Sasquatch Festival 2008

Posted September 12, 2008 in

My Carbon Footprint is as Big as My Wang* A Belated after-the-fact mini travelogue from Memorial Day 2008 in which a Utah native turned Portland area Radio Shack employee has experiences both musical and existential. Never forget. This is something I, along with ribbon shaped bumper stickers and your self righteous uncle Gary, would like to remind you of. That's why there are golden retriever agenda-planners, films about 9-11, and the most obvious, Memorial Day weekend. What are we supposed to not forget? I can't remember. Neither can thousands of my fellow Sasquatch! Festival goers or the girl I made out with outside a house show in Olympia. Remembering is not quite the point, I don't think, so much as not forgetting. And while I have no idea what I was to remember, I certainly haven't forgotten, and that's called patriotism. It had been a solid hour of trying to tame a wild and elusive remote control helicopter whilst watching a Twilight Zone marathon before I remembered I was actually at work. I was able to get out of Radio Shack early that Saturday morning, giving me a jump start on what would prove to be a long weekend of shows and substance misuse that would start in Olympia and continue to Washington's 7th annual Sasquatch! Festival, a monstrous gathering of bands and the people who watch them at the Gorge Amphitheater.

“This road is not going to drive itself,” I said out loud, the hum of a dozen Kia's at Portland's southeast 82nd avenue Taco Bell drive-through mumbled in agreement.

A few hours later I met some people at my friend Kelly's house in Olympia. Her noise band, Tiffani Amber Theisen, was playing a house show somewhere in the woods and we were all late. My dog, tried to kill a chicken that belonged to an anarchist who lived next door. The chicken was missing, the dog had a mouth full of feathers, and the dude had an ominously calm manner about him.

“If you see the chicken, just let me know,” he said, gazing blankly into the clouds. Kelly found the chicken not long after, unharmed aside from a bare spot on her ass where feathers used to be. There were almost 20 bands taking turns on the stage that night; a pack of stray dogs seemed to be working the door, broken cars in the cigarette-butt littered lawn, dirt under every fingernail (or is it organic top soil?) and I, a bit overdressed with my sleeves and shoes.

If I went to Evergreen, I thought to myself, my major would be making out with chicks. There would be no grades. Someone mentioned a Salt Lake band was present, and set to play later that night, they called themselves Calico. I found their drummer - my friend, someone's ugly step-brother - none other than Tyler Ford, drinking Hamm's next to a paste-colored van.

“I've got some candy in here,” he said, mistaking me for someone else, but it wasn't long before the confusion of seeing a friendly face in an unlikely place was soon cleared. Brady Gunnel, Calico's frontman, informed me they were on a northwest mini-tour (me too! sort of) and were the last band to go on. As the night waxed, I made it a point to tell everyone to stay for my 'favorite' band from Salt Lake, even though it didn't look like they'd be on until around 2 am. A handful of people stuck around while Calico took a million years to set up. My friends and I, tired and drunk, curled up like kittens in front of the band, ready to purr. Salt Lake's boys in blue (cardigan sweaters) were a perfect punctuation mark on an otherwise grammatically incorrect night of slop-rock. Their tightly wound, meticulous texture-folk had even Kurt Cobain's illegitimate son saying “meow.” Their closer, a tongue-in-cheek-in-mustache reinterpretation of Montell Jordan's “This is How We Do It” had us whispering along, “I reach for my 40 and I turn it up/Designated driver, take the keys to my truck.”

The next day had me waking up in Kelly's guest room, which happened to also be her kitchen. There's a lot of music to catch today, I thought, so I clogged the toilet and was again on my way to another adventure. Determined not to be stoned before I got to the festival, I accidentally smoked a J in the car and got way stoned, rocking some of Jackson Browne's best, most sentimental songs about hitting Daryl Hannah. “Jackson Browne is awesome,” I said to myself, but so are Built to Spill, Battles, The Flaming Lips, and a host of other bands waiting for me at the Gorge Amphitheater. I must get into festival mode.” I parked my car on some BLM land a few miles away from the amphitheater itself, my intention was to save some money on per-car camp costs by crashing with impressionable teenagers, while sparing my poor automobile the harsh reality of an impound, which a local farmer assured me would happen if I left her any closer to the venue.

