Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips at Sasquatch 2011. Photo: Max Lowe
Growing up in the intermountain west, my childhood summers were full of road trips and amphitheaters. Festivals at ski resorts, skits at summer camp, family reunions, weddings and outdoor productions by the local community college were all performed (some better than others) in these beautiful western landscapes. They were also all preceded by painful road trips and followed by equally painful sunburns. Thankfully, this amphitheater trend has continued into adulthood, culminating recently with the breathtaking vista that is The Gorge, Washington. Over Memorial Day weekend, six guy friends and I made the trek up to central Washington for Sasquatch! Music Festival. Yes, the eleven-hour drive was painful (the sunburn is, too), but the music and the vacation were well worth it.
As though on our own family vacation, the boys and I bickered about directions, made several wrong turns, and finally caravanned into the campsite and stretched our legs. Beers were cracked immediately and we greeted our friendly Canadian campsite neighbors, put up our Utah Jazz flag and started swapping road trip tales. The camaraderie continued inside the festival as we Americans joined the droves of Canadians in drunken chants of “Go Canucks, Go!” and our Canadian neighbors repped the Jazz on our behalf.
My first impression of the venue’s namesake Columbia River Gorge was identical to the impression I heard in an awed two-year-old’s voice upon entering a colorful gas station along the drive: “Wow! What is this place?” Feeling like a kid all weekend, I gawked moonily at Wayne Coyne’s pranks and onstage antics, sang my heart out to some of my favorite tunes, and eventually fell asleep outside with friends after staying up way past my bedtime.
The first day of the festival seemed like a bit of an afterthought, tacked on because someone at Sasquatch! remembered this year marks their ten-year anniversary as a festy. I bee-lined it to the main stage to check out the beautiful views of the Columbia River. The crowd for Bob Mould was small for a main stage show, and his set seemed forgotten by the young festival patrons, who made a better showing for energetic The Bronx, and who then lost it for the set from now-reunited Death From Above 1979. DFA 1979’s Sebastien Grangier rocked the amphitheater in white one-piece long johns with somewhat unintelligible vocals. Jesse Keeler nailed it on the bass, and by the time they played “Black History Month,” the crowd was screaming along almost having forgotten that the band had ever been away.
I started Saturday off with some actual family time, meeting up with one of my cousins to enjoy the beautiful melodies of Laura and Lydia Rogers of Secret Sisters. We picnicked on the grass and tried to catch up, but our conversation was halted because the sweet, nostalgic harmonies stopped us in our tracks. The girls wore vintage dresses and hairstyles and their endearing accents and lilting country classics betrayed their Muscle Shoals, Alabama roots. Their a cappella rendition of “Tonight You Belong to Me” left us speechless.
Continuing the nostalgia, I headed over for Seattle’s The Head and the Heart. My crew of gentlemen fell unanimously in love with blonde violinist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen. She coyly admitted that one band member had attended Sasquatch! years earlier and vowed not to remove his wristband until they played Sasquatch!. Their set was a hell of a good time, featuring feel-good piano pounding and audience-bouncing hits like “Lost in My Mind.” As they sang “Heaven Go Easy on Me” the crowd joined in on the final refrains of “We’re well on our way/ We’re well on our way,” and I couldn’t help but smile and agree.
My vote for most enthusiastic showman of the weekend goes to Aloe Blacc. Making a somewhat late entrance (for effect), the man came out looking smooth in his purple button-down and vest topped with a black fedora. He wowed and delighted his audience with his blacksploitation-inspired soul, infectious energy and blazing brass section. The small crowd enjoyed the title track to Blacc’s 2010 release, “Good Things,” as well as his hit “I Need a Dollar.” However, “You Make Me Smile” was the track that lead this writer to later claim (after enthusiastically downing several drinks) that his voice was “panty-melting.”
Two other Saturday highlights were a bittersweet afternoon set by Wolf Parade, and an evening set with Brooklyn-based The Antlers. After a few too many of the aforementioned adult beverages, I fit right in with all the eager Canadians who were out for one (reportedly) last hurrah with the Montreal four-piece, Wolf Parade. We weren’t disappointed as the band rocked their hearts out and front man Spencer Krug filled the Gorge for certainly the first and quite possibly the last time, with his unique vocals. Later, the lustrous falsetto of The Antler’s Peter Silberman filled the evening air, from the Bigfoot Stage. Against a backdrop of bright blue Washington sky, The Antlers played a set that was at times both poignant and lively.
