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Sasquatch 2015! Festival Review: Part I

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Floodlights cast lengthy shadows from a distance, noise and darkness, the rumble of thousands turning up in all directions. Long grass and nervous anticipation are quickly trampled by droves of booze thirsty youths, pop-up drinking games unite strangers, and wandering packs of friends try to discern a pulse from the madness. Everyone is looking for drugs. The rookies are simply looking. From a distance, only shapes and sounds, hints of color, vibration, elaborate dome tents and camp scenes. A black school bus flanks a makeshift dancefloor; blondes in loose clothing, men in women’s clothing. A Bob Marley tapestry flutters in the distance. A snobby group of locals pass a blunt while slinging shake out of the back of a van. The scene is, for lack of eloquent phrasing, an absolute cluster-fuck.

The first night of Sasquatch is, as always, complete chaos. For the feint of heart, it can be quite intimidating. Groups of wandering bros chant raucously. A roar erupts from a distant corner of the camp and spreads like tribal wildfire. Circles of close-knit friends shoot steel-tipped stares at anyone who crosses their perimeter. Despite colorful outbursts of masculinity and sexuality, the overarching mood is one of deep companionship. Violence is unheard of. If you manage to get close enough to someone to discern their expression from the darkness, you can bet that they’re sporting some sort of substance-fueled grin. We are comrades. We are here. We are Sasquatch.

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For fourteen straight years The Gorge has played host to the world’s most prolific and eclectic musical tastes. With attendance numbers steadily dwindling in the past three years due to a heavily saturated festival market, Sasquatch sought to set itself apart from the other Pacific-Northwest-fests with a unique, indie-centered line-up. Canadian competitors Squamish and perennial drop-outs Pemberton have constructed strong schedules backboned with radio-fodder like Drake, J. Cole, The Black Keys, and Sam Smith. For any music fan, the debate over which line-up is the strongest is a matter of personal taste, but the four-day weekend at the world’s most beautiful venue seems like an easy first choice. Subjective taste aside, Sasquatch simply boasts more music than it’s competitors, as well as a solid track record with infrequent delays, gorgeous weather, overwhelming positive feedback from the artists, and a distinct subculture.

Faced with the inevitability of a shrinking profit margin, however, festival organizers introduced a camping fee per-vehicle and banked an extra million-and-something as a result. In a trickle down economy, that meant an unlimited supply of Gatorade for pressers, but otherwise the newfound coin evaporated into uncertain pockets. The festival was, and remains, identical to previous outings, and any shortcomings that could have been fixed either remained broken or the bandages were all backstage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the festival became known as #linesquatch

Perched on the fence, I snagged a photo of the first day's ridiculous line to enter the grounds
Perched on the fence, I snagged a photo of the first day’s ridiculous line to enter the grounds

Wait times for entrance to the grounds would peak at an hour throughout the weekend, just long enough for the drugs to kick in and the buzz to fade out. Security remained a charade, a lackadaisical bag-check would catch the obvious; a Gatorade tainted with vodka, a flask resting atop a sweater, but even then the prevention rate was low. Drugs could easily be crotched; unless you were foolish enough to shove your stash down your pants in front of a yellow-shirt, you were golden. The results were mixed: pills powders and hard booze were snuck in with relative ease, and yet everyone was forced to endure the arduous process of being treated like a potential wrong-doer; wrist-slaps were too draconian, the punishment was brief public shaming. For some, depending on poor timing or ineptitude, this meant a missed mainstage show. It hardly seemed necessary considering organizers were well aware that they constructed a four-day drug orgy. What were they after? Surely some of that extra money could’ve gone to more staff and a streamlined bag-check process.

“Hey, you dropped this!” a bearded man taps the shoulder of someone’s timid girlfriend and hands her a dinosaur wand. She seemed momentarily terrified by his warm smile; undoubtedly this would be a singular moment on a long list of uncomfortables to come. Woe abreast the socially awkward. Somebody’s cool mom leaps into the air with her point-and-shoot and snags a crowdless “jump-shot” photo for her Facebook album. The clouds freeze in place. All these micro-moments on the scale of thousands as Jungle took to the main stage for the first big act of the festival. Their stage presence was heat; energetic and pseudo-African, the concrete ablaze from the afternoon sun. I passed a joint to a man sitting alone who clearly didn’t need it. And here we go again.

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Friday was merely a taste test. Bands barely overlapped, and the music started plenty late enough for the booze sweats of the night previous to dry up. Vancouverites Mother Mother played a non-descript rock show to a moderately rowdy crowd, and over at the Yeti stage young MC Bishop Nehru proceeded to put on the best hip-hop performance of the entire festival. The crowd swelled from a modest fifty-something to a raucous, uncountable mass. “Everyone just turn around for a second and appreciate the moment” he gestured towards the waning sun beaming over the Gorge, a few whimsical “YEAH NATURE!” shouts from the audience met a few laughs, and the eighteen year-old proceeded to absolutely slay it. For those fortunate enough to witness, Bishop Nehru blew the lid off the stage, snagged an extremely rare encore, and left one frizzled long-hair grunge-hippie exclaiming to his friends “that was fucking amazing!” Indeed it was. A tough act to follow, I noted, and quite honestly, no other rapper came close.

