For the past decade, more and more people have been flocking to the middle of Washington State for Sasquatch! Music Festival. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the event takes place in the middle of nowhere – where the desert meets the gorge, where you may come to be one with nature and not necessarily to party like a rock star. But that’s what exactly happens every year over the Memorial Day weekend. This year, the outdoor festival celebrates its 10th anniversary and expected to be bigger than ever, expanding further outside of its indie rock roots to embrace various genres, even bordering on mainstream with major label artists. In addition, comedians and DJs are also included in the showcase to provide attendees even more options to the three and a half day of debauchery.
At 5:30am, the sun was already trying to wake up the campers, with its blinding rays, for the busiest day of the four-day Sasquatch music festival. After walking around, breathing in the untainted morning air, I made up my mind to pack the tent and check into a hotel for the rest of the festival. I tried but this was not a good first time camping scenario. Much to my surprise, most people got up around 8am. Duh – who sleeps when you can party like there’s no tomorrow, especially when most of us have to return to our prosaic daily routine on Tuesday?…
With 33 acts scheduled from noon to half past midnight, this was going to be one hectic Saturday. The festival gate opened at 11am, and I couldn’t wait to access outlets and a chair. And hoped that maybe there would be more than Popchips today. Well, there was another sponsors’ product – Soy Joy was added to the snack table. It was either these processed snacks or over-priced processed greasy junk food, such as burgers and fries, Domino’s pizza, elephant ears, etc.
The first set of acts started at noon. I could have walked down to the main stage and caught ten minutes of Alberta Cross before running back with my 30lb backpack to Yeti stage to catch Pepper Rabbit, but just couldn’t conjure up the energy. Besides, I was stressed about projects that were unfinished for my day job as a video editor. While I tried to get some work done on my laptop, I could hear Radiohead (QRO album review) covers. I realized that it was noon, and the sound was coming from the Bigfoot stage by Seattle Rock Orchestra, which raised my curiosity, but I turned my focus back to my computer. Just then, The Radio Dept. entered the porch area for an interview with couple of press members. Since discovering the Swedish pop trio less than two years ago, they have fast become one of my all time favorite bands. I was fortunate to catch them live (QRO live review) twice this year (QRO live review), and interview two of the members back in February (QRO interview). Not only did they recognized me but greeted me amiably. I carried our affable encounter as a good luck charm for the rest of the festival.
Little after 12:15pm, Pepper Rabbit performed their eclectic mix of looping traditional instruments, such as clarinets and trumpets with samples on Yeti stage. Since their formation in 2008, the duo has been received favorably in the industry. With a help of a bass player, singer and multi-instrumentalist Xander Singh and drummer Luc Laurent produced sound grander than expected from a trio of musicians. But my mind was distracted – I couldn’t wait for The Radio Dept. at 1:00pm. Soon as our photo pit time was up with Pepper Rabbit, I headed down to the main stage to stake a prime spot.
Earlier in the day, a photographer without the main stage press pass has better luck getting decent photos with thinner crowd. With the sun beating down on my head, I wondered how the shy Swedes would handle performing in broad daylight in such panoramic setting. Indoors, The Radio Dept. could hide in low lighting and/or fog. I also wasn’t sure how well their weightless pop songs would carry through the open ‘stadium’. Surprisingly, their dreamy melodies sounded lucid and full. While the set list was pretty typical with heavy representation from their latest album, Clinging To a Scheme (QRO review), and couple of political tunes (“Freddie and the Trojan Horse” and “The New Improved Hypocrisy”), the band did have a nice surprise for the fans – a new song that has been in existence for a while with unfinished lyrics. Unlike the more danceable tracks with biting lyrics from Clinging To a Scheme, the untitled number recalled more sorrowful songs like “Messy Enough”, which was released as a B-side to “David” but also has been around for years.
The trio is very conscious and meticulous about their music, but they are also fiercely honest, and their end results never sound or look contrived. The Radio Dept. ended their set with “Heaven’s on Fire” – perhaps their most popular tune. How can anyone but Johan Duncanson make the lines, “When I look at you / I reach for the piano wire,” sound righteous? Obviously grateful for the warm response from the crowd, Duncanson tried his best to express their sincere gratitude, as he reached for his can of Budweiser. This is a really sad picture – the Pacific Northwest has some of the best beers in the world, and the artists are treated to such unexceptional brew. As they exited, a remix of the final tune with Lovers Rock flavor streamed, and the crowd broke out in joyous dance.
