. I don’t know if I ever thought I could be entertained so much by only two people (yes including The Black Keys). The husband and wife team alternate on guitar, vocals (the harmonic blend is astounding), drums and keyboards. It is the ultimate in low-fi but at the highest levels of emotivity and musicianship. The powerhouse vocals of Cary Ann Hearst exist somewhere betwixt Dolly Parton, Gretchen Wilson and Melissa Ethridge. It’s hard not to compare them to the other prominent duos out there, but maybe Shovels and Rope are a latter-day touchstone of (meaning only 2 people on stage) The Black Keys, George Jones & Tammy Wynette (yes they had a backing band but…), The Civil Wars, Sleigh Bells (just not quite as raucous) and The White Stripes. There is no way around comparison to the latter: S&R have worked with Jack White on his Third Man Records imprint. Imagine if The White Stripes were rednecks (term used lovingly) with a sensibility more hard core roots rock/country, and with better drumming (sorry Meg). They offer each member of their audience a feeling of intimacy, as if they are performing just for you.
Behrnsie: Shovels and Rope were perhaps my most pleasant surprise of the festival. I cannot use superlatives quite as effervescently as Clem to describe them, but suffice to say that I would definitely go see them again and enjoyed their alt-country relationship-py duo thing. One thing I wouldn’t do were I to start a band: poop where I eat. The surest way to guarantee a band will prematurely die is to watch its members become intimately involved. I don’t know how The Rosebuds carry on, but they’re clearly the exception to a pretty hard rule. Hopefully S&R will avoid this fate.
Built to Spill
Clem: This group simply plays some of the best music in alternative rock. If the great orchestrator Ravel (who literally wrote the book on classical orchestration) had the electric guitar at his disposal, these might be the arrangements he would put to paper…ok, he’d probably use ProTools. Their glorious interweaving of counterpoint and great specificity will keep music aficionados and theorists happy, but laymen can still ignore all that technical music stuff and just enjoy the overall beauty and effect of their artistry.
Behrnsie: I like Built to Spill well-enough, although at times I do find their extended jams a bit masturbatory. That being said, I didn’t see enough of their set to give them a fair review. What I can say: they’re yet another band that shouldn’t immediately follow Japandroids on a bill, their style a bit too orchestrated and complex when one has just embraced simplicity of primality. Think Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates…the elegance of simplicity wins out for most.
Clem: I heard these guys at SXSW and was excited to check them out again. This is feel good, atmospheric, alt pop/rock that could serve as an unobtrusive soundtrack to your daily routine, but there is sufficient depth underneath to warrant some serious listening. While they look like the ultimate slacker group, there was not an ounce of emo or angst in sight (as far as I could tell). I honestly like the fact that the vocals are used as just another atmospheric instrument. Some may complaint about not understanding the lyrics, but most will quickly learn that the lyrics themselves aren’t the point, but the echo-laden vocals contribute mightily to the overall palate and dream-like effect. Their 2012 release Oshin snuck on to a few critics “Best Of” lists (Oshin was #9 on our Top 25 Albums of 2012) and with that critical success we look forward to their sophomore effort.
Behrnsie: Diiv is simply awesome. I love any band that can be compared with Blonde Redhead AND Sonic Youth, and Diiv has definitely earned those associations. Each time I’ve seen them perform, my appreciation for their music has climbed another rung and my wonder at how a bunch of kids can be so musically advanced reaches the point where I may have to employ horrible words like “flabbergasted.” And I’m a bit jealous of the fact that front-man Zachary Cole Smith does things like date Sky Ferreira and hang out with (photographer to the hip and beautiful) Terry Richardson. And that they have already toured with bands that include Japandroids, How to Destroy Angels, and The Vaccines. Just a bit jealous…but mostly appreciative of the way in which they use various, relatively minimal and often shrouded parts within the arrangement to create a Rothko-esque canvas of depth and distortion.
