SASQUATCH! Music Festival: Monday Recap
The Gorge, George, Washington 5/31/11
By Peter ZimmermanJune 20, 2011
Sasquatch is one of the rare festivals that spans the course of four days, rather than three. While the addition of an extra half-day of programming (Friday began in late afternoon) seems relatively benign, it has a dramatic effect on the overall feel of the festival. For those attending, Sasquatch becomes at a certain point less of a sprint and more of a long distance run, requiring a level of endurance and planning other contenders may not necessitate. This change in perspective and approach alters the entire experience, and given a strong lineup and agreeable circumstances can actually forever alter one’s relationship to festival participation. Whereas in a two or three day festival (like Newport Folk, Treasure Island or Outside Lands) one may feel more an observer, when a festival enters into the fourth day of music, the attendee becomes more than a participant, but rather part of the fabric of suspended reality.
Such was the sentiment surrounding Monday at Sasquatch. While many complained about having to return to the schedule of their lives and left early, those who stayed to witness the unfolding of the final day shared that feeling of weightlessness and possibility, when you accept living in the present fully and engage in that vibrancy. While there were certainly signs of fatigue and weariness among many, exhaustion never diminished the passion and intensity of the crowd in experiencing what Monday had to offer. Instead, the reception paid to headliner and closer Wilco spoke to the unmitigated joy of those who came for the Sasquatch experience, and who left embracing the resonance of such a brilliant festival.
The day began especially early with as appearance by Wavves, an excellent band marking the renaissance of California-based surf/punk music. Pulling from their three album catalog, the band, fronted by Nathan Williams, Earnest in the approach and playful in their execution, the band played despite the early time slot and hot sun-- both major detractors on the last day. Still, Wavves pulled it off, and did so with a bunch of mischievous smiles, searing, crunching guitars and gleeful spontaneity. Nearby, Givers performed a noontime show on the Bigfoot Stage that beautifully showcased their ebullient charm and vivacious energy. For a brand new group, the sound was nicely layered and the interactions were tight, but most of all they exuded a genuine mirth in regard to their music and musicianship. In a time when shoegazing dream-pop seems to infiltrate so many corners of the industry, it’s refreshing to find a band that loves what they do and attacks it with delightful fervor. If their Sasquatch set was any indication, we are in store for a lot more from this band. It’ll definitely be worth watching their evolution as they progress with touring their superlative debut album In Light (2011).
Old 97’s hit the Main Stage as the early afternoon sun was really burning, but they kept the audience sated and rapt with their alternative country croonings and acoustic-bent jams. Rhett Miller, leader of the Old 97’s, is a great live frontman, and the band played with lithe ability and robustness. Concurrently, British darlings Noah and the Whale drew a large crowd as they ripped mostly through material off their latest record Last Night on Earth (2011). After coming off the more austere and somber The First Days of Spring (2011), the band pepped up considerably, with songs like “Tonight’s The Kind of Night” and “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” keeping the mood lighter and livelier. At the same time, the set was a bit by-the-numbers and lacked a lot of the impulsive élan that propelled singer Charlie Fink into the limelight early in the band’s career. Whereas contemporaries (and historically collaborators) Mumford & Sons veered towards the anthemic, and ex-member Laura Marling subtle folk, Noah and the Whale continue to make pop songs that are at times experimental, country and traditional, indicating their willingness to push themselves artistically, but there’s also a palpable unease in their relationship to their audience.
At the RedLaser Acoustic Tent, indie/electro-pop band Foster the People played an acoustic set to a seated audience of 100. Stripped of many of the studio tricks, the band reinvented their well-known single “Pumped Up Kicks” with spirit and intensity; however, “Helena Beat” and “Houdini” came off fairly flat and strained, except for the fantastic drumming by Mark Pontius, which brought warmth and appeal to the songs. Perhaps singer Mark Foster was weary from touring their debut album Torches (2011), because his vocals were grating and tense. Following the band was a trio from The Decemberists: frontman Colin Meloy, guitar whiz Chris Funk and keyboardess extraordinaire Jenny Conlee. While they played a tragically short three-song set, it was evident how clearly inexperienced Foster the People really were, as the Decemberists are no stranger to the road and play with precision and gusto. Performing songs strictly from their latest record The King is Dead (2011), Meloy, Conlee and Funk presented faithful yet stripped versions of “Down By The Water,” “Calamity Song” and “Rox in the Box.” Sadly, they chose to omit either of the two main ballads from King (“June Hymn” and “January Hymn”), but the three they did perform were polished, compelling and jocular.
Back on the Main Stage, soul veteran Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings injected a much needed groove to the day. Strikingly absent from the festival was much racial diversity among the acts, so in many ways Sharon Jones stuck out like a sore thumb when she took the stage. However, she was just the remedy needed to get some funk rolling, dancing started and audience response going. Always one to please an audience, Jones’ set at Sasquatch was no different; rather, her interaction was positively exuberant and lighthearted. At one point, she even brought someone from the crowd onstage to dance with her-- a man much her junior and with whom she coyly tried her hand at seduction, to which he was all the more willing to oblige. Laughter erupted from those watching, and Jones continued the momentum to close out her set on a high.
