Sasquatch! Music Festival 2018: A Triumphant Return to Form

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Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Neko Case. Photo by Matthew Lamb.

Emerging from hibernation annually each Memorial Day Weekend, Sasquatch! Music Festival opens the gates of The Gorge Amphitheater in George, WA and welcomes festival-goers to a scenic splendor that no possible combination of words could ever do justice. It is indisputable that Sasquatch! has an unfair advantage against competing festivals due to the fact that it is hosted in what I can only assume was a runner-up for Seventh Wonder of the World.

Alas, beauty is only skin deep, and looks can only take you so far. This sentiment rings painfully true for The Squatch as it has experienced the music festival equivalent of a midlife-crisis in recent years, neglecting the folk/rock centric bands that have proliferated the festival’s profile within the independent scene and opting for the flashy bells and whistles that win the affection of a Top 40 demographic. Notable makeover mishaps include 2014’s failed attempt at one-upping Coachella with the addition (and cancelation) of a second weekend featuring an entirely separate lineup, last year’s gag-inducing top billed slot of Twenty One Pilots, as well as a never-ending plague of EDM DJs that all share a common disdain for vowels. With the inevitable infiltration of Chad and his bros and the increasing mediocrity of recent lineups, it’s no wonder that Sasquatch! veterans have opted out of attendance. You can’t sit with us, indeed.

Fortunately, word must have gotten back to Sasquatch! founder Adam Zacks about unfavorable reception in recent years, because the right steps were taken to bring justice to a venue that deserves nothing less than inimitable talent to showcase. Sasquatch! Music Festival came out swinging in the 2018 season boasting one of the most stacked lineups that money can buy, setting itself apart from what has become a diluted market of traveling-band lineups that tend to become indistinguishable from one another. Recruiting counter-culture big dogs the likes of Bon Iver, Modest Mouse, Neko Case, David Byrne, Spoon, and Grizzly Bear was enough to rope in the wandering eye of any unsuspecting inquisitor. Upon further examination of the bill, the lineup yielded no signs of wavering quality, landing up-and-coming marvels such as Julien Baker, Big Thief, Japanese Breakfast, (Sandy) Alex G, Whitney, Phoebe Bridgers and Charly Bliss. The reputable names seemed to go on and on, leaving previously salty Sasquatch! naysayers such as myself at a complete loss for words, only able to exude frantic whimpers of delectation. Once the hysteria subsided and I was able to pick myself up off of the floor, I came to the realization that it was time for me to swallow my pride, rip up my cool-guy card and venture back into The Gorge to a festival that once again emitted a potent magical lure.

Day One

 

Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Bon Iver. Photo by Matthew Lamb.

The journey to Sasquatch! is in and of itself a privilege not to be overlooked. The scenery shifts and the landscape evolves more times than the hands of the clock turn during the drive, which checks in at just over two hours from Seattle. Dense, lush walls of green are complemented by snowcapped mountains as you ascend the Snoqualmie Pass, only to find yourself met by endless rolling brown plains and towering white wind turbines, waving you in the direction of The Gorge Amphitheater.

Following the herd of automobiles onto the campground, I ultimately landed at my designated plot of grass for the weekend, conveniently located next to Chad, his buds and their self-proclaimed “Babe Cave” tent (awaiting confirmation). The festival grounds are located about a half-mile from the campsites, presenting festival-goers with the dilemma of packing for an entire day (extreme daytime heat, extreme nighttime cold) or stacking some serious foot mileage in addition to the usual festival runaround. (Has anyone ever utilized a pedometer at this festival? How many calories am I burning? Please tell me I look Channing Tatum toned by this point.)

Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Julien Baker. Photo by Matthew Lamb.

Not a moment was spared as we beelined directly towards the main stage for a healthy serving of midday heartbreak from immensely talented and poignant solo artist, Julien Baker, who gifted the audience with offerings from her fantastic 2017 release Turn Out the Lights. Those unfamiliar with the unparalleled talent of Baker were left speechless as her powerful vocals encompassed the amphitheater, piercing through the souls of unsuspecting bystanders. The soft-spoken singer charmingly utilized moments between songs to lighten the mood by joking with the audience, a routine she’s surely integrated into her sets in order to pull her audience out of complete despair.  At one point, the Memphis songwriter turned her back to the crowd, cheekily asking us, “have you guys seen this thing?” as if we had somehow missed the monumental canyon taking on the role of unbeatable backdrop. The audience’s gaze remained fixated on Julien as she careened us through emotional rollercoasters “Appointments” and “Shadowboxing,” finally closing with “Something” off of 2015’s Sprained Ankle.

