Music Features

Sasquatch! Festival 2012

I’m writing this while trying to make sense of my time at Sasquatch! I just stepped out of my first shower in four days to discover that the tan I thought I had was really just lots of dirt. My mental state is fragile at best. 

The sunny weekend in the desert began in a line. The Gorge, where the festival is held, only has one road going in and out, and it needs to service 25,000 people. I stood on my friend Adam’s back bumper for much of the ride in, drinking beer and imagining I was Marty McFly. The line made me miss Poliça, Mark Lanegan Band and Santigold. All these things made me bitter. 

Once we got in we immediately walked to Explosions in The Sky. Somebody had snuck in fireworks and set them off with impeccable timing. EITS were satisfying loud, and I found myself enjoying them live far more than I ever have on record. I saw the end of a rousing Beats Antique set after that, which impressed me far more than any of Explosions. The headliner that night was Pretty Lights, but I decided against hanging out with a bunch of MDMA-influenced bros and went back to camp to eat a muffin and drink beer. 

Saturday was the stacked day. We got in just in time for a fantastic set from old school soul master Charles Bradley. He played an enthusiastic set, but it felt more like a novelty than anything else –  a pleasant and enjoyable way to begin the day, but nothing too incredible. I skipped the frequently mediocre Blitzen Trapper (I’ve seen them three times; they were great once and terrible twice) to see comedian Rob Delaney. His filthy set made me laugh so hard my jaw hurt. Some people brought their children, which will inevitably lead to a question and answer session too mature for a seven year old. Alabama Shakes followed, playing their formulaic but still pretty good garage rock. They’re a solid festival act, playing loud music to a crowd that’s just begging to be riled up. Kurt Vile and The Violators played an afternoon highlight. The music gets noisier and more expansive in a live setting, but remains fairly relaxing yet engaging. I bounced around between a disappointing Com Truise set, a pretty great Childish Gambino show that had the massive crowd dancing, and a typically excellent Dum Dum Girls set. AraabMuzik followed. 

My thoughts on AraabMuzik are a good time to introduce the stage known as the Banana Shack, a mysterious land of drunken guys who don’t care what they’re seeing as long as it’s got a bass drop. They’re unlike anyone else at the festival, and they stick to that tented stage. AraabMuzik didn’t play anything off the excellent Electronic Dream, opting instead for very noisy brostep. It was better than Skrillex, and it was cool to see the God of the MPC do his business, but other than that I was unimpressed. Luckily it was hard to dance to Purity Ring, who played a mesmerizingly slow and excellent set to a clearing out stage. No bass drops, no bros. They rounded out the afternoon perfectly. 

Tune-Yards was the first evening show, and was just awesome. She’s an exceptional live act, and this is the second time I’ve seen her at the festival. More people were aware of her this time around, and she played Bigfoot, the second biggest stage (she was on Yeti, the smallest stage, in 2010). It took a lot of the crowd a while to get over the weirdness of it all, but within ten minutes she’d whipped the crowd into a call-and-response dancing frenzy. She delivered exactly what I expected. St. Vincent followed with another highlight. She was clearly upset with her guitar tech, but her anger did nothing to detract from the show. If anything, it enhanced it. She channeled it into a fury, and her incredible and passionate guitar work drove an exceptional set. It was tight but noisy, incredibly loud, and the whole band put in a huge amount of energy. She jumped into the crowd during Krokadil despite security attempts to stop her, surfing the entire song. 

Jack White followed on the Sasquatch! Stage (I’d call it the main stage, but there’s another stage for Seattle Hip Hop called the Maine Stage). He delivered the set of the weekend, opening with a full band version of Black Math. He knew what the crowd wanted, skipping the slow songs and playing anything with potential for an explosive guitar solo. He played a satisfying mixture of White Stripes songs, solo material, and stuff from his other bands. The closing Seven Nation Army singalong was one of the best moments of the festival. My girlfriend Maddie got to watch it all with Kurt Vile, which made me pretty jealous. She agreed it was the highlight of Sasquatch! He made it look easy, ripping through solos and improvised sections while singing or jumping around the stage. 

The first band I made time to see on Sunday was Howlin’ Rain, the remnants of the fantastic Comets on Fire. The best parts of the show were the long, loud jams, when the band would sound just like they used to. My friend Justin rhetorically asked if frontman Ethan Miller would ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The answer is no, but it shouldn’t be. The man plays rock and roll exactly how it should be played. 

The War on Drugs followed with an excellent set, full of their aching vocal melodies and satisfying variations on their already great songs. They drew a larger crowd than I was expecting, and it was a set that made fans out of many of its attendees. They closed with an extended version of Best Night, and it was the perfect way to spend the heat of the afternoon. They’re another band playing really solid rock music; nothing new or original, but something that will always be special. There were lots of those acts over the weekend, and its where this year’s festival really hit its stride. The headliners were decent enough, but the bench behind them was stacked. There was rarely an hour where I didn’t want to see at least someone. I didn’t see quite as much awesome stuff this year as in 2011 or 2010, but I had more gaps those years. 

One of the big surprises of the weekend followed War on Drugs. It happened on the Yeti stage, the smallest one. It’s often overlooked, but it’s the place to see the best music and the best out of nowhere shows. For many bands, it’s the biggest show they’ve ever played. The crowds are easy to rile up, and they play hard. My girlfriend’s sister is close friends with the drummer from We Are Augustines, so we went to meet up with him before the show. I was expecting a decent set, but what we got was something special. They put on one hell of a show, beginning with a small crowd and ending with the area completely filled. They played well over their allotted set time to cheers from the audience. The band looked absolutely overjoyed for the entire set. The crowd was wild and enthusiastic, and We Are Augustines matched them at every turn. 