I assembled my gear, which included a change of clothes, poncho, 12 pack of Ranier, tent, raw broccoli, 7 joints, water, raw garlic, vitamin E, a drop of acid, vitamin A, Axe body spray (which is, I'm sure, the most offensive item on the list), packed them into my hippie bag and made like a Widespread Panic fan, putting my thumb in the air. Finding a ride for the 3 or so miles I had left to travel should have been easy; there were plenty of cars on the road and they were all going to the same place. These people are like me, I thought, slacker suburban-sprawlers just out to have a good time, but watched as car after half-empty rental car passed - stoned frat boy singing Jethro Tull at the wheel - leaving a fellow festival-goer in dust and Virginia Slim smoke. Just like me, indeed.

I was eventually picked up by a couple from the Bay area, “You're not going to stab us, are you?” the woman asked.

I got my press credentials, upon which was written in bold sharpie, NO PHOTO. This was alright with me, I had anticipated being too delirious, drunk and dehydrated to take a decent photo anyhow (the camera-phone masterpieces presented here notwithstanding). Despite their seemingly limiting nature, those bold felt letters did less to inhibit me as a journalist than to liberate me as a drug user and flirtatious scoundrel (things I'm arguably better, still not good, at). I donned the sticker on my shirttail, getting into the festival through the press entrance, free of the usual strip search the average ticket holder was subject to, loaded to the brim with beer, drugs and water (all things considered unacceptable by the management). Making eyes with the teenage girl operating the gate, I cruised by peach orchards to my right and the dude in charge of press credentials to my left (who was, incidentally, getting his bag searched by overzealous security guards), and hit the press trailer for complimentary snacks.

“I'm just glad,” I said to myself (even though there was a 19 year old blogger from Seattle next to me who thought we were in conversation), “that this sticker does not say NO PRETZEL.”

I sat around most of that day, shooting the shit with other 'writers', smoking 'cigarettes', having 'conversations', being bored by 'bands' like The Presidents of the United States of America, Tegan and Sara or The Cops, and running like hell from sets like Michael Franti's. I had very little interest in most of the music that afternoon, so I wandered aimlessly or hung out with my newest friend Ari, a writer for Seattle's The Stranger. She was a little more creative in her coverage of the fest, and made a humorous video called “How High R U?” for which I was an obvious choice for cameo (you can see it at

It wasn't long, however, before Steve Malkmus and the Jicks put a plug in the evening's crap hole. This guy Mike seemed a little skeptical, citing what has now become the cliche of former stoner of influential band turns middle-aged shredder. To Mike, a man who cared for Pavement but hadn't given the Jicks a fair shake, I said this: “Look Mike, Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) is still one of rock's best working drummers, and Steve Malkmus is busting out crazy guitar solos. Add to this the man's piercing, ever-evolving and often brilliant word-wielding and you've got a band that transcends any preconception of Pavement coattail-riding. If anything, this group has had to work pretty hard to get out of that shadow, but it's worth it. Their recent record, Real Emotional Trash, might feel a bit jammy at times, what with Malkmus working the scales like a sixth grade math teacher, but there's cohesion rather than indulgence, and live they play tight and effortless.” Suspicion was quieted before Mike could say 'hackey-sack' by Weiss' off kilter rhythm - bra-less and bouncing - licked by Malkmus with his trademark white-guy funkiness. If you were never impressed with Pavement in the first place, the Jicks won't blow your mind (unless all you needed from the seminal band was less bra), but what is undeniable is great pieces doing what they've always done best, yet avoiding easy repetition or cashing in on old glory. Take that, Mike.

I headed to the main stage for the night's headliners, The Cure. One thing I learned from seeing them in Salt Lake in 2004 was not to get too close to the stage, lest Robert Smith's eyeliner - melting in sweat underneath the red stage lights - drip on my shoes. As old and overweight as Smith's moody, lamenting lipstick persona has gotten, I liked his not-so-outright pandering to pedestrian fans. Sprinkling obligatory favorites like Close to Me and Love Cats like bread crumbs along a more meditative set list, Smith's latest incarnation of The Cure traversed the dark, giant sonic atmospheres of albums like Disintegration. Sure, it's been a bit awkward to watch Smith less-than gracefully enter rock's twilight years (remember that self-titled album a few years ago? Or the collaboration with Blink 182?), but fans have at least been spared a shameless Police-style reunion tour, seeing as how the guy, in all reality, has never taken much of a break.