Best Coast, the beloved new garage indie/surf band from Los Angeles, performed the final show for the Yeti Stage in an early evening time slot. Fronted by the charming and appealing Bethany Cosentino, it was clear that the band draws influences from all over, such as Bikini Kill, No Doubt and Sleater Kinney, but they also deliver a product that is patently Best Coast. Cosentino is confident, assertive and utterly enchanting on-stage, in command of her songs with the type of polish you’d expect from a songwriter well into their career. Backed by the nimble wildly engaging drumming of ex-Vivian Girl Ali Koehler and the multi-faceted talent of Bobb Bruno, Cosentino had the audience captivated from start to finish of her set, giving a truly memorable and superlative performance.
The final acts for the night were Wilco and Portland-based The Decemberists. This time in full numbers and instrumentation, the band launched into a rousing version of Picaresque’s opener “The Infanta.” One of the main criticisms of their new record is that it seems to shy away from the dramatic flair and eccentricities that made the band’s career so illustrious and engaging. A seeming 180 turn from the boisterous, thrilling and utterly superb prog-rock epic The Hazards of Love (2009), the new album is a restrained, REM-inspired Americana affair. So, in opening with “The Infanta,” it appeared that the band was reminding the audience that they’re still very much The Decemberists we’ve come to know and love (and for many, loathe). Stuffed with words such as “palanquin,” “baronet,” and “pachyderm,” it’s textbook Decemberists, and was thusly received with pleasure and exultation. Their selection of songs from King fit nicely with their rowdy aesthetic, though the choice of “Rise to Me” was poignant in its early evening reflective pause.
The second half of the Decemberists’ set was nothing short of magical. Busting out “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” Sara Watkins, of Nickel Creek fame, assumed the role of the Forest Queen (previously performed by Shara Worden). Worden’s delivery on record and during the 2009 Hazards of Love tour was inimitable and ferocious, leaving many to question Watkins’ capacity to harness the song’s vitriol. However, naysayers were soon silenced as Watkins transformed from the trusted sidekick harmony vocalist and fiddle player into the gigantic, thundering Queen, lashing out in wails and booms overtop a scorching guitar riff. The audience reacted with rapturous applause and awe at Watkins’ powerful presence, illustrating just how great the Hazards material is, as well as her ability as a musical force.
On “Don’t Carry It All,” Meloy’s guitar would not cooperate in its amplification, leading to a rather stripped-down version of the rollicking King opener. Somewhat exasperated but ultimately amused, he did the best with finishing the song and then tried to investigate the reason things turned askew. At this point, guitarist Chris Funk, aptly dressed as the Yeti Sasquatch himself, filled the silence pretending to be fronting a jazz scat group led by Bigfoot. It was uproariously funny, and soon Jenny Conlee, Nate Query on bass and John Moen on drums joined in with a great combo/rhythm background. For a band that has gotten increasingly formal in their shows in the past year, it was refreshing to see everyone lighten up and make the best of a frustrating situation. When all was fixed, they jumped right into Hazards highlight “The Rake Song,” and then finished with crowd favorite “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” Even though they excluded their pre-2005 catalog, it was a fantastic set for the festival, and reaffirmed that despite some creative and personal setbacks, they continue to be one of the best live acts around.
Wilco closed the show with a mellow two hourlong set as the sun dipped down the horizon and the Gorge filled with cold night air. Frontman Jeff Tweedy wore a large hat and jacket that obscured most of his body, but in no way affected his wry sense of humor and playful sarcasm. Focusing mostly on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), A Ghost is Born (2004) and Sky Blue Sky (2007), Wilco certainly played to their strengths of thoughtful, artsy pop jams that avoid the indulgent sprawl of Widespread Panic and Phish but also don’t get too derivative. Wilco treads wonderfully between being any one thing, other than a group of accomplished musicians who put together mesmerizing rock songs. While they’re not particularly upbeat at every moment, they certainly capture the audience’s attention as they mine the depths of Tweedy’s contemplative and ruminative musings on love, existence, addiction and interpersonal connections.
Highlights of Wilco’s set were definitely “Kamera,” “Via Chicago,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Jesus, Etc.” The first and last come from Foxtrot, and had the largest response from the audience, both in recognition and excitement. “Kamera” was less summery and swinging than on record, and instead had an alt-country trudge to it that gave the song a gravity that it seemed to resist before. “Jesus, Etc.” was its usual restrained, elegiac self, reminiscent of an updated deep American South spiritual. But the two astonishingly incredible songs from the night were “Via Chicago” and “Spiders.” Both were longer journeys, vast in their space and expansive in their reach, but ultimately revelatory and cathartic. They’re two fantastic examples of what makes Wilco such a consistently compelling live act, and one that continues to grow and hone their already potent strengths.
And without much grandeur or ceremony, the 2011 Sasquatch Music Festival came to a close. Not on Wilco’s biggest hit or most revered crowd favorite, but a comical and whimsical take on “Hoodoo Voodoo.” The refusal of any pomp left the audience feeling a bit in a daze and embossed dreamlike state. Still, everyone’s ears rang with the splendor of the previous four days of music-- the rock solid lineup, delivery and giant party that became of Sasquatch. And, if anything, it was the perfect time to set eyes upon 2012, and start preparing for the dream to come back again.