Upon reflection of my second Sasquatch experience, I can now say that this is officially my all-time favorite music festival. Despite facing an astounding amount of cigarette smoke (sadly watching the butts subsequently rival the amount of grass at the stunning Gorge Amphitheatre), crappy food, insane lines, pee-related incidents, and the embarrassment of seeing Canadian flags consistently waved by the craziest and drunkest of my fellow countrymen, the crowd that gathers there is second to none. It is a testament to the quality of their overall character that the vibe for such a huge festival remains so happy, mellow, and stoked on music. Plus, from where I’m sitting, the lineup just seems to get better every year. There really is nothing else quite like this little piece of heaven.
The Hold Steady
I had never listened to Brooklyn’s Hold Steady before, but I could tell immediately that my mom would love these guys (which is not a bad thing, unless you hate your mother). Big riffs and power-stance moments abounded through their simple rock song structures, somewhere between Thin Lizzy and AC/DC but without all that cock-rock machismo. Their lyrics and appearance represented regular, down-to-earth, working class folk. They were not trying to be cool at all, which just made them that much cooler. Lead singer Craig Finn looked so stoked to be there, you could not help but root for the guy.
It is easy to see why Patrick Watson won the Polaris Music Prize when you watch him perform. He rocked the Yeti stage something fierce on his first US festival appearance, seeming to play with more abandon than he had on his first three studio albums. He and his band (named after his most recent record Wooden Arms) were super tight, generous, and musically graceful. Pat himself was quite engaging, remarking that, since he had a view of the gorge from the stage, he had a better view than the crowd, and he apologized for pointing that out. A class act all the way, he even hung around after his set and signed some autographs for the faithful. I would not be surprised if he became Prime Minister some day. I know I’d vote for him.
Comedians of this Bill Hicks style ilk are perfect for music festivals, flowing between rehearsed and improvised material like a well-trained jazz musician. Patton ripped on the distracting sound crossover between the close stages that other comedians are forced to ignore, making up his own lyrics to OK Go’s main stage mediocrity on the fly, and left the crowd with lines, images, and stories that would follow them through the festival, from the $5 wrath of a comedy magician to jogging pants tales. All you had to say was “I want all the ham” in a crowd, and you’d know by the round of chuckles who was there. Since he was leaving right after his set, he tossed his backstage wristband into the crowd, prefacing the toss by asking whoever caught it to not go back there and be weird (i.e., cornering a drummer and saying, “I named my goldfish after you”). Patton was not just a substitute for Aziz Ansari; he was a significant improvement.
“Great! Well, it sounds terrible, but that’s how we roll here” [Josiah Wolf]. WHY?’s set started 15 minutes late due to a lengthy sound check, and they still had buzzing, crackles, and distortion. Yoni Wolf spent much of that delay working the board personally, while his brother, drummer Josiah Wolf, ordered the sound guy around. During this time, no one so much as glanced at the crowd. It started their headlining set at the Yeti off on a dick note that they had difficulty overcoming. Considering how absurd Yoni’s lyrics are, and the size of his hat that day, he seemed surprisingly joyless, and his voice was even more nasally live. The set was okay overall. The band was on their marks, with Andrew Broder (Fog) playing bass and Josiah killing on the drums, rolling through their lysergic repertoire with ease. Still, there was no need to bitch with us all sitting there waiting.
Portugal. The Man
Serious phasing at the Bigfoot stage made the effect of their set difficult to fully imagine. The bass and kick drum came through fine, but most higher frequencies were lost behind a garbled whooshing. At first, I thought it was a bad set-up for Mumford & Sons, whom I sadly missed all but one song care of an hour and a half long wait at the front gate, or possibly that I heard that song from too far back with a slight breeze blowing. However, I was right up front for P.TM’s set, and the sound was not much better. Given how many guitar solos they attempted, that was a shame. All the stages had significant sound problems early and often throughout the festival, as per Murphy’s Law.
Both of Vampire Weekend’s albums have struck me as being generic and lame, simply watering down The Clash and Paul Simon’s Graceland for people born after that album was released, and their set did little to change that impression. They even did that annoying Auto-Tune warble for “California English” live, just to wear their trends on their sleeves. People ate it up, nevertheless. There was a lengthy conga line working the hill at one point, which was equally impressive… and lame. Obviously, these boys can play, and the band seemed nice enough, with Ezra Koenig making odd faces and dishing jovial patter between songs. To be sure, there is far worse music to support.