I for one, having spent all my energy drinking and staring at girls, was ready for sleep. I met Ali, a friend of mine from Portland, and her gang of lovely, hairy-legged ladies who agreed to have me in their 10 person tent as long as I didn't steam-roller them. We trudged back to their campsite, literally on the farthest end of the campground. As our good time turned into a dreamy saunter, we floated gently amongst the hoots and shouts of dudes who refused to put their shirts back on, instead whipping them in the air, insisting on their own good time, demanding everyone take note. These were the same guys who would soon wander through our campsite, beerless or at least beer-bongless, uncomfortably trying to barter their fleeting amiability for a puff of what they hoped was more than a cigarette, or the chance to get into what they hoped was more than a sleeping bag.

The next morning, hungover in that sticky, carefree bliss that only waking in a lesbian-filled tent can elicit, I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and began my quiet preparations for the day. Having brushed my teeth with bottled water, eaten a few pieces of broccoli, peed in what would have been plain sight of all those mesh-and-nylon enclosed sexual deviancies, I was soon reemerging from my sun burnt haze (Disclaimer: while most of my behaviors and indulgences of the weekend in question are not recommended, let it be noted that my meager diet of broccoli and garlic, along with God-given intestinal instincts, kept me from ever having to take a seat in the miserable port-a-potties what called themselves 'Honey Buckets'). Ali handed me a beer, it must have been 9 am. “We've earned it,” I said, throwing my empty bottles of water everywhere but those places designated for them. This, I had gathered, was the latest thing the kids were into. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but when at the Gorge, treat it like the dorm room you don't have to go back to.

It was Memorial Day, the last day of the fest, a day I was sure would hold together musically if I could keep from falling apart mentally. Already a few beers deep, and I was breaking rule one of a good Memorial Day; never forget. “Where are my keys?” I said to myself, already close to the press gate, about a mile away from camp. I figured they were back at the tent and made what was surely a gamble; should I turn back? The keys were certainly at camp or lost in the ether, I thought. What use was turning around? I decided instead to forget the keys, hoping the hands of fate would be benevolent.

The first act of the day, as it had started for me, was Brooklyn's Yeasayer. Their album, All Hour Cymbals, lame play-on-words aside, had been a regular listen for me at that time. It's tight blend of danceable middle-eastern psychadelia and catchy-as-flu hooks had charmed me enough to overlook the naive, self-righteous, and self-pitying anti-Bushism that underscores the songs. A live show was to make or break the band for me, and, unfortunately it achieved the latter. They took the stage that early afternoon consumed with self-image, forgetting almost entirely their musicality and remembering only what it's supposed to look like to be musicians. The third song in, Wait For the Summer, was the most suspicious. Just as I started to get into its catchy, all too simple acoustic guitar riff, I noticed not a single acoustic guitar on stage. In an era of music in which faux-instrumentalism and non-musicianship are common and often engaging ways of rebuking conventional concepts of song (see Battles blurb a few paragraphs down), it seems difficult to fault a band for the sounds their not playing. But rebuking is only achieved with intelligence and artistic intention, not corner-cutting. While a band like Animal Collective might blow your mind with manufactured sounds no instrument can reproduce, Yeasayer takes it as a cue for what can only be assumed is technical incompetence. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the festival's primary sponsor, X-Box, had hung on either side of the performers two huge advertisements for their newest video game for the musically untalented, with giant bold letters that said very simply ROCKBAND.

I headed back to the press trailer, less annoyed with the previous set than excited with Built To Spill's forthcoming. I ate an Altoid, spearmint flavor, laced with LSD.

I sure hope my Sasquatch piece doesn't become some predictable, hodgepodge drug diary, I thought to myself, enjoying my fresh breath but worried about what was certainly a good amount of high fructose corn syrup in that small, tasty mint. Ari found me in the peach orchards not long after, singing Presidents of the United States of America lyrics while looking at my shoes. We headed to the main stage for Built To Spill, perhaps the best thing of the fest if not the planet Earth. In a weekend whose biggest acts were decidedly old, if not tired (think REM), Doug Marsch is a precious kind of hero who seems to have aged wonderfully, like Neil Young's insecure little brother. Instead of collapsing with late angst-period mediocrity, or writing “Float On” style crossover hits, his music has grown and adapted with his maturing sense of humanity, piercing insights and, oh yea, out-of-this-fucking-world guitar play. Just as psychoactive chemicals began taking control of my brain, BTS took control of my heart with the old favorite “You Were Right”.