The next two editor recommendations also took place on the main stage so I tried to rough it out in the mid-afternoon heat. Though I really needed some water since there were none this morning in the media building, only sodas and energy drinks – neither which I enjoy or even tolerate. As the entry time for The Head and the Heart neared, the crowd grew even larger. In contrast to the previous performers, the Seattle ensemble was animated with emphasis on vocal harmonics and thrived on audience singing along and joining their musical party.
Returning to Sasquatch!, Local Natives drew in even more bodies. Just when I was marveling at the thickness of singer/guitarist Taylor Rice’s mustache, a person nearby asked his friend if it was real or not. I wondered how many people have asked that question. Also relying on harmonics, the Los Angeles quintet were not too distant cousin of The Head and the Heart, sonically nor their ability to get the audience fired up. Though I would lose my spot, I could no longer endure the thirst and hiked back up to the media building to see if they had brought some water. As I walked away, Local Natives broke into their cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” – I take that as a hint.
After getting some hydration relief, I caught first couple songs by Dan Mangan. The Canadian singer/songwriter’s relentless touring and DIY efforts were finally paying off. Once traveling the world solo due to financial reasons, four musicians accompanied Mangan on Yeti stage. The trumpet and French horn heightened Mangan’s colorful storytelling. Touring with The Decemberists (see Day Four), and supporting mountain man beard, Mangan could easily be any other guy walking down the streets of Portland. The audience was wild about the Vancouverite and sang along with his familiar tunes, and Mangan treated them with some new tracks from his forthcoming third LP (TBA). A Canadian flag flew over the crowd. I later learned that about 80% of the festivalgoers were from north of the border because they don’t really have music festivals in Western part of their country (QRO Festival Guide).
Then I jetted to Bigfoot stage to catch another editor recommendation, Sharon Van Etten. Without any makeup and in plain street clothes, the Brooklynite’s effervescent smile made her shine in the afternoon glow. But unlike her appearance, Van Etten’s songs are weighty and poignant, hovering somewhere between PJ Harvey (QRO album review) and k.d. lang.
Back on the main stage, Wolf Parade was playing their penultimate show indefinitely. Singer/guitarist Dan Boeckner looked even thinner than when I last saw him with his wife, Alexei Perry, performing as Handsome Furs (QRO photos). At least for Boeckner, he’ll keep busy musically, promoting the new Handsome Furs album, Sound Kapital, due out late June. After a couple of songs, I didn’t feel the energy from the Canadian quartet as I had from Local Natives, so I left. Maybe I was expecting more because I had been waiting a long time to finally see them live. Maybe the speakers were too low because the post-punk outfit sure sounded lot better on NPR’s recording.
J Mascis, another veteran of indie rock played solo as Bob Mould had yesterday. Revisiting classic Dinosaur Jr. (QRO live review) tunes such as “Out There”, Mascis sat with his guitar, singing laconically, with his gaze appearing to be directed at his shoes most of the time. I was too distracted by the fact that in spite of his colorful and busy ensemble, the longhaired icon looked same no matter how I composed my framing. So Mascis gets my least photos shot of any artists award in 2011 Sasquatch! Music Festival.
As the afternoon swelled, so did the festivalgoers. It seemed the head count doubled, maybe even tripled today. For someone who’s borderline claustrophobic, the crowding spawned some anxiety. At least this mob had character. If you ever wanted to realize your dress up fantasies, this was a place to do it. Full-bodied zebra suits to next-to-nothing quasi-bikini wear, face and body paint, wigs of all sizes and colors – the more outrageous, the better chance you had getting snapped up by NPR or Live Nation photographers. I had to limit my shutter count if I wanted any life outside of covering this event for the next couple of weeks.
About quarter past five, the sun was smiling gloriously on Bigfoot stage Jenny & Johnny. Singer/guitarist/bassist Jenny Lewis (QRO solo live review) of Rilo Kiley (QRO album review) fame, looked like a fashion model, wearing a cute retro-chic red dress and dark sunglasses with her long flowing orange hair blowing in the wind. Singer/guitarist Jonathan Rice didn’t look too shabby either but supporting full black attire, he was no match for his partner in the visual dept. Musically, their collaborative effort resulted in perfectly complimenting catchy pop songs.