Clem: This electronic-based trio from Scotland could not be more alluring if they tried. The music is modern and complex yet remains catchy and easy on the ears with tinges of 80s new wave and 90s Brit eletro-pop. The thought that it is reminiscent of The Cranberries hit both of us at the same time I think. While the music is truly interesting to listen to and has something to say artistically, notice may come to Chvrches due to the voice and the face of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. It would not be surprising to see Ms. Mayberry’s face grace the cover of both music rags and fashion publications. Much like Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, Chvrches may find that notoriety may initially derive from their visual attributes, but also like No Doubt, their solid music will back up the hype. I’m looking for big things, especially considering that they have created the buzz they have all on the strength of one Brit released EP.
Behrnsie: As Clem noted, CHVRCHES seems like a perfectly updated, Scottish version of Dolores O’Riordan and friends…albeit without the heroin. Without even a single LP, they’ve generated a LOT of buzz. That is usually annoying, a byproduct of the hipster affectation to be fresher-than-thou, but in this case the buzz isn’t misleading. Lush soundscapes and wonderfully conceived synth-laden melodies are the foundation for Mayberry’s engrossing, elfin-cute singing. She’s stunningly adorable, like a slightly younger cousin that you absolutely, positively, must not find attractive. Good luck with that struggle…and since you’re destined to lose it, hopefully the cousin in question was adopted.
Behrnsie was hip to these guys before hand but now count me as a big fan. I feel these guys (well really one guy, Trevor Powers) take more than one listening to digest so I will leave it to my colleague to go deeper but this was impressive stuff. This is keyboard-driven dreamy sounding fare but I would be hesitant to say dream pop. There is obviously an intense and emotional outpouring taking place on stage, and while I completely was hooked by it, I feel I need a few more listens to get the depths of this artistry. I will say in my years as a keyboard player and years listening to them, I have never heard such dense, undefinable patches and sounds…totally unique.
Behrnsie: Youth Lagoon’s touching and contemplative debut record was one of the best initial offerings I’ve heard from any artist, ever: it’s that good. The second record moves in a bit of a different direction, but their live performance remains straight-out spellbinding. This was one of the worst scheduling conflicts of the festival, and it’s a testament to the depth of my affection for Youth Lagoon that we took in the majority of this set over the fiery festival throwdown Arctic Monkeys brought to the big stage. Youth Lagoon isn’t going to blow you away with killer guitars or catchy hooks like the lads from London, but they do offer up an emotional wave of texture and nuance that washes over all in its wake. They’re a must-see band.
Clem: The debate is on as to whether Alt-J is a fad or truly innovative. I seem to be in the minority among my critical music peers, but I am buying Alt-J’s music hook, line and trip-hop groove. It’s odd and it’s strange but for me I find it completely accessible. A Microsoft commercial in heavy rotation featuring an Alt-J tune points to the fact that ad execs believe it is accessible enough to sell their new phone. The live sound is truly impressive. I’m sure they are running some sequences (as most bands that use electronics do) but now after seeing them twice I don’t find much of the live sound is programmed or sequenced. Why do the vocals sound like Elmer Fudd under water? Why do they break into a capella vocals that are obviously based on medieval religious chants? Why do the lyrics (when you can understand them) not seem to make much sense? I would love to know the answers to these and many other questions about these Brits’ music but I’m going to take the approach to these questions as I do to ones I used to have about Family Guy regarding Brian and Stewie and who can hear them talk…it just doesn’t matter. For me, Family Guy is hilarious and for me this music works and I am firmly on the Alt-J train. I think it’s also interesting to note that there is not a cymbal (or cymbal sound) present. Most bands relay on cymbals for swells and elevations in musical emotion, groove and changes in feel but I don’t miss it here and it is one of the things that makes Alt-J sound unique–it took me a while to figure this out and now I find it fascinating. I hope that a 2nd effort is in the works and this of course will be a tell-tale as to whether the unique and enigmatic sound that is Alt-J was a lucky hit or a sound and style that can be sustained.
Behrnsie: I went from loving the Alt-J record and thinking it was brilliant, to hating it and thinking it was a gimmick / a cruel joke, to a state of diffidence and ennui. I remain mostly in that latter stage, finding them capable of putting together perfectly great hooks for thirty seconds, before cutting and running to another hook or time signature in a way that seems more William S. Burroughs cut-up than my musical mind wants to tolerate. But perhaps, as befits an allusion to Mr. Burroughs, I need to be properly medicated in order to shift my pre-conceived notions of time and space so that these micro-melodies seem fully formed rather than assorted fragments of individual brilliance that float atmospherically without larger purpose. Since that last sentence reads like I’m on mescaline, perhaps the journey has already begun.
