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Sasquatch 2012: Sasquatch, Bitches

Sasquatch 2012: Sasquatch, Bitches


(Photos: David Harris and Lukas Sherman)

Oh damn, here we go again. It’s like one of those Lethal Weapon sequels in which Danny Glover has to stop something from going down even though he’s retired or something and then he says, “I’m too old for this shit.” A lot. So have I been drawn back to cover the annual Sasquatch festival held at the beautiful Gorge Amphitheater in Central Washington, now in its 10th year. When I went two years ago, I felt pretty old, an aging indie music fan surrounded by a sea of often addled kids who were there as much for the experience as for the music. Now I’m older and the damn kids seem even younger, more shameless and worse dressed. It was a mixture of Halloween, Burning Man, ’60s revival and one of those days where you just wear whatever’s on the floor. Joan Rivers could have a field day here.

This was my third tour of duty, and I knew what to expect and how to navigate it pretty well. A few perks this year were an improved media area, where we could seek shelter from the young hordes and enjoy some Red Bulls and Pop chips, and access to the photo pit for the first few songs of all the small stage sets. I felt like a pretty big deal getting that close and looking back at the human cattle pressed up against the metal fence. Suck it kids, I got a media pass.

Day One: That is not an outfit (aka “Excuse me miss, your ass cheeks are showing”)

The first set of the day was Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile, backed by the cleverly named Violators. Clad in a Cosbyesque sweater, his face often obscured by a curtain of hair, Vile’s smoky, shaggy songs were fine but not particularly engaging, a quality exacerbated by mediocre sound and Vile’s unassuming presence. He seemed a little stunned by the bright, outdoor setting. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train” did inspire some bad dancing.

During the break, I played the not so fun game, “Find people who are older than me.” More successful was the, “What the hell are you wearing?” game. Despite the moderate temperatures, there seemed to be more exposed flesh this year than ever, particular the girls, many of whom couldn’t seem to find shorts that adequately covered their posteriors. It’s tempting to make bitchy comments about ironic and meaningless hipster fashion, but it’s so endemic that it hardly seems fair. The ’60s, a decade that started over half a century ago now, remains a fashion touchstone. Why didn’t somebody tell me the dashiki was coming back? Also, despite your headdresses, feathers and fringe boots, you are not a Native American, but I am sure actual Native Americans appreciate that a bunch of privileged white people are honoring their legacy.

As I wandered around, I took note of the exorbitant beer prices (the price of a single PBR would get you a 12-pack anywhere else) and the subtle, but unavoidable, brand presence, which included Honda, Starbucks and Kokanee. I mean, what’s more rock and roll than a Verizon tent? Unlimited minutes up in here yo.

Interlude I: Letters (or “tweets” if you like) to a Young Concertgoer

1. Hydrate, motherfucker, hydrate.
2. Comfort over style, especially when it comes to shoes. If you are wearing flip-flops for 10 hours of music, you deserve to have your filthy feet trampled on. Also, that face paint looks really stupid, like you fell asleep at a party and somebody drew on you and then you woke up and rubbed half of it off.
3. Bought the T-shirt? Resist the urge to wear it right away. We know you like the band because you’re here. Save it to impress your school chums.
4. Remember where you end and others begin. Not everybody’s personal space boundary disappears in the communal vibe of a concert.
5. Don’t wear a backpack into the pit. See tip #4; your backpack is part of you. It will piss somebody off and you don’t need it.
6. Say no to drugs. This is not moral, but practical advice. A long day, crappy food and not enough water will make this a challenging enough experience. You will need your faculties intact.
7. Ditto for drinking. Also, they are totally screwing you. $12 for a PBR! $14 for a margarita! It’s like Soviet Russia.
8. Maybe don’t make out all over the place. Save it for the tent.
9. Eat first. Eat later. Haven’t you already been charged enough? Plus, the food sucks.
10. Go easy on the phones and cameras. You can’t capture the majesty of the Gorge Amphitheater on your iPhone and you can update Facebook later.
11. Stay the fuck away from older people with hostile looks on their faces. We don’t think you’re cute or whimsical.
12. Don’t listen to jaded, opinionated, aging writers and have fun, you crazy, yelly, badly dressed kids. You’ll be old soon too.