The fun and carefree mood changed when The Antlers took the Bigfoot stage after Jenny and Johnny. The Brooklyn-based trio’s critically acclaimed previous release, Hospice, won many critics over. Their latest LP, Burst Apart (QRO review), came with a burden – to deliver something of similar caliber as its predecessor. I thought this brooding band was not going to be my strongest photo subjects. But with afternoon glow and backlighting on singer/guitarist Peter Silberman, I got some of my best shots of the festival. No matter, Silberman’s wailing even made one forget that you were in a happening music festival with perfect weather.
Even before Matt & Kim started playing, the frenzy was on. This Brooklyn team definitely gets my craziest/wildest duo award of the festival. Smiling like energized bunny on drugs, singer/drummer Kim Schifino (QRO interview) found a way to get the crowd even more fired up by pitting the two sides divided by walkway against each other. While the less animated but still delirious singer/keyboardist Matt Johnson (QRO interview) smiled impishly. Their unique blend of synth-punk-dance pop was the perfect prescription for a happy hour party.
A visit to the media building revealed that I had missed a new addition to the snack table: pita chips, apparently not sponsored. Luckily, there was some hummus left, which I scooped up with Popchips. Guess that was my late lunch? As I headed to the main stage, grabbed more Soy Joys from their booth, which seemed to have a semi-truck full supply. But they provided more than ‘free food’, giving out back sacks, providing cushioned seats for weary partygoers, as well as hosting some game that involved costumed green giant – or maybe he was a participant. I also passed the Easy Street Records artist signing booths, where The Antlers were welcoming their fans.
The last and only time I saw Bright Eyes was when I still lived in Florida. It had been probably almost ten years ago when Conor Oberst toured after the release of emo (or at least that’s what we called emo back then) classic, Lifted. Oberst had almost full orchestra with him – strings, woodwinds, brass – I was blown away and still recall with awe. Unfortunately, tonight was nothing like that night almost a decade ago. Guess I should be tolerant of changes but how odd to see this white Nebraskan hiding his face behind a hoodie and long bangs, moving and gesturing like some hip hop artist? Since I couldn’t re-live my memory and getting good photos was impossible, I retreated to media building to take a breather.
Robyn lived up to her diva status by making us all wait. The Swedish pop star was due on Bigfoot stage at 9:00pm. By 9:30pm, all the photographers who had gathered in the photo pit were starting to complain – if she doesn’t show up right now, we’re all going to go down for Death Cab For Cutie (due on main stage at 9:45pm – see below). The only thing that kept us entertained was her frenzied fans. Just when we were about to give up, Robyn finally entered the stage little past 9:30.
Two things struck me about the Swede. How short she was for a Scandinavian, and she moved around so fast, that she should have been named hummingbird. At one point, the platinum blonde singer/songwriter stopped and stood like a statue but breathing hard, trying to catch her breadth before flying around the stage again like a caged bird, trying to find an opening. Well, at least the diva gave us visuals worth the half an hour wait, even though the chiaroscuro lighting and strobe lighting meant that no time to adjust camera settings. Just had to keep pushing that shutter button, hoping it caught something that would be descriptive of Robyn’s electrified dance showcase.
My friends Ameena and Jeremy were arriving today to relieve me of my loneliness. They were also not equipped for camping so we went in a hotel room together. We met up at Banana Shack for Sleigh Bells. The sound was so loud; it almost qualified as white noise. Unable to find the photo pit and with my brain just about fried from the long day, I decided to hang my camera up. By the end of the night, I had caught 16 acts, partial or full. Even then, I didn’t even catch half of the program, and still nothing in my stomach but Popchips, Soy Joy, and hummus.
After a night of frostbite-worthy sleep, I charged myself with pomegranate green tea, and headed towards the picturesque Gorge. On my way in, I kissed the stars that hide behind the day for giving me the luck of not having to wait in the massive line that hovers around the fence, costing people at least an hour of their time before they get any music pumping into them. To my surprise and thanks to a dear friend, I ended up having all access the whole weekend – something that doesn’t come up very often in my world, and I can’t pour enough gratitude into the Universe to show my appreciation, but I will try.
It’s my third year as a Sasquatch enthusiast so I have a map of the layout embedded in my head.
