Music festivals are heavyweights in the struggle between order and chaos. Being somewhat new to the festival circuit, this slipped my mind as I was packing for a 6-day trip to the Gorge in Washington. A ten percent chance of rain means it will most definitely rain, you will either lose or misplace much of what you brought, your phone will not get service, you will not cook even a fraction of the $200 worth of food you purchased, you will get separated from your friends, and you will miss shows you wanted to see. You will also have an amazing time if you embrace the fact that some things will go wrong.
People come to festivals for different reasons, but the diversity of the crowd means you can probably find what you’re looking for, be it music, a good time with friends, Molly, or just the shock of the new. Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Gorge Amphitheatre near Quincy, Washington, Sasquatch provided a unique and gorgeous setting for a four day marathon. Uncooperative weather was responsible for most of the hiccups, the grounds and campsites were easy to navigate, and there were myriad food options for the provisionally challenged.
As we rolled in late Thursday night to pouring rain, it became painfully obvious to me how inadequately prepared I was for bad weather. The rain refused to let up as we set up our tent and soaked in the collective anticipation with the Gorge’s other 25,000 guests. The rain continued on into Friday morning, the daylight revealing some of the most hilariously poor attempts at pitching a tent that I’ve ever seen. The clouds finally parted around noon to cheers from the slums, and then it was off to the races.
First up was Sea Wolf who played for forty minutes at the second largest venue in the grounds, Bigfoot Stage. Their songs were nimble but heavy on rhythm, with drummer Joey Ficken and bassist Eliot Lorango often doubling down on percussion duties. The band encountered slight issues with feedback after a few songs, but decided to proceed before the problem had been corrected. After a great start, their set sagged in the middle as they moved into slower, looser and mopier songs. After half an hour of their set we sprinted to the Sasquatch stage to see the tail end of ZZ Ward, who is as polished and soulful live as she is in the studio. She has the personality to match too. We watched her from the concrete terrace as she playfully engaged with the audience, pounding out her final three songs of funk, blues and soul, flanked by a trio of excellent musicians.
One of the best things about music festivals is that they expose you to music that you wouldn’t be likely to seek out otherwise. Portland metal act Red Fang was one such band for me, playing a late afternoon set to a curiously diverse audience. Soldiering on beneath the intense sun, the quartet freaked out with sludgy riffs, collectively growled choruses and sudden shifts in speed and tempo. Metal isn’t my thing, but you have to respect musicians who’ve clearly mastered their craft. Singer Aaron Beam addressed the audience in a comically polite tone between throat tearing screams.
As things began to cool off and the threat of rain became real yet again, Vancouverite duo Japandroids took a rather unorthodox approach to their set, coming out fifteen minutes early to do a sound check for a keen audience. Singer Brian King darted from the stage right as they were supposed to start, leaving drummer David Prowse stranded on stage, only to come back two minutes later soaking wet. They worked out bugs in their sound as they went, and even started a few over because we “deserved better than that shit.” They switched up the melodies on songs like “Wet Hair” and “The House That Heaven Built,” which was easily the highlight of their set, with the crowd eagerly jumping in to sing along. It was an exhausting 50 minutes.
I sat down with Japandroids during the weekend. We discussed their start in Vancouver, their progression as songwriters, and learning the solo from “Stairway to Heaven.”
The rain made good on its threat as we made our way over a performance by the Boisean Built to Spill, who played an extended set thanks to a no-show by Schoolboy Q. I’m only really familiar with Built to Spill’s first four albums, so thankfully the majority of their set was dedicated to that era. The indie vets burned through classics like “Else” and “Big Dipper” with the proficiency of pros that have been playing together for a very long time. Set against the gorgeous setting of the Gorge with the sunset and rain, there was a strange sense of serenity about the whole thing. The mix was guitar-heavy to the point where Doug Martsch’s lyrics weren’t quite decipherable, but his voice has weathered magnificently. Beneath the band’s thick, winding riffs, it added a whole new dimension to subdued songs like “Carry the Zero.”
After watching Built to Spill from the comfort of the hill, we headed down to the front of the stage in anticipation of Arctic Monkeys, a personal favourite. Having seen the band before in 2009 and 2011, I had certain expectations for their show. They didn’t fulfill any of them, but instead gave me something I didn’t even realize I wanted. This is the first time I’ve seen Arctic Monkeys look like genuine fucking rock stars. Without saying a word, the band opened with a song I’ve never heard, titled “Do I Wanna Know.” From there, they gave a fair shake to all of their albums, including “Brick by Brick,” a thoroughly underrated cut from Suck It And See that has some real snarl when played live. It seems like they’re splitting the difference between Humbug and “R U Mine?”this time around; pensive and moody, but with deep pop roots.
Right after the Monkeys was the first of multiple sprints from one show to the next. I’d always thought that Vampire Weekend was a band whose success could mostly be chalked up to being in the right place at the right time. Even though they smacked the zeitgeist in the forehead in 2008, their first two albums never really resonated with me. Then I listened to the recently released Modern Vampires and everything suddenly clicked. In a live setting, the details in their music positively bloom. As the delicate, spoke-wheel guitars of “White Sky” rang out from Bigfoot Stage, it became apparent that Ezra Koenig & co. are seriously competent musicians. The nearly perfect string on songs from Modern Vampires, “Unbelievers,” “Step,” and “Diane Young,” were thrilling, while classics like “A-Punk” were practically thrown at the audience. On our way to Macklemore we stopped by El Chupacabra to catch a few of Matthew Dear’s heavy, hypnotic rhythms. I’m not overly familiar with the band’s material, but the visual show was magnificent, and the audience knew almost all of the words. We then made our way over to the main stage for Friday’s grand finale.
After stepping on 20 minutes late, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis bounded onto the stage, accompanied by horn players, and an army of backup singers and dancers. This was balls-out entertainment, and as much fun as I was expecting it to be. They pulled out every stop imaginable, bringing in numerous guests from his album The Heist, including Wanz and Mary Lambert, and using several of the props from their music videos. As the show progressed, it became obvious that Macklemore’s performance was his gift back to his home state, like a thank you for allowing him to become the success he is: “I have been working my entire life to step on to this stage, and there is no place more beautiful.” Outfitted in a jersey from the defunct Seattle Supersonics, he proceeded to reminisce about growing up in Washington and his own Sasquatch experiences, and spoke candidly about his struggles with addiction. He poured his heart into this show, from opener “Ten Thousand Hours” to mega-hit “Thrift Shop” to politically charged “Same Love,” coming out for several encores and going well beyond his allotted time.