AraabMuzik (might want to check your spelling there, guy) played the sexually suggestive Banana Shack, which was primarily a DJ/comedy tent. This was where the kids went to dance; judging by their enthusiasm, Sasquatch could save a shitload of money by just booking Skrillex and a bunch of DJs next year. As much as I enjoy watching one guy twiddle with nobs, I could only take a few minutes of AraabMuzik, which was some kind of electro-rap hybrid that sounded like a dial-up modem having non-consensual sex with an old Nintendo. Is this dubstep? The kids ate this shit up though, and the tent was full of glow sticks, dancing and inflatable toys. Some tiny backpacks and ecstasy would have taken it to rave levels. As I stood discreetly at the back, a guy came up to me and asked who was playing.

“AraabMuzik.”

“That’s what I thought. Fuck yeah, dude.”

Fuck yeah indeed, young Sasquatcher.

Abrasive in a different way was tUnE-yArDs. Head yArD Merrill Garbus has an eccentric voice and an approach that is not everybody’s cup of (organic, sustainable) tea. She was the only artist of the weekend who I saw who sang while banging on a simple drum set. While I enjoyed four or five songs, especially the drum circle meets hip-hop of “Gangsta,” I was ready to move on. I will give Garbus props for her look: asymmetrical haircut, face paint and mismatched vintage clothes, which made her a big sister to most of the female festival goers, but, you know, less trampy and drunk.

She was followed by another strong female performer, St. Vincent, who was one the unsung guitar heroes of the fest. She insistently signaled for more volume for her guitar, but this did not distract from two of her finest songs, “Actress” and “Cheerleader.” Alas, we could not stay for the entire set.

The closing main stage act and one of the big draws of the weekend was Jack White, who recently released his first solo album, Blunderbuss. White has shaped up to be perhaps the quintessential rock star of the past decade, a tireless worker whose resume includes producing, side projects and his own Third Man micro-empire.

Backed by a well-heeled, all-male five-piece band, the dapper White delivered a devastating opening salvo with “Black Math” from Elephant. Though he has a savvy pop sense, there was no other major act this weekend whose music was so thoroughly steeped in the American vernacular, particularly the blues and country, and who peeled off scorched earth guitar solos with such regularity. As in previous years, there was a lack of balls-out rock festival-wide, and White stepped up with a superb, electrifying stage presence and set phasers on rock the shit out. Not to detract from his highly skilled band, but they didn’t have the same sense of uncertainty and danger that just two people had on stage back in The White Stripes days. And not to take away from White’s fine new album, but it was the older songs that took no prisoners, including “Hotel Yorba,” the bluesy guitar frenzy of “Ball and Biscuit,” and set closer and crowd favorite “Seven Nation Army.” White also covered Hank Williams, performed songs by his other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and confirmed his status as one of our few genuine rock stars and a guy who will probably never run out of ideas.

Day 2: Young America, where is your shame?

Sunday was the slow day, as there wasn’t much I wanted to see until late afternoon. So I sequestered myself in the media area for a while (whooo, veggie tray!) and half-watched a few sets at the Yeti stage. Despite not paying much attention to the band on stage, I did catch a glimpse of the lead guy busting out a flute and returning it to the quiver on his back. Yes, the lead guy from Gardens & Villa (a magazine I subscribe too, incidentally) had a friggin’ flute quiver! Proving that the Yeti Stage was home to the weirder, more art-rock wing of the weekend, Active Child had a harp on the stage and the final act of the day was the diminutive art-goth chanteuse Zola Jesus (Nika Danilova). Jesus’ small frame belies her impressive, commanding voice and stage presence. As dusk approached, prowling the stage dressed in white, Zola climbed a speaker, briefly ventured out into the audience followed by a few jittery security guys and struck a blow for the more interesting acts. She was one of the best outright singers of the weekend and ended her set by picking up a drumstick and hitting the hell out of her drummer’s cymbal.