“You were right,” Marsch belted his words as if they'd taken on more meaning since inception, “when you said we're all just bricks in the wall.” There's nothing like a weekend of drunkenly grumbling amongst a sea of other drunken grumblers, all wearing (or not wearing) the same band shirts and drinking (or wearing) the same PBR tall boys (priced, without exaggeration, at 12$) to equip a fry-brain like mine for serious resonance with lyrics so potent. Lacking entirely in self-righteousness, Marsch, standing under that same corporate ROCKBAND banner as the other acts, confessed to helplessness under crises of both spirituality and identity. “And when you said manic depression's a frustrating mess,” begging rock 'n roll as much as playing it, standing before a younger generation, the man made, quite simply, a brave and honest communication. What else, besides making out in other people's leftover corn dogs, could a festival like this be for? But that contextually brilliant, albeit a little heavy, number aside, BTS was not out to cause any bad trip (teenagers in cargo shorts and blue collared shirts emblazoned 'Alcohol Enforcement' were already on top of that). They casually treated us to delicious pop gems like “Big Dipper” while launching every nasty lick as high into the upper tiers of the venue as possible. Forget the video game, these guys are as genuine an article as the dragon-shaped sailboat I kept exclaiming about. “Lookie!”

“This chick looks like Gram Parsons,” I said out loud about the back of my hand. I had somehow lost Ari while becoming a rock n' roll refugee after a 'duo' called Rodrigo Y Gabriela took over the main stage (my Spanish being a little rusty, I have no idea what their bizarre band name means in English). The word 'duo' will remain in quotations because, while I appreciated the beat kept by the hands of whom I assume was Gabriela on the wood of her barely played acoustic guitar, I still doubt it's ability to make the sounds I was hearing (bass drum, high-hat, gong).

I began the lonely journey that lasted probably 45 minutes but felt like maybe an hour and 15 (an effect of LSD is a distorted perspective of time), through the garbage-dusted landscape that was the Gorge. I knew Battles was soon to rescue me from the doldrum of half-felt sets, so in the mean time I tried my best to appreciate the scenery, or the dude who's job it must have been to galvanize the drug-dazed, sun-beaten populace.

“You're a unicorn!” he told me. Thanks dude.

I crossed pure desolation - the wind swept, discarded food-speckled bluff that sat in pure contrast to the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge below. And yet there I was, with beer stained shirt and heart on would-be sleeve (would-be, were I wearing any), running from my own discarded paper boat what once held overpriced onion rings, as it clung to my leather boat shoes.

Irony is greasy and often fried in partially hydrogenated oil, I thought to myself. Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground were probably playing a decent show, but it was freaking me out. Kay Kay, as I assume he goes by, donned a cowboy persona somewhere between Toy Story's Woody and Thriller-era Michael Jackson. Electric cellos, delicate bells and emphatic horns decorated nostalgic, pop-aware melodies, but an odd suggestive tones seemed to drown in preciousness, as if Prince had recorded a Christmas album with Sufjan Stevens.

I needed to find something with gusto, and when it comes to balls, Battles is true blue. Perhaps it was the disappointing theme of ventriloquist instrumentalism I had seen that day, perhaps it was the metaphysical levels implicit in a rock festival being sponsored by a rock video game, or perhaps I was tripping balls, but the New York quartet's would-be guitar solos and choking, soaring, and constantly mutating melodic structures had me absolutely blown away. While Yeasayer wasn't playing it because they probably can't, Battles was almost playing it because Yeasayer won't and Rush already did. Their manipulated vocals, muted guitar mumblings and maddening mathematical rhythms shook like soda cans of impossible sexual repression as redirected into a digital landscape. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if a band is making actual progress, attacking the technological avenues usually associated with musical degradation (think of your roommate's mash up album) and driving jerkily through them with old school musical ingenuity and proficiency.

I ate mushrooms given to me by someone who would probably like to remain nameless.