Behrnsie: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is one of my favorite bands, so take that intel as salt. They’re effortlessly cool, with that laconic and diffident air possessed by an elite few…think figures like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and James Franco. They’ve gone through some rough personal trials in recent years, but their current stage presence is in absolutely tip-top form. This is what rock should be: kinetic yet atmospheric, capable of removing the listener from time and place, and unequivocally cool. Those unfamiliar with the band might be shocked by how many great songs they’ve written over their decade plus as a band; they’re one of the least-known bands that could put together a top-notch “Greatest Hits” record.
Cavemen were utterly forgettable, to the point where it took a few songs to remember that I’d actually seen them previously. I think that says it all.
I must have caught the off-moments of Devendra Banhart’s set, because it bored the piss and vinegar out of me. I’ve liked some of his stuff, but clearly those songs I witnessed weren’t the ones that do anything for me.
Holy Ghost! is always fun, and their Sasquatch! performance did not disappoint. They don’t hold my attention for a super long time, but will do a perfectly serviceable job opening up for New Order this summer, despite the fact that they’re better suited to indoor venues.
Nick Offerman brought the funny to the Chupacabra Tent, offering up his Ten Tips for Prosperity. (Ex: #1: Engage in romantic love). He emerged shirtless, before (thankfully) donning one of the more uniquely awesome American flag shirts a torso could sport. The spirit of Ron Swanson was alive and well, and the kids laughed heartily the entire time.
Bloc Party is another of my favorites, and they absolutely tore things up. It was a dark interregnum period when they disappeared from the scene (Kele busied himself in the interim by putting out a dance record, which wasn’t horrible, but also wasn’t the pure genius that is Bloc Party). They OWNED the main stage, and turned out to be one of the few acts where the (extremely full) lawn was jumping and dancing and rocking the entire time. The drumming could not be more aggressive, the guitar lines more revelatory, or the vocals more poignant. They’re just about as close to a perfect 21st century rock band as I can conceive.
Divine Fits had a tough time slot but did quite well with it. They were slotted between Bloc Party and The XX, at that time when people need to grab food / beer / take care of business. It was sort of a come-down period after Bloc Party, but they filled that side-project-band-that-you-want-to-see-at-a-festival role perfectly.
It’s pretty amazing how many of my favorite bands were playing on one day (on the same stage, no less). The XX is one of the great young bands operating today, their chiaroscuro pop pushing the boundaries of monochromatic rock. I can hardly imagine a better place to see them – well, not including the synagogue where I first saw them in a few years back. They’ve grown a lot since then, incorporating a lot more movement on stage and a very appropriate light show. Also, there are now moments where they make great use of the talents of Jaime XX, offering up what are essentially remixes of their own works. These aren’t simply different arrangements that bands have been putting together for decades to alleviate boredom with their own material, they’re more properly sourced to remix culture. Regardless of their provenance, the show was stunningly beautiful, and one of those things that would have formed a perfect ending to the night. That is, without the sound bleed from Surfer Blood. Argh…this sort of technical incompetence shouldn’t be occurring in 2013.
After some scheduling snafus, Sigur Ros was up next. That would seem an appropriate segue from The XX, but it was one of the bigger disappointments of the festival. Tame Impala was pushed to the most adjacent of stages, and their thumping psychedelia absolutely ruined the moments created by the Icelandic group. The Gorge should be the perfect location for Sigur Ros, but not when an Aussie party is blaring in the not-so-far-removed background. This entire episode exhausted me – particularly when combined with the fact that I was flying solo as Clem fought off an adverse reaction to prescription medication. So, unfortunately that I couldn’t hold strong through Empire of the Sun, themselves delayed until near 1am.
Wild Belle is one of those up-and-coming bands sure to be crossing-over and attracting larger audiences in the days to come. Led by an equally beautiful brother and sister combo, the Chicago band got a great response for their trippy reggae-influenced compositions. It’s safe to say that they’ve improved each and every time to see them, and I fully expect them to gain legions of fans by the time their next music drops if they stay on their current path.
