Sasquatch Festival 2009
[The Gorge Amphitheater, George, Washington]
[May 23-25 2009]
Too Many Drinks and Too Much John Wayne:
A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Hipster Dream
Not to sound like some prematurely elderly worrywart or sensationalist naysayer, but goddamn if Sasquatch 2009 wasn’t the closest I’ve ever been to personally reliving any of the disastrous ’90s Woodstocks. Populated mainly by drugged up frat boys roaming the horizon like hyenas on safari, scantily clad and lobster red young girls in their sights like crippled water buffalo, there was never a moment in which I felt I was amongst peers, let alone safe.
It certainly didn’t help that festival promoter/evil corporate behemoth Live Nation apparently threw caution to the wind this year and for all intents and purposes just gave up on security altogether. Seemingly every ounce of Gorge property was filled with obviously smuggled in liquor bottles, gallons of Smirnoff as common a sight as baobabs on the Serengeti; for such a supposedly “green” festival the amount of clutter and filth and litter strewn about everywhere like so many corpses was downright depressing, making it seem as though someone had simply transported the wondrous scenery of the Gorge straight into the heart of Jersey. It isn’t even as if I ever suspected hipsters were truly more conscientious than the masses they so coyly separate themselves from, but it’s just that you expect at least some level of human decency when the sole selling point for a poorly constructed, quickly decaying amphitheater out in the middle of absolute nowhere is its serene natural landscape. Suffice it to say that this was by no means the case this year, no matter how many tragically ironic carbon footprint iPhone app ads claimed otherwise.
Foul acts were endlessly rumored to have occurred, quite a few of them even confirmed by the end of the weekend: on Saturday, during the Decemberists’ set, a drugged up couple treated festival goers on the hillside to some spontaneous live porn whilst security roamed the perimeter as effectively as Keystone Kops; on Sunday night, a teenage vendor was held up at knife point by two apes in flak jackets over a single case of warm beer (the would-be thieves consequently turned out to not even have tickets). The lackadaisical security also allowed dim-witted audience members to make it backstage where they wandered aimlessly, looking for the parking lot or camping grounds but instead finding themselves in the midst of the festival’s hub. Equally clueless drivers nearly drove vehicles into side stages or onto unstable ground because no one knew where to direct them. At the peak of Of Montreal’s set, a kid had an epileptic fit, forcing the lone security guard watching over the amazingly stupid “VIP” platform above the sound board to abandon his post. Needless to say, the increasingly more idiotic crowd attempted to bum rush the ramshackle platform before your intrepid reporter himself, in either an incredibly stupid or brave move depending on your perspective, blocked the stairs leading up, mainly out of the fear that the platform, already struggling to hold the couple dozen people who had legitimate access to it, would give out under the strain of a few hundred crazed Of Montreal listeners and ruin the entire weekend once and for all.
Everything about the festival this year reeked of a peculiar mix of machismo, stupidity and recklessness, giving the proceedings an air of unstable spontaneity. For me, this year’s Sasquatch will unfortunately be defined by the midday rant by Spencer Moody of the Murder City Devils, who called out all the “jocks” in attendance for acting as though they were friends with the “beautiful faggots” who usually form the majority population at the festival when in truth they’re just going to go back home and push them up against lockers as if nothing ever changed. As much as I’d like to call his demand that everyone “eat a big bowl of wet dicks” childish and moronic, it was a sadly apt insult to the bulk of the festival’s population. What follows is, I hope, a more eloquent depiction of a festival that has transformed from a majestic outdoor celebration of the indie community to the debauched college interpretation of the lunatic fringe’s Burning Man.
I Don’t Care for Fancy Things: Four Walls and Concrete Slabs
I had barely left Seattle when word of massive congestion along the pass that leads to The Gorge reached me. A four to five hour delay was expected. Anything less would be a miracle. In retrospect, the Hummer parked along the shoulder halfway through the traffic jam advertising “Flash Friday” was not a strange freak occurrence but instead an ominous warning of what the weekend would entail. No matter, it was only Friday and even if I didn’t reach the hotel my benefactors had so thankfully reserved for me in some place called Quincy until past midnight, everything would be okay. The delay at least offered a chance to pull over halfway up the summit and enjoy the underrated joy that is roadside dining.