We saw Beirut next and got really, really bored. And I mean bored. They’re not my thing to begin with, and seeing them live certainly didn’t change that. They slowed down a lot of their already slow songs. I don’t know why they would do that, and it seemed pretentious. It’s a festival audience, and they should be aware of that. The bands that are most successful typically are. Bon Iver certainly was, and they put on a show on par with Jack White. I overheard an audience member who has seen them three times this tour proclaim it as the best set the band has ever played. Every song was huge, and they all ended with cathartic crescendos. Songs from For Emma... had been completely rearranged to fit with the new ten piece band. Opener Perth filled the Gorge with thundering guitars and flashing strobe lights, and set the tone for a set that sent chills down my spine more than a few times. The ten minute rendition of The Wolves was the highlight of the set, with Vernon leading the packed mainstage in a singalong. It didn’t just make the show more fun, it made the music sound better. The words, “what might have been lost”, rang out through the amphitheater with dramatic effect. A five minute solo from saxophonist Colin Stetson in the middle of the set (which was really just him playing Judges off his solo LP from last year) was the icing on the cake. 

We headed back to the campground as a group that night, which was rare. Sunday is historically our biggest party night, and this year proved no different. Any music festival is as much about the people you meet as the artists you see. This was confirmed when we met Wild Bill, who, by his own admission, “likes to party.” I’ve never seen a more intoxicated person still standing and speaking, let alone wander into our campsite and yell at us. He had taken ecstasy, drank a lot, and probably a lot more that he didn’t mention. He came in and announced: “Wild Bill doesn’t give a fuck.” He sat down, drank some more, propositioned my friend Blair after announcing that “Wild Bill was gonna get some pussy”, and flicked beer on my girlfriend's ass. We had all drank enough to find his antics hilarious. I eventually attempted to escort him back to his tent, but instead dumped him on a different party. As I ran away, I heard, “who the fuck brought this guy back?” yelled from the party. He came back later and reminded me that he “didn’t give a fuck” then wandered off into the eternal, dark rows of tents, never to be seen again. All that was left was a memory. A memory and a ruined chair, because he vomited all over it. 

Monday began with one of my most brutal hangovers in recent memory. A muffin and several bottles of water kept me alive until I got into the venue. I could blame Wild Bill, but it’s probably not his fault. We saw a solid set from bluesman Gary Clark Jr., who is a fantastic guitar player and leads a band of excellent musicians. I saw Cass McCombs after that, who put on a surprisingly charismatic set on the Yeti stage. There’s not much to say about either of those acts, but I had an entirely enjoyable experience at both.

Another surprise followed in Vintage Trouble, an old school blues-rock band led by an incredibly energetic ex-theater performer. They began with a crowd of less than fifty, but played like it was Madison Square Garden. They earned the love of the crowd one by one, and it numbered in the thousands by the time they ended. My friend Brandon and I danced the whole time, encouraged by the frontman and a smelly hippy that touched me whenever I stopped. Again, the best surprises come at the Yeti stage. As we wandered to a decent set by Feist afterwards, we could hear fun. singing We Are Young incredibly off-key. It highlighted a great thing about Sasquatch!, and something no other major festival does this well. Where else can fun., a Top 40 darling, play fifty yards from Vintage Trouble, a band with 4,000 Facebook fans? The promoters are gifted, not at snagging the biggest headliners, but at searching out small bands that they know people will love once they hear. It’s the biggest draw of the festival for those that have been before, because it always ends up being the best part. 

We saw SBTRKT after that. He put on one of the most flat-out fun sets of the weekend, mixing in songs from his debut album with louder bass drops and new samples. It flowed together and he never spoke, but the music did all the talking. I wasn’t planning on seeing him, but Mogwai cancelled so I had a free hour. I’m glad I did. He didn’t make up for the massive disappointment that was Mogwai’s cancellation, but it was definitely a good time.

Spiritualized followed and brought me the biggest disappointment of the festival. In fact, it may have been the most disappointing show I’ve ever seen. They were there for the pay check, were completely impersonal, and had a pretty mediocre set list. I was incredibly excited to see them, and they just didn’t measure up. Most of the crowd left during their set, which only made them play worse. The music sounded great, but there was absolutely no energy in any of it. It felt like listening to a really good record really loud, which is fine but certainly not as entertaining as I’d like. Come Together was the only song they played with any energy at all. 

Despite the disappointing ending, it was another great Sasquatch! It didn’t have the lineup of past years, but that’s hard to match. I was never bored and saw a lot of great bands. To round it out, here are some lists.

Best Act:

1. Jack White

2. Bon Iver

3. St. Vincent

4. Tune-Yards

5. We Are Augustines

Honorable Mention: War on Drugs, Vintage Trouble, Explosions in the Sky

Biggest Disappointments:

1. Spiritualized

2. Beirut

3. AraabMuzik

4. The Shins (I didn’t see them, but my girlfriend said they weren’t any good)

5. Com Truise

Best People:

1. Wild Bill

2. The guy that wore a full Sasquatch suit

3. The guys in full evening wear through a 90 degree day.

4. Jack White, for his great on-stage rapport.

5. Rob Delaney, for being completely filthy.

Things I learned:

1. The Yeti stage is the best.

2. Drinking in the hot sun makes you drunk faster. As a Seattleite, I was relatively unfamiliar with this.

3. A lot of people didn’t realize that, and a lot of people passed out in the gates and got removed by ambulance. 

4. The signs in the Honey Buckets proclaiming that they are to be used by ten people over a forty hour work week are nothing but a cruel, cruel joke.

5. Wild Bill likes to party.