The day’s finest one-two line up was on the Bigfoot Stage: Wild Flag and The Walkmen. Even though I saw the former just a few weeks ago in Portland, they were still one of the bands I was most excited to see. The fact that two-thirds of the late, great and deeply missed Sleater-Kinney is in the band should be enough of a draw, but the band, which also includes ex-Helium front woman Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole on keys and backing vocals, delivers on all levels. They may have been the tightest band there, charging through the exhilarating songs from their debut – “Glass Tambourine,” “Electric Band” and “Romance” – some of which became extended, Television-y guitar workouts. Carrie Brownstein, who was doing double duty at Sasquatch as one half of “Portlandia,” had a casual, but mesmerizing presence, doing high kicks and windmills and ditching her guitar for the final song, a great cover of Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels,” when she busted out some Jagger-like moves and ended with a defiant mic drop. The crowd was not as into it as I thought they’d be, but what the hell do they know? Wild Flag is, like Sleater-Kinney, a band you can believe in, and they kill it live.

All I can say about The Walkmen, who are literally embracing the term dad rock (see their website), is that I’ve seen them live like 10 times and they’re always great and are one of the few bands who seem to be soundtracking getting older. They deserve to be big, but I’m also glad they still are something of a secret.

I wanted to see at least some of James Murphy’s DJ set at the Banana Shack. Two years ago, LCD Soundsystem played a terrific set culminating in “All My Friends,” my favorite song of the ‘00s. A year later they disbanded and I am still not over it. With a champagne bottle on the table behind him, he played unfamiliar stuff that sounded like LCD Soundsystem but not as good. Again, though, the kids went nuts for it as the lights flashed, smoke poured out and beats hit. I would’ve given part of a finger for him to just sing one LCD song, and I left a little forlorn.

Forlorn was fortunately the best mood to approach Bon Iver, an unlikely candidate for the final act on the main stage, but, then again, his last year or so has included “SNL,” Kanye, the cover of SPIN and, most improbably, a Grammy. I loved his first album and saw him play a great set on a small stage at Sasquatch three years ago, but I find the new album boring. It veers perilously close, if not outright penetrates, soft-rock territory, and the handful of songs I heard from the hill did little to dispel this impression. Only “Creature Fear” from the first album did anything for me. I’m not sure if he was doing anything for the free-spirited couple dressed in snow pants who decided to start sliding down the hill during his set. It was pretty amusing the first time and then less so the next six times.

Interlude II: The Dead ’60s

The rock festival has its roots in the hallowed decade of the ’60s, and sometimes it feels like it has re-emerged just so young people can dance to music without feeling self-conscious. So much of the experience (the sex, drugs, bad clothes, camaraderie with strangers) feels like a distant echo, but the lineup itself was, thankfully, almost entirely absent of jam/hippie bands. So this bohemianism (or faux-hemianism) is really nothing other than a fashion statement. It’s the ’60s without any meaning, idealism or purpose, an idealism curdled with irony and devoid of context. And the corporate sponsorship and high ticket prices reinforce this absence of substance. Run by a behemoth company (Live Nation) and festooned with familiar brands, the modern festival is proof that corporate America will take something that once had meaning, extract what made it special, charge for it and make a huge profit. And the hundreds of dollars that are required to attend mean this has an exclusivity that is at odds with the spirit of the ’60s. This may not be the 1%, but it is the 25% who can afford to take a few days off and spend a lot of money to see a bunch of bands. What starts in earnest ends with profit.

Day Three: Where are your friends tonight?/Tonight We Are Young

Fatigue (our campsite was a wind tunnel) and mild homesickness started to set in on Memorial Day, and we encountered our first festival lineup frustration, as veteran Scottish post-rockers Mogwai canceled, pushing druggy space-rock titans Spiritualized to a later time, right up against Beck. Damn you gremlins!

Today was the most pop-oriented/mainstream day, with sets from Beck, Silversun Pickups (pseudo-indie for people who don’t know what indie is), Tenacious D, Feist and current alternative radio hitmakers The Joy Formidable and the stupidly named fun. Oh, and John C. Reilly. It ended up being a bits-and-pieces-of-sets day: Feist, Cass McCombs, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, playing their best song, “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and the aforementioned John C. Reilly. Sorry to mention him again, but I just can’t get over how odd it was to have him on the bill.