As soon as eyes were dried, we made the short trek up the hill to the Yeti Stage where Orange County duo and twin brothers Wyatt and Fletcher Shears—better known as The Garden—were slated to perform. This is a band that piqued my interest early on, as they are known for coining their own genre called “Vada Vada,” described by Wyatt as “an idea that represents pure creative expression, that disregards all previously made genres and ideals.” The brothers took to the stage looking like what can only be described as a saucy hybrid of “ATL Twins-meets-Twin Peaks-band.” Utterly perplexing the crowd with what appeared to be some form of interpretive karaoke, the twins donned the personas and attire of Derelicte model, rapper and pirate, respectively. The charade was soon abandoned, and the band effortlessly fired up the crowd by performing experimental thrash ballads “No Destination” and “Stallion” off of Mirror Might Steal Your Charm, which arrived March of this year. The energy this band exuded was infectious, inspiring what was easily one of the more aggressive pits of the weekend, purging victims as mutilated clothing flew violently through the sky.

The Garden. Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

The Garden. Photo Matthew Lamb.

Up next, beloved Canadian indie legends Wolf Parade made a triumphant return to the Sasquatch! main stage, where they performed what tragically became their last public show seven years prior before announcing an indefinite hiatus. This left Wolf Parade superfans (who will remain unnamed) utterly broken. Luckily the stars aligned, and Wolf Parade are back and bolder than ever, promoting their eclectic 2017 album Cry Cry Cry. The set was christened by taking the audience back to the beginning with the opening track off of the seminal debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, led by co-frontman Spencer Krug in a beautifully frantic manner. The band continued to treat loyal fans to archival treasures such as “Fancy Claps,” “Soldiers Grin,” “This Heart’s on Fire” and “I’ll Believe in Anything,” while simultaneously showcasing the brilliance of their more recent contributions “Valley Boy,” “Weaponized” and “Baby Blue.” The new songs are structured with strong percussion from Arlen Thompson and expose multi-instrumentalist Dante Decaro as the glue of the entire operation. (Seriously, Dante is a fucking wizard.) The set came to a close with 10-minute epic “Kissing the Beehive,” one of few songs that utilizes alternating vocals from both Boeckner and Krug whose voices uniquely complement each other; a key component that makes Wolf Parade so special. A fully packed midday attendance on the main stage in addition to the band performing at their highest capacity further reinforce the notion that Wolf Parade are here to stay.

A brief and necessary recess between sets allowed us to hydrate and peruse the strip of vendors in search of a meal that tasted something close to edible and didn’t hit the wallet too hard. Mission: Failed. Fourteen dollars for a Fisher Price sized burrito? Piss off, no thank you. *End pity party*

After our completely satisfying and reasonably priced dinners were consumed, we eagerly took flight to the cascading hill at the main stage where David Byrne, iconic weirdo and brilliant centerpiece of the Talking Heads, was preparing to deliver an unforgettable experience to fans, both old and new. The group wowed the audience as they gallivanted about the stage in a choreographed manner resembling that of a marching band, all clad in matching flint grey suits. Touring his most recent solo endeavor, American Utopia, Byrne ultimately and graciously delivered to the fans who deep down showed up anticipating a chance to hear some classic Heads hits. Byrne and co. shifted the mood from nostalgia to relevance by covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a politically charged protest number which shouts the names of African Americans killed by police or other racial altercations.

Opening night of Sasquatch! was closed out by fellow music festival founder and ever-evolving electro-folk Renaissance man Justin Vernon (better known by moniker Bon Iver), who probably wishes his Eaux Claires Festival could stake claim to a home as alluring as The Gorge. Vernon interestingly chose to open his set with the track “Woods” off of the 2009 EP Blood Bank which first hinted at increasing experiments with auto-tuning; a technique highly utilized in his most recent album, 22, A Million. The meat of Bon Iver’s packed show featured his newer material full of cryptic song titles I won’t even attempt to type, matched by an equally perplexing journey of tonal obscurity. Love it or hate it, Bon Iver’s bold experimentation and dynamic harmonies provide listeners a truly unique experience. Vernon opted out of playing fan favorite “Skinny Love,” which was a total letdown for Chad who has been attempting to learn it on guitar since its 2008 debut.

Day Two

 

Modest Mouse. Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Modest Mouse. Photo Matthew Lamb.

Having gone to sleep shivering, I was surprised to wake up in a pool of sweat, gasping for air and ripping the layers of clothes from my body. As I mentioned before, the weather in The Gorge is always one extreme or another. After escaping my nylon oven, I stepped outside and consumed no less than an entire gallon of water before looking onward to another full day of music.