A neon sign advertising something optimistically called the Family House of Pancakes beckoned. The wait was mercilessly short, but getting service required stalking and then capturing a waiter, forcing him to take the order and bring it back out in a reasonable amount of time. The table nearby spoke of the several hour long wait they had suffered just to get drinks; a polite old woman claimed she’d been there for nearly half the day after her car just couldn’t make it any further. The food was fine in the way that everything is when you’ve been confined to a car for several grueling hours and I wasn’t even the one driving. A nondescript veggie burger and steak fries, suitably crunchy to the burger’s inevitably soggy lack of taste. You could do worse when you have no other options.
An hour or so later the traffic had cleared enough to attempt to finish this first leg of the journey. Quincy was reached by one that morning, the town the type of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it locale so common in Eastern Washington. We were stationed at the Quincy Hotel (or Motel, there were two signs, each proclaiming allegiance to a different name), whose most distinguishing characteristic is that it’s impossible to tell whether it was once a school or a church (my money was on school). Though it was supposedly freshly built, it was filled with the type of tacky décor that hasn’t been seen since the cinematic works of Burt Reynolds in his heyday. But the beds were comfy and at least the room didn’t smell of stale cigarettes and spilled beer. At this point, despite the too-long journey, everyone was still excited for what the next day entailed; the kids in traffic had been uniformly idiots, sure, but there was no reason to suspect they were going to Sasquatch rather than just getting drunk and drowning in the river at the bottom of the Gorge. Early predictions were that this would be the best year for the festival, with its much hyped line-up and arguably the clearest weather the Gorge had ever enjoyed: not too hot, not cloudy, no hailstorms or freak winds in sight. But we were wrong. So, so wrong.
Heads Will Roll: Into the Beast
We arrived on the grounds of the Gorge in time to catch a thoroughly disappointing set from Seattle’s own Champagne Champagne at the Yeti stage. Stuck as they were in one of the worst time slots imaginable, noon on the first day, before most had even made it to the Gorge yet let alone struck up their tents and staked out their territory, at least part of the blame lies squarely on having to make do with a bad situation. Nonetheless, the group lacked any charm or charisma and the sound was muffled, all disembodied voices and bad vibes. Later, Mad Rad would offer a better, more chaotic representation of kitschy Seattle hip-hop as member Buffalo Madonna scaled the scaffolding and walked the fine line between fierce performer and irritating asshole likely to get the group banned from yet another venue. The sad thing is that Champagne Champagne on record are miles ahead of Mad Rad and their sub-Beastie Boys antics; with beats that are deceptively minimal and back-up melodies simultaneously hooky and just plain weird, the group should have been a shoe-in for breakout stars of this year’s festival. But in line with everything else that would happen this year, they were a colossal disappointment.
Vince Mira fared much better down at the main stage. A teen barely able to grow a mustache, Mira is apparently possessed by the spirit of Johnny Cash himself. Hidden within his slender frame and shy demeanor, the young singer-songwriter is blessed with the deep, menacing voice of the original man in black. From a critical standpoint, though, Mira is still little more than a curious novelty; he has the right moves and the right sound, but neither of them are actually his, instead they’re lifted wholesale from the man whose voice inhabits his body. The numbers Mira performed that he had written were indistinguishable from the Cash covers he rolled out to the prerequisite cheers and hollers. Maybe in time he will come into his own, but until then Mira will remain a one-man Sun Records revival.
There was a brief lull in proceedings until Passion Pit were set to play at the Wookie Stage. The Wookie area was soon to become perhaps the most depressing looking mess in the entire park; it would take less than a day for it to be so filled with bottles and garbage that walking across it became more of an adventure than it should have been. At this point, it was merely a larger than before stage set unfortunately close to both the entrance and the comedy tent and featuring perhaps the worst sound in the entire complex. Every act I witnessed on the stage had technical difficulties of some sort and the sound never veered above serviceable; for Passion Pit, the mix was incredibly trebly, which is downright painful when you factor in how nasally frontman Michael Angelakos’s vocals are and how thin their instrumentation is. Worse, the Wookie Stage seemed to be in the perfect position to absorb the brunt of the sun’s impact, making every performance there seemingly more sluggish than normal, every performer glossed in a full layer of sweat. Unlike the first time I saw them opening for Yelle, Passion Pit now seemed less sure of themselves, more confused about where they were than was healthy. I decided I didn’t want to see the group derail further, so I retreated.