Once again, the Yeti Stage was the place to be, with Shearwater, Ted Leo, Sallie Ford and an upstart band from L.A called Vintage Trouble. The Bigfoot Stage, by contrast, pretty much blew. I spent much of the evening at the Yeti, where I saw an unknown band that gets my spirit/rookie award of the fest. OK, they don’t have a great name, but the quartet Vintage Trouble went out there at 4:30 pm and played their hearts out. A nice contrast to a lot of half-assed indie bands, they have an energetic and charismatic front man who worked the crowd and the stage and could really belt it out. Their sound was a mix of James Brown soul and garage racket. It was all the more impressive that they were dressed in vintage vests and dress shirts. They are opening some dates for the talentless Lenny Kravitz, but I definitely want to catch these guys again.

Shearwater will probably remain a niche band, which is too bad as leader Jonathan Meiburg has a piercing, powerful voice and the band plays music that, at its best, is majestic and moving. The Austin band drew mostly from their latest album, Animal Joy, but also played one of their best songs, “Rook.” They were followed by John C. Reilly. Yes, the actor. He drew the biggest Yeti crowd, perhaps because Sasquatch does not draw celebrities. Granted, he’s not Brad Pitt, but people seem to love him. He was genial and warm, strumming an acoustic guitar and playing mostly country songs (with a Dylan cover thrown in), dueting on a few with Lavender Diamond singer Becky Stark. It was a little Prairie Home Companion, but he’s to be commended for working in an unhip genre and for taking some time after the set to take photos and shake hands with a small crowd, all of whom wanted a piece of the C.

Sadly, the crowd did not stay for indie punk stalwart Ted Leo, who blasted through a typically high energy set that included the anthemic “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” and “Bottled in Cork.” The stage was sponsored by Esurance and Leo made a joke about dirty dancing with “the hologram of Andrew Esurance.” I could’ve used more biting of the corporate hand.

In between sets at the smaller stage, I overheard a few songs by Deer Tick, who filled in for the absent Mogwai with an all covers set. Hey, I don’t really like these guys, but their taste was impeccable—songs by The Replacements, Nirvana, Vaselines and, finally, the Beastie Boys tribute, “( You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” Less impeccable and far more annoying, was maybe the festival’s stupidest band, fun. (yes, that period is supposed to be there), who played their ubiquitous hit, “We Are Young.” Whoever booked them is pandering. Just in case you didn’t know who they were, the lead funster wore a shirt with the band’s name on it. Jerks.

Closing the festival was Beck, a smart choice with cross-generation appeal and a deep catalogue. I hadn’t seen Beck live in nearly a decade and he hasn’t released an album since 2008’s Modern Guilt, so I was curious to see which Beck we were going to get – funky Beck, slacker Beck, sad Beck, etc. We arrived to catch the final song of Tenacious D doing their joke-metal shtick, which was a crowd pleaser, prompting one kid, who couldn’t have been older than 18, to say that seeing them was a life goal fulfilled. Shit, kid, have some imagination. And I thought our generation lacked ambition. Pre-Beck entertainment included a raccoon that found its way onto the catwalk and a baked girl in front of us who stood with eyes glazed and mouth agape for a good 10 minutes. And this was before she took a few hits on a pipe.

Beck and his veteran four-piece band took the stage with the infectious groove of Guero’s “Black Tambourine.” It soon became apparent that this was going to be greatest hits Beck as his second and third songs were Gen X anthems “Loser” (now nearly 20 years old) and “Devil’s Haircut.” Drawing heavily on his definitive album Odelay, but unfortunately neglecting two of his most interesting and undervalued ones, Mutations and Midnite Vultures, Beck played a crowd-pleasing set that rocked more often than it didn’t, even with an interlude for a trio of pretty, mopey songs from 2002’s Sea Change. Still boyishly handsome and skinny at 41, Beck, who was once seen as a legitimate heir to Dylan, has largely forsaken his earlier, showman self, the one capable of busting out some sweet dance moves. Still, he delivered a batch of great songs, ending with “Where It’s At” and returning for the rousing two-song encore (helped out by Tenacious D and mini-Beck) of deep cut “Mutherfuker” and “E-Pro.” It may not have been the best set, but it was the most fun.

So we did it. Two guys on the wrong side of 30 hung with the kids, braved the pit and avoided spending a single dime for the grubby corporate stooges who run this festival. I still love music and I still love going to concerts and I was listening to some of this music when these kids were learning their alphabet, so fuck feeling old. But who knows if I’ll be back.

Hey, this could be the last time.

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