Sunday afternoon I headed toward the main stage for a good spot to enjoy Beach House. Spin Magazine called Victoria Legrand’s dreamy vocals “Best Voice” of Sasquatch! and I’m not about to disagree. Swinging her hair seductively over her keyboard, Legrand produced their dulcet melodies from a pair of ruby red lips. After an utterly satisfying set, the duo ended properly, with the remarkable “10 Mile Stereo.”
I then hopped over to enjoy a set with Dallas Green’s City and Colour whose lively and well-appreciated set was a warming and welcome addition to the sunny Sunday afternoon. Both Green and the (again, very Canadian) crowd were excited after last year’s disappointing Sasquatch! cancellation. Green’s spot-on vocals and heartfelt lyrics reminded me why I’m excited to take a listen to his third album as City and Colour, Little Hell, released early June.
After some jigging up front at Flogging Molly (lively Irishmen as ever, no surprises from them), it was time for Sunday’s main event: The Flaming Lips. The predictably outrageous Wayne Coyne did not disappoint his crowd, entering the stage in front of a giant arched light show in his signature human-sized hamster ball. He then commenced to roll around the audience, which produced the most crushingly animated crowd I experienced at the fest. Throughout their set, the arched screen displayed Teletubbies, a series of photos of the human eye, images of nature, and my favorite—live footage from Coyne’s microphone camera. Two major highlights of the set—all songs taken from their 1999 album The Soft Bulletin—were “What is the Light” and “Waiting for a Superman.” “What is the Light” was performed as a singalong, with the lyrics formed by tiny balls of light on their backdrop. They played an emotional, down tempo piano and vocals version of “Waiting for a Superman.” The song was made all the more heartrending by Coyne’s mention of Elliott Smith’s struggles with depression and alleged suicide by way of introduction explaining that they rarely perform the song. On a lighter note, Coyne led the crowd in “Happy Birthday” for the ten-year anniversary of Sasquatch! and then destroyed a very elaborate cake by throwing it out into the crowd.
Chromeo’s Monday set was nothing spectacular—the only real attraction being that of the three semi-androgynous young women who somberly joined him as backup vocalists. Monday afternoon was marked by another reunion, this time of Ohio natives Guided by Voices. Though certainly no longer the young men they used to be, front man and prolific songwriter Robert Pollard proved to the crowd that he’s not limited by his age, at one point kicking his left leg straight up beside his head like a cheerleader.
Meanwhile on the small Yeti stage, Foster the People drew an impressive crowd and pleasantly surprised this writer despite the disastrously long wait for their set to begin. Back to the main stage for Mexico’s Rodrigo y Gabriela, the rhythm guitar played by Gabriela Quintero was jaw dropping. I have never seen anyone’s fingers fly over the strings of a guitar with such speed and force. Her lively playing naturally accompanies Rodrigo Sanchez’s lead guitar strumming and plucking. Their humble, genuine elation at playing for the crowd made songs like “Tamacun” almost too much fun to handle.
Finally, as the sun began to sink behind the Gorge, The Decemberists took the main stage for the penultimate show of the weekend. Opening with the rousing “The Infanta,” Colin Melloy repped his home state of Montana and stole hearts with his euphonious lyrics and unique voice. The crew played songs from their stellar new release, The King is Dead, including “Down by the Water,” and the accordion-heavy and wonderful “Rox in the Box.” Before playing the slower “Rise to Me,” Melloy reminded the crowd that their last Sasquatch! appearance was marked by a couple who were spotted above the Gorge in what Melloy called “carnal embrace.” He then invited anyone who felt similarly inclined that this might be their opportunity. I contemplated it, but settled for my strong rum and coke instead. Their hour-long set included some beautiful balladry and some disturbing imagery from both The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love before finishing with the older, lively tune “Mariner’s Revenge.”
Finishing the day and the festival was Chicago’s Wilco. Admittedly, I probably had a somewhat different Wilco experience from many festival-goers. My friends high in the amphitheatre reported blinking back tears, while a diehard Wilco fan friend and I danced and drank ourselves silly at the front. The community spirit of the festival came full circle that night as an equally excited (read: intoxicated) group of friends to our left offered us gulps of a truly terrible cocktail. When we belatedly inquired about its ingredients, our new friend grimaced, responding: “Whiskey and Crystal Light.”
Back at the campsite that night I was greeted by a circle of friends, new and old, who were singing, playing guitar and snuggling to keep warm. I curled up in a blanket on a friend’s lap and drifted to sleep as I had often done as a child. Weary after so many fun days in the sun, I listened vaguely to the last sounds of the festival: the pleasant noises of drinking, laughing, happy adults making the most of each final moment of vacation.