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Day One closed with a scenic set from the controversial Action Bronson, who after his third song threw a bag of ‘party favors’ to the audience. “I DON’T SEE ENOUGH FUCKIN’ WEED SMOKE IN THE AIR”. Reaching into a blue grocery bag, Bronson began to sprinkle the crowd with a cornucopia of cannabis-laden treats, from blueberry honey oil to little baggies of baby baseball bats. Presumably the crowd obliged, but my patience began to wane with the sun. Unable to alley-oop any flying weed treats, I managed to catch Little Dragon’s set instead (which was unexpectedly the loudest show of the festival) before electing to skip out on Sleater-Kinney over an ignorance of their material (sorry again to the unfairly small fanbase that ruthlessly defends their music.) The taste-test had satiated my palate, and I retired early to scribble in my notepad and decorate my Wes Anderson inspired tent. I felt like Scout Master Ward, minus the khakis.

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Security had only a rudimentary knowledge of camera bags, and I wasn’t about to educate them on every pocket. Weed tucked safely in my battery slot, I skipped the lines and made my way to the grounds for the second day of music. After catching down-tempo spacecase psychedeliacs Merchandise and finger-plucking folk-howler Ryley Walker, I caught the Diarrhea Planet set. The glam-punk garage rockers literally blew my mind. “PUT THAT JOINT DOWN WE ARE THE WORST BAND TO SEE STONED”… “IT’S JUST GOING TO STRESS YOU OUT!” Their whimsical nature was the perfect compliment to their egregious and superfluous lead guitar presence. Five bros who could’ve easily been extras in ‘Almost Famous’ took turns shredding a rainbow of guitars; an obnoxious flying V, a few stratocasters, and enough personality to flood the Gorge. They were utterly hilarious, and the music itself was a cool brick-wall of heavy garage pop.

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The worst ‘Sophie’s Choice’ of the weekend came during The War on Drugs and Sylvan Esso, two bands on heavy rotation in my Crown Victoria and fresh off incredible records. After sneaking a few digits of Adam Granduciel’s melodic, retrofitted trace-rock and euphoric desperation, I booked it uphill to catch what I anticipated to be one of the better sets of the festival. Sylvan Esso was the right bet, by far the best plinky bleep bloop of Sasquatch, and one of the most energetic and genuine performances I’d ever witnessed. Playing nearly their entire debut album from the year previous alongside a generous sprinkle of new material, Amelia Meath slithered, bounced, and thrusted her way into the hearts of everyone in attendance. An eclectic dancer, Meath held herself with the utmost confidence, unashamedly displaying an abundance of skillfully sultry dance moves while flawlessly wailing and cooing into her fist-clenched microphone. She was inspiring, entertaining and empowering, a modest minx; the undeniable embodiment of sex and confidence. Nick Sanborn writhed and twirled, spinning nobs and convulsing, sporting a grin from ear to ear that could only be earned from years of previously unappreciated mixing. They were a dynamic duo. Quite possibly a pair of nerds. And yet, the coolest, smoothest cats in a square mile. They made new fans out of anyone unfamiliar, and left an unforgettable stamp on the fandom of anyone who spun their debut album in the past year.

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On the subject of potential nerds, a bespectacled Martin Courtney of Real Estate peered out towards the setting sun. It was worth noting the organizer’s very keen sense of timing; the dreamiest were always slotted around 7:30 as the sun kissed the horizon (José González and Tame Impala were graced with similar scenery). The beautiful, pastel and forlorn melodies perfectly intertwined in Courtney’s effortless tenor. The vibes were mellow. Shirtless muscle-heads swayed like blades of long grass in the breeze. face paint glistening in the amber light. Real Estate left a lot of vacancy in the stares of their onlookers, lost in the eloquence of the moment; a collective daydreaming. Pensivity and self-reflection. I sat on the grass in the press pit. It was in these isolated moments, pulling grass apart with my fingers, when the poignant beauty of Sasquatch struck the very golden chords of my existence.