Pacific Northwest locals Mimicking Birds took to the Yeti Stage at 3:00 p.m., just as the day was reaching peak heat. The band had barely made it through their first few songs before vocalist/lead guitarist Nate Lacy’s effects pedal began to overheat and malfunction due to the scorching temperatures. This resulted in a dramatic fit from Lacy, who ultimately stormed off stage, leaving his bandmates to tend to an eager crowd who were more than willing to wait out a resolution to the technical difficulties. Luckily, the remaining band members came through with quick-witted interactions with the audience and counseling for Lacy, and the band was able to salvage the set, performing tracks from this year’s Layers of Us before ending with the ethereal and reflective “Blood Lines” off of 2014’s Eons.

Taking note from the mechanical victims of the sun’s relentless rays, I noticed that my initial SPF 20 line of defense was lacking in proficiency, so I decided to bust out the big guns and lather myself in SPF 50 (a choice that should have been made hours prior).

Grizzly Bear. Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Grizzly Bear. Photo Matthew Lamb.

Once completion of thorough sunscreen application had been achieved, I eagerly headed for the pit of the main stage where Grizzly Bear were set to make their first appearance at Sasquatch! in nearly a decade. Having attended a club show earlier this year, I was confident that the band was packing an earth-shattering setlist that toured their expansive catalogue with taste and craft, selecting tracks that best exemplify their diverse and complex songwriting abilities. The band temporarily established a means of time travel for longtime fans as they performed hits such as “Yet Again” and “Sleeping Ute” from 2012’s Shields before digging even further back with gems “While You Wait for the Others” and “Ready, Able” from the 2009 masterpiece Veckatimist. Also included in the set were more recent sounds from their fifth studio album Painted Ruins, which fans and critics alike received positively. Spotting a saxophone on stage early on, I eagerly anticipated the execution of “Sun in Your Eyes,” an indomitable set-ender that I hope any fan of the band will be fortunate enough to experience live. In a truly magical moment, Ed Droste belted the lyrics in the title in a climactic explosion just as the glowing sun descended beneath the horizon, silhouetting the mountainous ridges of the sprawling gorge in the distance. I’m not crying; you’re crying.

Saturday headliner and Washington State natives Modest Mouse walked onto stage to a thunderous applause from fanatic fans crossing all of their fingers and toes for an “on” night for constantly fluctuating star asshole, Isaac Brock. A unified sigh of relief could be felt throughout the crowd as Brock appeared to be playing mostly in tune and accurately landing the lyrics of his own songs. Brock, a known sass-master, surprisingly treated the audience rather kindly as he led the band through a string of crowd-pleasers, including the dreamy “3rd Planet,” the catchy commercial success “Float On” and gentle lullaby “The World at Large;” each from the band’s mainstream breakthrough albums The Moon & Antarctica and Good News for People Who Love Bad News.  Additionally, the band performed an exhausting number of tracks from their most recent effort Strangers to Ourselves, which was met with mixed reviews at best. The overcrowded band treated longtime fans to a taste of relief with the title track off of the 1996 EP Interstate 8 as Brock belted lyrics, “I drove around for months and years and never went no place,” which is ultimately the same route this set took. Aside from a dazzling display of fireworks, Modest Mouse performed a yawn-inducing mix of radio hits that anyone surely could have experienced just the same by merely walking into their local department store.

Explosions in The Sky closed out day two with a late-night performance on the Bigfoot stage, for those bold enough to stick around into the twilight hours. Feeling rather defeated by the heat and struggling to muster the energy to persevere the way I once could, I decided to call it quits and begin the long journey back to camp halfway through. To my delight, the band’s wailing guitars remained audible throughout the entirety of my trek, providing just enough distraction to successfully complete the hike without exclaiming any dissatisfaction with the arduousness whatsoever. Maybe. Kind of.

Day Three

 

Phoebe Bridgers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

Phoebe Bridgers. Photo Matthew Lamb.

I found myself once again cursing developers of the amphitheater for designating the campgrounds so far away from the venue, completely devoid of any toleration achieved the prior evening. For the last time, I impatiently stomped my way into the final day of Sasquatch!, racing to catch the last few minutes of Soccer Mommy’s set on the main stage.