My Morning Jacket
They sound the same live as they do on record: no more, no less. If you liked their albums beforehand, you liked their set. But if you were on the fence, you probably bought another beer and wandered over to Deadmau5 early.
Last-minute replacement, Brad is actually a band, not just some dude named Brad. Apparently, this is kind of a Pearl Jam side project, at least a place for Stone Gossard to play lead instead of rhythm guitar, but it sounded more like a Creed side project live. Brad sounds past its prime.
I am a big fan of Stones Throw most of the time, but this L.A. producer’s derivative electro-funk and terrible lyrics aim for Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones territory and hit the bargain bin. I practically ran away from the Rumpus Room after he came on.
The Lonely Forest
I can see why the forest is lonely in Anacortes, Washington. It must be hard to try to be Weezer so many years after Weezer was relevant. However, despite their standard rock instrumentation and terrible lead singer, they had a decent drummer and they looked quite young on the whole, so there is definitely room for improvement.
I always liked James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem well enough, but this set made me a believer. They may very well be The Happy Mondays for this generation, and certainly far more skilled as a band than The Happy Mondays ever were. I have been to a lot of huge raves and electronic festivals in my day, and I have never seen this many people committed to flailing. This set also saw the Santigold dance moment of the 2010, as almost everyone in attendance performed a simultaneous hand raise on beat for “All My Friends” (which, by the way, was started by this group of really nice people sitting next to me in the lower bowl, a collection of 25-odd people from Portland and Vancouver who also shared their contraband with us). Of course, overlooking the few bad apples at the festival, the crowd was generally amazing, but it takes something truly special to inspire spontaneous, synchronized movement like that. Here are all the notes I wrote down for this set at the time: “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!!!”
Oakland’s Merrill Garbus surprised a lot of people with her bubbly onstage banter, crazy make-up, infectious beats, heartwarming voice, and abstract usage of the ukulele. She had an amazing, endearing energy that added an extra layer of enjoyment to her quirky loop-based music. Bolstered live by a bassist and, later on, a sax, her music came off with more warmth and fluidity than on her deservedly successful debut album Bird-Brains.
Texas-bred Midlake had a chemistry you cannot fake. The undying love for what they do, what so many retro-sounding bands can’t truthfully express, was written all over their performance. This eight-piece rocked every bit as epic as their idols Jethro Tull, producing a sound dense with lush harmonies and timeless melodies.
Tegan & Sara
These identical twins made their Canadian origin obvious as they thanked the audience profusely between every single song. Sara even apologized to her sister during “Where Does The Good Go” when she tried to address the crowd over the bridge and got cut off by Tegan’s singing. Sara made up for the small blunder by almost goading Tegan into beatboxing so she could have an instrumental to speak over, this after deeming the Jeopardy theme Tegan initially hummed to be unsuitable. Unfortunately scheduled after Kid Cudi and during The xx, Tegan & Sara’s professional attitude and undeniable cuteness managed to keep a good majority of the people at the main stage that may have otherwise shuffled over to be disappointed by The xx’s ‘noir&b’ anemia. Their band, three gentlemen dressed in black, did a perfect job supporting the stars, and allowed the twins to shine bright with their superbly crafted new wave and indie pop. Pulling their set list from across their impressive six-album catalogue, Tegan professed that she had such a good time, she “broke a sweat.”
Since Massive Attack got on 40 minutes late, thanks in part to Pavement’s slacking momentarily sucking the energy out of the entire festival, I didn’t get to see much of the legendary trip-hop outfit’s set. I didn’t feel too bad, though, because I saw the British chanteuse Martina Topley-Bird earlier that day. Most notable as Tricky’s muse and a frequent guest on Massive Attack records, she came out on the Yeti in a stunning red dress and performed tracks from her remarkable and underappreciated solo albums. She was beautiful in every way, a sight to behold with a voice that could make you see god. Despite the usual sound problems and gusts of wind, she was thoroughly engaging. Performing solo with a Mac, loop station pedals, a Nord keyboard, and a couple odd instruments, she lead the crowd in singing “Da Da Da Da” and cracked all kinds of jokes at her own expense.