I made my way down the asphalt to the Big Foot stage to catch K-OS. The indie hip-hop artist spawning from Toronto, Canada, as well as having roots in Trinidad, was a sight to see in his vintage poncho and hot pink sunglasses. Not only does the dreadlocked artist has style, but he his multi-talented busting out flows, beat boxing, and laughing his way through the set. Making jokes about how Sasquatch! was too corporate for him, you had to sit and wonder if the independent artist was taking his skills to his full potential. He started to play U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” as well as David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey” but opted out on both. Fully engaging his audience, the sun beat down and no one seemed to mind (or didn’t catch) the subtle messages of non-corporatism he unfolded.
Next on my list was Local Natives – a band I was first was introduced to at last year’s festival (QRO photos), this year they were upgraded to the main stage. You could feel the vivacity pouring out of each member as they entered the stage and started playing “Camera Talk” – the sixth song on their debut album, Gorilla Manor. Kelsey Aycer pulled every ones heartstrings by dedicating their song “Airplane” to his brother and sister who were listening on the side stage. For their grand finale, “Sun Hands” came on and everyone in the packed audience went wild. Hands flew up and the crowd (including myself) sang along with wide-eyed smiles. Another thing to note about these talented harmonizing gentlemen is that you can find them humbly hanging out in the crowd just like one of us head bopping and fully engaged in the sound of their fellow musicians.
This year I had made a conscious decision not to run around like a chicken with my head cut off, but to pick my favorite groups and catch their whole show. With that in mind, I decided to head back to the camp and put on some warm clothes before Iron & Wine. This was my first chance to have the opportunity to catch Samuel Beam live in concert. Walking up to the stage with horns blaring in full effect I would have never guessed it was him. The folk pop singer/songwriter surprised his audience with hints of funk peaking through guitar riffs and bellowing a scratchy voice from time to time. He added a dash of liquid fusion to songs like “Freedom Hangs in Heaven” and “Summer in Savannah”. Slowing it down towards the end of the set with his wispy voice, Beam managed to weave a tapestry through our hearts while singing everyone’s favorite lullaby, “Fever Dream”. Toward the end the show, the sun began to set, leaving hot pink colors scattered about the sky, and Beam brought the energy back up with another song off Our Endless Numbered Days, “Tree by the River”. In a dream like state, I could feel my ears were satisfied, but by now my stomach needed to be fed, so I headed back to what my friends and I referred to as the ‘kitten caravan’, a.k.a. home sweet home for a Tofurkey and cream cheese sandwich.
After a quick dinner, I eagerly returned to the main stage to catch a band I’ve been fond of since I was 16 years old. Death Cab for Cutie is one of indie music’s most treasured bands, and Benjamin Gibbard’s voice is likable to even your grandmother. The Seattle-based band filled the gorge with an extra long interlude version of “I Will Possess Your Heart”. Their music sounded gigantic as it cut through the darkness of the night. The whole audience went rhapsodic when “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” came on. Everyone couldn’t help from singing along. I started feeling a bit nostalgic and woeful so I decided to run over to the Banana Shack and check out Sleigh Bells.
Walking up to the tented stage, dodging glue sticks, I felt like I was entering a bad over-crowded rave, yet I decided to stay. I hadn’t heard much of Sleigh Bells prior – just a couple of songs off their album, Treats, which I saw potential in, but that drastically changed once I heard them live. The bass was turned up too high, making my brains rattle and those M.I.A. (QRO photos)-inspired beats I heard on the record were missing in action. With my ears ringing, I decided to flee and head back over to Death Cab to check out their encore. Going as fast as my legs could carry me, I could hear “Sound of Settling” echoing through the field and as that ended the crowd craved for an encore. DCFC gladly indulged us with three closing songs “Portable Television”, “Title and Registration”, and “Transatlanticism”.
Deciding to skip Bassnectar, I met up with my friends and headed back to the campgrounds in search of a dance party with my fellow campers. We must have walked around the whole campsite stumbling only upon bad dance music; we lost half the group along the way but refused to give up on our search. Finally we heard some tasty beats in the distance with a Portland flag swaying to a fro where we danced till security shut the generators off (which they always seem to do). Tired, satisfied with the feeling of conquering another day at Sasquatch!, and a bit sore, we made our way back to our quiet camp site, snuggled under five blankets and passed out.