Later at the same stage, King Khan and his phenomenally tight Shrines would offer up one of the best performances all weekend, maybe even all year. Entering draped in a gold lame cape and headdress and wearing nothing but shorts that’d put a rollerblader to shame, Khan was the act to beat, his tremendous pot belly alone packing more energy than nine tenths of this year’s performers. The group blazed through a sizable chunk of their last two releases for Vice, climaxing with a brilliant performance of “I Wanna Be a Girl” that featured a member of the band doing, well, his best to be a girl (let’s just say something was tucked somewhere and leave it at that).
It was all downhill from there that day. Lackluster, completely sterile sets from both Animal Collective and the Decemberists at least had the benefit of making both the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kings of Leon sound much better than they may otherwise have been. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had the right idea, turning their set into a particularly frenzied take on their latest album. Tracks that on record may have sounded a little too pristine suddenly came alive; “Heads Will Roll” especially managed to get the crowd to move in a way it hadn’t yet at the Main Stage. Coupled with the setting sun and thus cooler temperatures, the band seemed to be moving at a pace more often found in groups half their age.
The next day didn’t offer much of note until the absolute frenzy that was the Murder City Devils. A Seattle institution, the band has been kind of-sort of doing the reunion thing for the past couple years. And although their music hasn’t necessarily aged all that well, drenched as it is in thoroughly unmodern angst and not exactly ironic organs, the band seemed to be driven by devils the rest of us couldn’t see. They covered their canon like there were lives on the line, antagonizing and confronting the crowd at every turn as though this was all their fault and maybe in a way it was. Frontman Spencer Moody rightly called out the lugheaded dopes that had taken over the audience in a spectacle that was part performance art, part anti-macho posturing, and part outright turf war. Everyone knew that the innocence of the festival was completely removed this year, but Moody made it immediately clear that it wasn’t something you necessarily had to put up with, that there was no reason for the “beautiful faggots” to have to make room for the ignorant jocks. Where the Pacific Northwest weirdos who attended had been comfortable to be wholly passive aggressive, Moody made a point of making everyone uncomfortable, bringing to light the darkness bubbling beneath the surface like he was leading his own private Altamont.
And of course, all these points were immediately made moot once the one-two punch of NIN and Jane’s Addiction dropped in. Trent Reznor did the typical bulgy neck and angry posturing thing that he does, and Perry Farrell went on about some nonsense involving people seeing his snake and how the crowd was so great they made his dick hard. Bros everywhere cheered, the rest of us either held back the floodgates over at Of Montreal or made the trek back home.
Monday offered both more of the same and some exciting glimpses of salvation. Grizzly Bear were the first supposedly must-see group on the Main Stage, and though there set was by no means a failure, it wasn’t exactly life-affirming. Heavy on tracks from Veckatimest but missing much of the energy and fussed over theatrics that have had some calling that album an instant classic, the band merely played the songs, if you know what I mean. More surprising was Santigold’s perfect antidote of a set. Complete with a full-on, fully integrated band and scarily robotic back-up dancers, Santigold went above and beyond the call of duty, rallying the crowd like they were in the world’s largest club despite her early afternoon set-time. Where her debut album sometimes seemed derivative and played out, her invigorating stage presence and charming demeanor turned the songs into something more interesting and unique. Genre changes that felt forced on the album suddenly made sense, bombastic cheering that came across as juvenile and uninteresting now just felt right. People strolled down from everywhere to see what was going on, rats led by a charmed pied piper to the very gates of paradise. It was a moment that was unfortunately rare at Sasquatch this year, the sense that you were catching something truly glorious and beautiful, even if it didn’t really have a grand message behind it or any real meaning. It was just pure and simple fun and it was exactly what everyone needed at that particular moment.