Ontario’s Dan Snaith brought his latest opus Swim to life with a drummer, guitarist, and bassist, himself working a sampler and various percussion while jumping around the main stage in bare feet. I love his sound, but compared to other ‘electronic’ sets at the festival, he was far from captivating.
Regular This American Life contributor Mike Birbiglia had the crowd onside for his set at the Rumpus Room. Refreshingly, he is not a rage-rant or ‘pander to the lowest common denominator’ style comedian. He has a selfless delivery, never attempting to appear cool, yet maintaining a level of keen insightfulness. However, his use of obviously rehearsed routines, funny as they most often were, made the experience a little on the textbook side.
The Long Winters
Seattle’s Long Winters are not Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, or even Molly Hatchet, despite their best efforts to count among that group. The ecstatic expression on their drummer’s face was the best thing about their set.
They Might Be Giants
Practically an American Institution, They Might Be Giants portrayed a good sense of humor as they glided through their set, taking liberties with their songs in the live setting, which is apparently rather rare and commendable these days. Unlike WHY?, they came out and welcomed the audience to the They Might Be Giants soundcheck as if it was the main event. Although I’m not a big fan of their sound, or the Canadian facsimile Barenaked Ladies for that matter, they put on a decent show.
Serious sound problems put a kink in the hotly anticipated Pavement set, which hurt their momentum early, exacerbated by their obvious lack of rehearsal and Stephen’s drunk impatience (it was his birthday, and he could cry “pathetic” at his bandmates if he wanted to). Being placed between LCD Soundsystem and Massive Attack did not do them any favors, although they remarked that the last time they played the gorge, they were between Sinead O’Connor and Cypress Hill, so perhaps they were used to it. I know part of the appeal of Pavement has often been in their imperfections, but the slackness came off as pure sloppiness this time, rather than an actual artistic choice. This failure on their part was made that much more obvious by the professionalism of all the other headliners. They really should have played at the Yeti.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
While the band waffled out of tune and barely on beat, Joseph D’Agostino made a bid for being the worst singer of the festival with this set. I swear I saw a bird explode in mid-air a couple dozen feet above the stage when he reached for a high note out of his… well, he doesn’t actually appear to have a range to begin with. Suffice to say, if it wasn’t for Pro Tools, these guys would still be in a garage on Staten Island practicing their instruments, where they should be. The difference between their debut Why There Are Mountains and their live performance is like Caesar salad and rotting cabbage drizzled with spunk.
England’s The Heavy worked the hungover strugglers pouring in from the front gate with true grit, starting the energy on the main stage from scratch. They proved to be just as gnarly as Gnarles Barkley between the Southern fried soul of commanding lead singer Kelvin Swaby and the hard-hitting rhythm section of drummer Chris Ellul and bassist Spencer Page, revealing much more hip-hop swagger than witnessed on their first two albums, with their sound fleshed out by guitarist Dan Tayler and a little brass section.
A last-minute replacement for Yes Giantess, the average age of this Australian jamboree has to be around 15 years old. As such, they have an advanced sound for their age, heavy beats dripping with psychedelic effects constituted into the form of acid jams interspersed with pure rock-out moments. They are already somewhere between Syd Barrett and Black Moth Super Rainbow, but with more stage presence. With a bit more confidence and experience under their belts, they will be headlining festivals like this. It was no wonder their crowd grew steadily during their set, despite only having their name on a signpost by a corporate giveaway booth.
Hello, New York! The duo of guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel had the largest crowd to hit the Yeti on Sunday. All in attendance were mesmerized by the duo’s immaculate appearance, trend-setting fashion, and the less-crazy Karen O-style twitching of Sarah… up until they performed a song in 5/4, when about a third of the gathering dispersed. By the end, the band had won back its initial numbers, while those who remained enjoyed the set of the day for the Yeti. Hands were raised, and many pictures were taken, primarily of the coy Sarah Barthel, reliving the Ra Ra Riot moment from 2009 and the justified attention paid to cellist Alexandra Lawn. It becomes more obvious why she most often takes lead vocals when you hear Josh attempt to sing. Regardless of their dashing good looks, Phantogram’s depressing, trip-hop tinged, electronic rock resonated so deeply with the crowd, they even pushed one girl over the edge, who subsequently had to be lead away from the stage in a trance of religious awakening. Woo!