Navigating upward and outward to the Yeti Stage, I eagerly stood shoulder to shoulder awaiting the US festival premiere from unprecedented artist Phoebe Bridgers, whose deeply personal lyrics allow a glimpse into toxic relationships of her past and spotlight the all-too-common mistreatment of women in our society. Promoting her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers was accompanied by a backing band donned in elegant black attire. Passion-fueled youngsters bounced up and down to folk-pop songs such as “Motion Sickness” with upbeat tempos, enjoying the craft of the music while possibly losing sight of the greater message at hand. Bridgers relieved her band for a handful of songs, offering the audience an organic exposure to the rawness of soul-crushing “Smoke Signals” and “Funeral,” and bringing out Seattle songwriter Noah Gundersen for a duet of “Killer,” which slowed the pace of dance moves into a gentle, contemplative sway.

Lingering around the emerging artist stage, I awaited a widely anticipated performance from experimental pop band Japanese Breakfast, fronted by Eugene, OR native Michelle Zauner. The band erupted onto the stage with “In Heaven,” the opening tune from 2016’s Psychopomp smoothly interluding into the album’s following track and hit song “The Woman That Loves You.” They then turned to newer material from 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, slicing into the peppy “Machinist” and the melodic fantasies of “Road Head.” Zauner is a natural when it comes to showmanship, proudly dancing her way across every inch of the stage before protruding beyond the stage, smashing her face into the cameras of photographers and fans alike. Zauner’s charm and unquenchable desire to win the devotion of an audience, matched with the bands unique dream-scape sound, ensures that they will remain an important contributor to the scene in the foreseeable future.

(Sandy) Alex G. Photo courtesy of Matthew Lamb

(Sandy) Alex G. Photo Matthew Lamb.

After a quick shuffle over to the Big Foot stage, I found myself standing in place smirking at the prospect of finally observing my first show from Philly bedroom songwriter (Sandy) Alex G, a.k.a. Alex G, a.k.a. Alexander Giannascoli; easily the show I most looked forward to out of the entire Sasquatch! bill. Alex’s versatility allows him to cross-pollinate his way through a sonic landscape without subscribing to any specific genre, curating a catalogue so diverse that you wouldn’t believe the differentiating tunes were tailored from the same artist. Although I am a huge fan of his recordings, I was somewhat wary of how certain tracks would translate into a live setting. Fortunately, that doubt was immediately squashed as Alex and his band flawlessly jammed to guitar forward lo-fi ballads such as “Kicker” and “Bug” from album Beach Music. Immediately after knocking out a mellowed rendition of folkish hit “Bobby,” Alex faced the floor while addressing the audience: “Alright, now we’re gonna play some really good songs!” This declaration, along with other humbled exclamations, stripped the band of any perception of “rock star” status and spotlighted Alex’s lack of agenda to meet the usual demands and expectations of the music industry.  Furthermore, this warmly invited the crowd to feel as if we were just watching a group of buddies play some music, making the songs that much more approachable.

A short hiatus from music called for an opportunity to grab some beer, which was exclusively and dangerously sold in 24-oz. cans for $15, instigating a #BudLightUpForWhateverChallenge of “which will break first, my bank or my body?”

As I settled into the natural reclining throne of the main stage hill, I got googly-eyed over that spectacular view for one final picturesque sunset, failing to capture its beauty via iPhone photos. My final spectacle of the main stage happened to be none other than PNW indie beacon and all around badass woman Neko Case, who has performed at Sasquatch! more than any other artist. Soothing a sea of weary weekenders, Case’s angelic voice serenaded those of us who were running on fumes, exhausted from a weekend of relentless stimulation. The Tacoma hometown hero kindly dedicated the song “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” off of her forthcoming album to the nearby city. In addition to teasers from Hell On, Case made sure to pull out favorites from her back catalogue such as emphatic soother “This Tornado Loves You” off of 2009’s Middle Cyclone. Still buzzing on feelings, I stumbled back in silence relishing in a pool of utter bliss.

Monday morning was met with the same suffocating heat that had become humorous by this point. Emerging from the tent, my first sight was that of the “Babe Cave” inexplicably thrashed and flipped atop Chad’s dad’s Suburban. I promptly packed up the car and embarked upon the pilgrimage back to the chaos of city-life, sitting in disbelief that the holiday weekend had come to a close so abruptly.

Be it a “limited time offer” or a giant step in the direction of salvation, Sasquatch! Music Festival was able to generate and facilitate a truly celestial experience that most promoters and festival-goers only dream of. An intimidating lineup sequencing a contrast of beloved acts with a liberal offering of emerging talent, combined with one of the most unique and picturesque venues, is absolutely unbeatable.

Here’s to hoping that the return of the beloved Sasquatch! is here to stay.

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