“Thanks Brandon,” I said, keeping the good train moving. Soon Battles was over and I needed a beer and a seat, so went looking for Ali near the main stage. Wanting nothing more than to relax into the psychedelic rabbit hole I had made for myself, I looked forward to The Flaming Lips, who would soon land in a flying saucer. I also remembered, however, seeing them in Denver about a year prior, and having stood witness to down-with-Bush rants and “remember Zaireeka?” monologues from eccentric frontman Wayne Coyne. It's not that the man is not a hero, or that the band won't go down in my book as a gang of pure nostalgic geniuses, or that our President isn't a giant ass-pilot, but saying 'Fuck Bush!' at a show has become the new 'Hello Cleveland!'

I could hear Ghostland Observatory on the other side of the hill, and made an audible prediction: “I will go see the first few songs of Ghostland,” I said, “when I return, Coyne will be knee-deep in digression.”

Having seen Ghostland a few times, I knew the band could put on a party like David Bowie's parents were out of town. Yes, this volatile duo from Austin (get over it) makes moves like Freddy Mercury giving Daft Punk a dance-beat-down. The sun had set, and Ghostland had us dancing out of their hands in the mysterious laser show that had become us, while lead singer Aaron Behrens dove into and out of groove-psychosis, dripping with libido and a side pipe to boot (go ahead, search urban dictionary for 'side pipe'). In the days to follow, this was the show everyone would be talking about - that straight-from-the-hip beat, blasted by grungy guitar, driven by an indescribable energy that, I will not argue, their studio albums are completely devoid of.

I returned to the bluff that sat above the main stage to find the Lips in between songs. To Coyne's right, a handful of dancing fans all dressed as Santa Clause, to his left, a similar troupe of dancing aliens. “Let's just remember,” he was saying, “not to ever let an asshole like this get into the White House again!” the crowd cheered mechanically. This must have been the point, I think, when a dozen naked ladies ran lackadaisically on and off stage. Wayne Coyne is a man who understands context.

But boring asides and awkward mass exhibitionism couldn't blemish their set, as hard as that may or may not be to believe. Sure, it's been probably a decade since they've changed their act substantially (although the naked girls were new, as far as I could tell), but there's something about the sincerity brought to every song, those that we've fallen in love with or those we might have thought were silly, and there's always at least a moment of surreal understanding, whether one is on acid or not, a moment in which a song about Super Man or robots can reach the sublime, if one just listens. And if, after seeing them several times, I'm not as easily charmed by the nostalgia-delic visual elements or the long-winded diatribes, I can still see Coyne for what he is: a man caught in the simple awkwardness of having an audience who will listen because he listens to them. And when the talking stops, when the music starts, when the confetti flies the beach balls bounce, you better believe these guys, with drummer/guitarist/genius Steve Drozd revving the engine, get these songs flying as big, dreamy and ridiculous as they've ever been.

I fell asleep that night, after giving a good steam-roller to six lesbians in a dense tent, with the strange feeling that I had lost something. “What could it be?” I asked myself in a half-wakeful, still partly submerged hallucination. I dreamed of owning a baby giraffe, about 8 feet tall, not yet the cumbersome beast we all know adult giraffes to be. “Don't ever grow up,” I told him.

If one can't remember it on Memorial Day, what chance has one got the day after? I spent all of it's morning looking for my keys, under half-eaten sandwiches and misplaced bras, but the endless expanse of post-consumer product - tossed hot dog wrappers, used condoms and soggy tissue paper - had consumed that inconspicuous set with it's plastic teeth and crushed aluminum tongue.

“This is why I don't date men,” one lesbian remarked, as I was driven to a gas station in George, the nearest town where I was to wait for a locksmith. It would be a couple hours, and I sat in dry anticipation, my brain still spinning like the last load of laundry. There was a fellow looking for a ride to Vancouver, BC. Not my direction, I apologized. A few college students from Missoula waited for a lost friend to show up. A young guy, no older than 18, was barefoot and wandered with his eyes.

“I lost my phone and my shoes,” he said, “I can't find any of my friends. I have my car, but I lost my glasses and can't see shit. Driving would be dangerous.” I gave him my phone, in hopes he could get in touch with someone, but he couldn't remember anyone's number. Tough luck, he understood, and went in blind search of other leads. I met Devon, who had hitchhiked from Portland, and offered him a ride home as long as he could wait for it.

“I can wait forever,” he said, with the patience of sand, a mile marker, or some kind of old friend. We talked about music and ate pieces of raw garlic (for immunity, I assured him), our skin slowly evaporating in the sun, a marble bust of our first president standing modestly before us.

“George, Washington,” I said. “I get it.”