Seattle Rock Orchestra
The Seattle Rock Orchestra is a true collective, operating completely on a freewheeling volunteer basis. They play for the love, and that love is evident on the faces of all 30 (give or take) people on stage. Amongst the strings, woodwinds, percussion, and rock instrumentalists, the Orchestra even features their own version of Bez (Happy Mondays) in the form of a dude who just stomps around beating a tambourine and screaming every word to every song with or without a mic. Perfect for festivals, they were every bit as epic as The Polyphonic Spree, especially if you count the fact that everyone in the crowd was also bouncing along and singing every word. They are an uplifting experience to take in, for sure.
Band Of Horses
I had seen their name around, but never listened to them before this set. Like LCD Soundsystem, I am now a believer. They had an old aesthetic live, reminding me of The Band, and they worked hard for it. The set was full of great moments. Lead singer Ben Bridwell sweat like a pig as he laid himself out there, nailing all his perfect vocal melodies while being charismatic as all get out, finding time to crowd surf and dropping to one knee to serenade the audience. Judging from the odd jumbotron close-up, bassist Bill Reynolds is a card, tossing a wink out from beneath his cowboy hat. The wind blowing the cloth painting draped over the revival organ made it seem that much more righteous. You can tell these guys love what they do.
One of the biggest music stories of 2010 was the poor reception of MGMT’s sophomore album Congratulations. Certainly, it didn’t take a decibel meter to see that material from their debut Oracular Spectacular went over a lot better than their new stuff. I, for one, love the new album, which is closer to honest acid pop from the British Invasion days, ripped from the pages of The Pretty Things and The Electric Prunes, than their earlier beat focused neo-psychedelic Flaming Lips meets Black Moth Super Rainbow material. Their set was the perfect primer to try and warm the crowd towards Congratulations, playing a debut track for every three or so new tracks. The more complex structures of their new songs were not as easy to dance to, but they are clearly evolving as artists, as they should be encouraged to do. They know where their bread and butter is, though, as they closed the show with a big old “Kids” sing-along, abandoning their instruments to join everyone in “do-do-doing” the song’s signature synth melody.
The Mountain Goats
Getting to see singer-songwriter John Darnielle perform did not quite match the impression I had from his recordings. He cracked jokes in rapid-fire succession and thanked the crowd for allowing him to play, but it came off a little on the uncomfortable and weird side. Naturally, “No Children” (a track made famous by Moral Orel) went over well, but everything else felt a little awkward.
Craig Robinson’s list of film and TV credits reads like a guide to the best comedy of the past decade, and he performs his standup with a piano, so I couldn’t help but hope for a repeat of Zach Galifianakis’ knee slapping set from 2009. However, it soon became obvious Craig Robinson was not Zach Galifianakis. Victor Borge rolled over in his grave several times during this set.
Sadly, this Philadelphia quintet is about as engaging live as they are on record, except less in tune vocally and instrumentally. Given their aesthetic, and the fact they share lead vocal duties among the group, I was hoping for some clear harmonies and camaraderie. Instead, the farther away from the stage you got, the better they sounded.
She & Him
I figured Zooey Deschanel would be a mediocre singer, given the success rate of actors turned musicians. So it came as no surprise that she could not carry a tune or repeat a melody, but I was shocked to find out she is an even worse performer. Given that she is a moderately successful actor, one would think she would be able to command a stage, but instead, she looked nauseas and/or bored for her entire set. Her style of retro indie folk pits her vocally against the likes of Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt, yet she has no consistency with or control of her voice, and is thus an embarrassment to mention in the company of those legends. M. Ward and his band have worthy skills as musicians, clearly notable in their own right, but with such a dead weight sinking out in front of them, they might as well have been playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” the whole time.
I had hopes for this set, but it turns out this Vancouver duo is just as messy live as they are on record. Brian King sings like a failed clone of Joey Ramone floating in a jar of formaldehyde, and plays guitar like his fingers are on backwards, while David Prowse clubs away aimlessly at his kit as if it was a baby seal. They would probably play better if they were both turned into zombies and had their instruments nailed to their hands.
[Photos: Christopher Nelson 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10; Kyle Johnson 2, 5, 8, 9, 12; Jackie Kingsbury 11]