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For a change of scenery, I crept over to the EDM tent to catch the slinky and slithery English kids known as Glass Animals. Their music had gained a rather lustrous following; blending elements of down-tempo and melodic psychedelia with sopping wet and sultry metaphor, Glass Animals were enjoying moderate success since the drop of their debut album “Zaba” and since I saw them play to a serpentine crowd in the heart of Austin. They were more jungle than Jungle, frontman Dave Bayley was boyish and charming, teetering on shady. It was exactly the kind of sex-laden filth-pop the kids were obsessed with, and I began to wonder if the crowd could pinpoint the obvious sound issues they were experiencing. The irony being that their soundcheck was abnormally lengthy (to no avail). Issues aside, their sound itself only hit a singular note. Like a dish of chocolate kisses in multicolored wrapping, unraveling songs “Gooey” “Toes” and “Black Mambo” sees them morph into one another without distinction. Under the wrapping, they’re all the same chocolate, a one-note guilty pleasure, a brief blend of hypnotic neurotoxin, and a trance that is quickly shaken once the lyrics finally begin to dilute.

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“Right, my little pooh bear”… “You just wanna know those peanut butter vibes”…”, “We sip the wind through lips of lust”, “See the snake-baboon Funky chic and smooth”.

Spellbinding sonic witchcraft aside, the lyrics read like a bizarrely sexual children’s book with Bayley’s presence resting somewhere between English sex-symbol and your dorky cousin making inappropriate gyrations at a teenage basement party. Perhaps the luster had faded after over a year of the same sound; it was personally the least enjoyable set of the festival, marred by terrible equalizing that left Bayley’s guitar and vocals drowning under the weight of the mix and their own childish redundancy. I found a secret passage out of the tent and back to good times.

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I had kicked the can nearly all the way back to camp when she finally turned around in a fit of frustration and smashed my tin compatriot into the darkness behind us. “Honey, Jesus Christ!” her boyfriend rested his head in his palms with embarrassment, “I’m so sorry dude-” “IT WAS FUCKING ANNOYING” she sneered at me. It’s true. I had been following them for nearly twenty minutes, ruthlessly punting a discarded beer can every few seconds like a paddleball. “Of course it’s annoying, it’s fucking Sasquatch.” I quipped, pouring over feigned disappointment. He apologized once more before my Canadian flag tank-top caught the attention of a passerby. “I fuckin’ love America” the man said with a twang, evident from his own American flag attire, “but you guys are the best fuckin’ neighbors a country could ask for!” It was the type of warm sentiment I had been receiving all day in the red and white. “Thanks for the Olympics!” he proclaimed with a parting wave. Sharply, I waved back; “Thanks for McDonalds!”

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There was plenty to give thanks for once Father John Misty took the stage. His golden voice echoing over the crowd, laden with passion and poise. It had been two years since I caught Father John on this exact stage, and the atmosphere was completely different. Aloof and serene, his afternoon set in 2013 was rife with the jokes and gyrations that made Tillman famous, but a different man kneeled before us on the walkway. Father John Misty had become an artist of complete confidence, empathetic earnesty, and emotional release. His presence was likened to National’s Matt Berninger, haphazardly manhandling his stage equipment while simultaneously expelling his feelings through his body. Slamming his fists, praying incessantly and recoiling to charge his sexual energy. The performance was, as many expected, a whirlwind of confidence and emotional commitment, a snapshot of Tillman’s full-bodied admiration and artistry, and the embodiment of love and praise that has been showered on him this past six months.

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A weird subculture exists between security and those brave enough to shove their way to the front of an EDM show. Battered and bruised, two gorgeous gals mid-peak parlayed their stories of anguish. Pupils eclipsing, they recounted their injurious journey to me, replete with scrapes, near fights, and excessive bruising. They had cultivated a relationship with security, playfully addressing them by first name and requesting refills of their water from stage-side. Security obliged with a wry smile, but they kept their emotions mostly hidden in spite of their servitude. I sheepishly scratched the back of my neck, feeling somewhat guilty skipping the crowd and parking myself safely behind the steel fencing that had been the main cause of their injury. Moments later there was a stir in the media pit as Dave Bayley from Glass Animals sauntered past the cameras with a PBR in one hand and a doe-eyed groupie in the other. He sipped his beer and dodged the outstretched arms of the crowd, flexing his moderate fame and fortune for his lay-to-be while grinning smugly past photographers. Reflexively I patted him on the back, retrospectively I slapped my forehead. ODESZA was the main attraction, and the music was certainly groovy, but at this point in the night there were far too many distractions to dissect.

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I ducked out of the tent once more to make my way to Spoon. After devouring a burrito the size of a newborn, I felt reinvigorated and decided to stick around and swoon to the world’s greatest frontman himself, Britt Daniel. The 44-year old showed no signs of age crooning over a raucous audience to close out Saturday night. I put down my camera and caught the performance from the fringe, singing along to the few random hits I’d memorized over the years. Two more days remained, including an absolutely stacked line-up to close out the festival on Monday. I blinked the mist from my eyes and trudged back to the campsite, surrounding by thousands. Finished turning up, everyone turned back.

Stay tuned for part II!

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