Dropkick Murphys blew things up, with a shockingly large crowd for a Boston Celt-punk band that exists on the margins. Which isn’t to say I don’t like them – I’m a huge fan – I just didn’t foresee such a massive crowd assembling for their set in the Pacific Northwest.
Shout Out Louds played a phenomenal set, the bookend show to the tour started I’d witnessed a month and change earlier at 9:30 Club. The Swedes were in much better form, clearly the beneficiaries of time spent playing together night in and night out, the performance well-honed and tight. The new record doesn’t seem to be getting the traction of their past efforts, but “July 14th” in particular is a killer track that represents well live.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes are a perfect festival band, particularly at this festival. Their hippie cult of 12 is unlike anything else on stage, and drew one of the larger crowds I witnessed at the festival. It was a textbook perfect Ed Sharpe show up until the very end, when Alex Ebert decided to turn the mic over to the audience for their “stories.” The stories sucked, well, if they could even be called stories. I have no patience for hearing a tween scream into the mic “I love you guys sooooo much!!!!” But of course, I’m a fan, not a member of Ed Sharpe’s cult. It tainted an otherwise fantastic performance, and ended up cutting off their last song when the mic-passing went on way longer than palatable to either my ears or the timeframes of the logicians in charge of moving things along. And that’s the crazy thing about human experience: as amazing as the show was, one of the best of the weekend, the one thing I’ll always remember will be those tweens and their screaming nonsense.
Elvis Costello started by rocking his face off, even bringing out Wild Belle’s Natalie Bergman for backing vocals on “Watching the Detectives.” I was really excited that we were getting a vintage performance that has all but disappeared in recent…decades. But then he reverted to recent form, went sappy, and embraced the stage of his career that has always left me cold. The crowd – most of which was too young to know him from “Austin Powers,” let alone his real career – instantly tuned out. It didn’t help that he decided to wax eloquent about 1937 England as Killer Mike was bleeding through from the other stage, rapping about ho’s and drugs. Say what you will about 1937 England – hopefully briefly – but the masses prefer hearing about ho’s and drugs at a music festival. Perhaps setting a record for how quickly an artist could flip a switch mid-performance and lose a crowd, the exodus from the main stage was Biblical in proportion. Killer Mike was decent — if you like masochist rap you’d probably like it more than I did — the highlight probably being when El-P joined him on stage. His music: “not my bag, baby.”
Grimes put out my favorite record of 2012, but her live performance have generally been less than amazing. Not bad, per se, but not particularly great. She’s added a lot more movement and kineticism into her show, both in her own personage as well as with a duo of dancers. It was a lot of fun at perhaps the perfect time slot, people clearly amped up and ready to party in the slot preceding Mumford & Sons. Her version of “Vanessa” was particularly fetching, while the vocals on “Be a Body” suffered mightily from both her breath control issues (due to her increased movement, no doubt) and the weird alterations she made to some of the notes. The rest of the set was more even, and the crowd definitely enjoyed the set while still checking watches to make sure they made it to the main stage on time.
Dirty Projectors were probably the most disappointing act of the festival, their vocals not rising to the level of their capabilities and the mood utterly sedate in the midst of a rain storm. Clearly, the rain is a X factor out of the band’s control, but they did little to compensate. One could say that their gun had no trigger (sorry).
Elliott Brood immediately followed Ryan Bingham, forming the most perfect musical segue of the weekend. The fun-loving Canadians had a VERY enthusiastic crowd, full of brethren from the True North in particular, and put on a great show. I’ve seen them multiple times, and have never had anything less than a standout performance from the roots (the Canadian version of Americana) trio. Of all the sets I witnessed, this one was at the top in terms of pure joy emanating from the faces of those surrounding me, dancing in light mud and sprinkled in hazy mist.
Cake proved that quirky Sacramento kids prominent over a decade ago can still rock, and also won the award for most effective audience participation. I wouldn’t have necessarily believed that possible, given that they accomplished this feat with a song that was released when the average age of their audience was probably starting 5th / 6th grade. But they did, and it worked exceedingly well. They’re just one of those bands that puts a smile on people’s face, whether with their comedic lyrics, the blazing brass section, or the effect of the entire performance.