When I first found out that SLUG was sending me to Washington State’s famous Sasquatch Festival, located at the scenic Gorge Amphitheater, I thought “good.” When I later found out that the festival had little if anything to do with the actual Bigfoot, I was skeptical. “Am I ever going to see Bigfoot?” I asked myself in anguish. The answer, for now, would have to be no. My spirits were soon raised, however, when I realized what this Sasquatch event was all about: an eclectic gathering of some of the biggest names in music such as Nine Inch Nails, Beck and Ben Harper as well as some of the coolest names in the indie scene.
I arrived at the Gorge Amphitheater, outside of George, Wash., a full 24 hours before the Sasquatch Festival was set to begin. Having nothing but time to kill, I reserved a campsite for the weekend and then drove to the nearest town, Quincy, to see if I could find a movie house playing Mission: Impossible 3. Rather than a booming metropolis, I found a small town of about 6,500 people, the kind of people that make outsiders feel as welcome as a hemorrhoid. “We ain’t got no moving pitchers!” one local informed me, going on to comment on my “purty” mouth. Perhaps I’m being too hard on the folks of Quincy, after all, the event I just described didn’t actually happen, so what cause have I to pass judgment on these people? In fact, the only encounter I had with a Quincian went as follows: “Donde esta el cine?” I asked. “No se,” he kindly replied. “Porque?!”
It was at this time I looked at my watch, 5 p.m., cocktail hour. I decided Tom Cruise would have to wait, and I returned to my campsite for gin, tonic and MySpace pictures. At the campsite, I met some friendly Canadians (Calgary, to be specific) who adopted this lonely Utah writer for the weekend, and didn’t even mind my constant ponderings on the subject of robots. “If I had a robot with a ‘loneliness’ switch,” I told them, “I would kindly leave it in the ‘off’ position.”
The next morning I emerged from my tent (which had been described as a “baked potato”) to find the Sasquatchians rapidly filling the campsite. After showering with nothing but a bar of soap that I had stolen from a Motel 6, I met back up with my Canadian friends to look over the line-up. The festival’s first day, with NIN, HIM and Bauhaus, seemed to draw its own crowd with their Tool sweatshirts, cut-off jean shorts and endless leather wrist accessories.
Once in the festival, the day began well as I caught Deadboy and the Elephantmen. Those like me, who had been previously unfamiliar, were surprised by their stripped-down rock style combined with blues and Cajun roots, creating a sound somewhere between Jeff Buckley and The White Stripes. I then moved to the main stage, where TV on the Radiowas putting on a disappointingly bland show. This was my cue to hit the press tent, where there was rumored to be free soda and snacks. I stocked my backpack with goodies and went looking for chicks because, after all, in post-apocalyptic times, those with a stack of complimentary granola bars will be holding all the cards.
I then caught HIM, the Finnish pop-metal band, who did nothing more interesting than lead the chant, “Black Sabbath saved our lives!” which only reminded the crowd of that influential band, and perhaps the numerous other bands we would have rather been watching at the time. Bauhaus followed, and my Canadian friends soon grew weary of my constant inquiry: “Is Bela Lugosi really dead?”
The first act I caught was Bedouin Soundclash, a reggae/ska trio out of Toronto. The afternoon felt promising; hacky-sacks were flying, frisbees perhaps floating and the atmosphere was as mildly hip as only acts like Nada Surf and Gomez can conjure up. The Australian act Architecture in Helsinki also rocked early on, with their uniquely danceable pop and energetic performance. But I felt myself compelled to the main stage once again, where the lineup was all too promising.
Sufjan Stevens arrived dressed as a construction worker, slinging an America-shaped guitar and backed by a puritan-looking vocal section, performing his popular Come on, Feel the Illinoise! album. Inflatable Santa Clauses were tossed into the audience as songs were sung about Superman, serial killers and Andrew Jackson. Behind his loveably dorky and over the top onstage antics, Sufjan has the obvious presence of a talented songwriter that we love despite, and not because, of his love for Jesus.
Iron & Wine came on next, putting on a solid and rocking electric performance that often surprises those who have only heard their tame studio recordings. But it was lead singer Sam Beam’s acoustic encore that was the most impressive; he has a talent of captivating the audience with a nine-minute folk song in a way very few performers are capable of.
Halfway through Neko Case’s show, the sky produced hail near the size of golf balls and began ruining our chill time. Neko braved as much of the storm as she could, but soon fled the stage. Some returned to their campsites as others sought out what little shelter existed inside the outdoor venue. I preferred assuming the fetal position. I waited out the storm curled up into a ball on the ground, repeating my own rock n’ roll mantra: “The Flaming Lips will save my life.”
A few hours delay ensued, but we were eventually given the good news: the show would go on. Sure enough, The Tragically Hip were soon on the stage, lead singer Gordon Downie engaging in arguments with his microphone. After a great performance by The Shins, it was announced that Ben Harper, originally scheduled to go on last, would be next, andThe Flaming Lips would finish out the night. For me, a Lips fan with ice cubes for feet and Oreos for hands (did I mention they were frozen Oreos?), this was decidedly bad news. But all turned out well, Ben Harper put on a surprisingly fun show that made believers of long-time skeptics such as myself, and after an extended encore, the Lips in fact did save my life, as only the Lips know how.
After stepping into a large inflatable balloon and rolling out into the audience, allowing them to pass him along as they pleased, lead singer Wayne Coyne returned to the stage, assisted by troupes of dancing aliens and Santa Clauses to play favorites both old and new. The show was often interrupted by Coyne’s explanations of his fascinations with extraterrestrial life, or anything else random and eccentric that came to his mind, assisted by a camera conveniently fixed to his microphone and projected on a giant screen behind him. With confetti, beach balls, and an extravagantly psychedelic light show, the experience is a unique one that reduces this writer to his simplest terms: The Flaming Lips are good.
The final day of the festival brought decent weather and a great lineup, including Nada Surf, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Arctic Monkeys, and The Decemberists. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah played a great show to an energetic crowd; the sun began to set but we were happy to have had any sun at all. Deathcab For Cutie played that night, putting on a better show than I might have expected. The great thing about festivals like this is with so many great acts, every band is in an unspoken contest to see who can put on the best show.
Beck was the perfect performer to close out the festival, playing mostly stuff off of his new album Guero (but a few old gems, and even a Flaming Lips cover); he was backed by any number of instruments, or often just a drum machine and reared by his acoustic slide-guitar. Beck constantly reestablishes his position as one of the few musicians who can do almost anything: folk, blues, hip-hop, folky-blues-hip-hop, and do it well. He’s survived all the passing trends in his near two decades on the scene, and doesn’t quite seem content to repeat himself.
After three days and nights of great music and free potato chips and my rock n’ roll hunger temporarily satisfied, I hit the open road. But one question still remained: If Bigfoot had a robot, what would he program it for?