Gogol Bordello carried over that energy and vitality, managing to keep the crowd in their place despite the disparity between their sound and Santigold’s. It’s interesting that three of the best performances at this year’s festival were by wholly racially and ethnically integrated bands, even if the crowd was anything but. Gogol Bordello leader Eugene Hutz of course seemed blissfully unaware of anything going on, he more than likely having been roused from an alcohol induced stupor ten minutes before soundcheck. Hutz is without a doubt one of the most charismatic and energetic performers alive, a more intelligent Shane MacGowan, if you will. Clad in a psychedelic pirate hat and his signature mustache, Hutz maneuvered about the stage like an amphetamine-charged carnival barker, his band very carefully attempting to hold everything together in his wake. Fleet Foxes couldn’t help but suffer by comparison. They displayed the same symptoms as Grizzly Bear, merely presenting their songs without flair or show. Of course, the mere fact that they could pull off their dazzling harmonies live without missing a beat was a spectacle of its own, but in a festival environment, where there are literally dozens of bands to see, is it enough to just sound like your album when so many people are out there braving the desert heat, the awful crowds, the sheer insanity of the whole thing? For my money the answer is a firm no.
The concert may as well have ended with Gogol Bordello. Girl Talk offered up another serviceable performance nearly identical to his recorded output. Silversun Pickups attempted to out whine Billy Corgan. Beach House put thousands of people into comas. Only Amanda Blank and Erykah Badu offered up anything remotely interesting. Blank with her deceptively intimidating swagger housed within that petite frame, all coy gestures and dance moves that can only be described as what one imagines a ballet composed of people with muscular dystrophy would be like, and Badu with a technically dazzling set that had her at her vocal peak but unfortunately went on for far too long. Festivals like these almost always prove that there is sometimes a thing as too much music; bands taken out of their natural settings of dim dingy clubs and forced up against one another, attendees forced out from their mother’s basements or frathouses and into the glorious sunshine, things can’t help but be a little disappointing and frustrating. But this year was some other beast altogether, it was as though some strange specter loomed on the horizon, making rude gestures and insinuating that none of us have much good waiting for us in the future.
The Dirt is Temporary: Leaving the Desert Behind
Maybe it’s the New Depression. Maybe it’s that old standby that the world is simply going to shit like it always has been. But things are just off in general and Sasquatch was suffering from it more than most. Blame it on the fact that the majority of people who can actually afford to go to festivals like these are less inclined to be artsy creative types and more inclined to be the asshole trust-fund kids we all know and love or blame it on the slow consumption of indie culture by the mainstream, it doesn’t matter. A little while ago, say a year, say two, it may have been fun to do these outdoor excursions where we all bask in the glory of our tastes and the seemingly invincible nature of our very youth, but now we’re at the edge of a wave that is nearing a once distant shore. Like everything, we move in cycles and it’s looking like it’s time for us to take a break from these things like we did a little over ten years ago give or take. There are probably mom and pop clubs in your hometown. There are probably old record stores you may not visit as much as you used to. There are definitely local bands that are eager to have your support or even just a minute or two of your time on the occasional dead Tuesday night.
This is where your money should be going. These are the pockets you should be filling. Live Nation-run “natural” locales like The Gorge need to exist about as much as the fucking Snuggie does. If you think that Sasquatch, or Coachella, or Bonnaroo are the total summation of what this scene is, then things are already lost and it’s time to start anew. Maybe once we could afford this type of luxury, maybe once it was okay to let go of your ideals for the sake of fun, but now it’s not even fun anymore. And in a way, isn’t it about time?
Making it back to my quaint little apartment in supposedly isolated Ballard all I wanted to do was collapse and dwell on what a waste my weekend was in so many ways. Deadlines loomed above and prodded my thoughts like hungry kittens, work was angrily beckoning just from the other side of the pm/am divide: I had accomplished mostly nothing in the span of three glorious days. Looking back, I could have written in that time, I could have finished projects I had lined up ages ago and attempted to forget about to little success; there were moments that were exciting, vital, sure, but was there anything that had changed lives? Was there anything that had made me view music, my first true love, in any different way? Not exactly, no. I ask again: am I a prematurely elderly worrywart? Have I become so cynical that I can no longer even enjoy music without a healthy dose of skepticism? Or are my standards just too high?
But then I think of how many kids were at the shows. Most of them probably don’t even know who the hell Live Nation is, they’re just discovering the sheer joy of music for the first time. These are kids who can’t even get into the local downtown venue, who may not even know a thing about the local scene yet. This is who festivals really should be for, and what’s the use of some cynical asshole critic to them? So maybe next year, let’s think about giving them something other than a garbage-strewn frat boy orgy, all right?