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On the Scene: Sasquatch! music festival

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Sasquatch

SasquatchIf insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, PopWatchers, then it must be time to up my meds: After a springtime dominated by SXSW, Coachella, and Stagecoach, and two weeks before the four-day march of Bonnaroo, I just took a vacation… to a music festival. Yes, it seems I can’t get enough of unruly crowds, tired feet, blazing sun, frustratingly spotty performances, and expensive/mediocre food, which is why this weekend, I flew up to Washington State for the Sasquatch! (yes, that exclamation point is mandatory) festival at The Gorge, a rather self-explanatory venue hanging off a cliff over the Columbia River.

I recognize that I may have a problem, but I also had a thesis to prove. What if the adorable little festival — just three stages, no teeming VIP area full of L.A. scenesters, located in the middle of the spot where nowhere goes to get away from it all — was secretly the best fest in the country? In my opinion, its lineup was better than Coachella: R.E.M., The Cure, and Flaming Lips for headliners; M.I.A., Flight of the Conchords, the New Pornographers, Death Cab, Rodrigo y Gabriela, The National, Kathleen Edwards, Rogue Wave, Mates of State, Built to Spill, and a comedy tent for the undercard. With a miniscule capacity of 22,000, I knew I’d have some breathing room, and three years at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival have taught me that folks up here are great concertgoers. Most of all: while that Pacific Northwest weather can be unpredictable, it was never, ever going to be 100 degrees outside.

[Also, my friends and I had scored the chance to dance on stage with the Flaming Lips. Um, YOU READ THAT RIGHT. The near-religious experience will not be discussed here; It’s 2 a.m. and I want to write about it when I’ve got my brain on. There will be pictures. Stay tuned.]

After the jump, highlights from all three days, and my eventual conclusion. Here’s a tease: If you’re looking for a Memorial Day vacay for next year, I’ve got just the destination in mind.

We drifted in on Saturday like the fat gray clouds that hung in the sky, relaxed and ready for the weekend ahead. In the distance, the winds lifted a single tent into the air and blew it across the campground; Rainn Wilson wandered from stage to stage, introducing bands and promo’ing The Rocker, which the plane circling overhead (and the 22,000 free bandannas strapped around the necks and heads of most everyone in attendance) told me was coming out sometime in August. We began with Beirut, Throw Me the Statue, and Kathleen Edwards, then learned that the National’s afternoon appearance on the mainstage had been postponed due to bus trouble. Seattle hype magnets Fleet Foxes got to fill in with their hairy, ancient harmonies, after which we kept our spots for a New Pornographers set that featured Neko Case and Dan Bejar, but actually kind of sucked. (I’m prepared to attribute this to either the minimal time in rehearsal the full group gets these days and/or the Destroyer mastermind’s beery presence — he’d just played a full set on the Wookie stage up the hill, and had to be coerced several times to come back out to the mic. Sometime shortly before the Porns closed with a cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the first raindrops of the afternoon fell from the sky. For this, I blame Neko. Last time she was at Sasquatch, it hailed.

We ditched out of M.I.A. for Okkervil River — thereby apparently missing the Iggy Pop-esque spectacle of Maya calling hundreds of kids up on stage to dance — then ditched out of Okkervil River for the National’s rescheduled set, during which Matt Berninger and his band of brothers put on the Show of the Weekend™. I’ve never been a fan of this band at festivals — something about bright sunlight and wide open spaces do them no favors — but on the tiny Yeti Stage under darkening, ominous skies, they were absolutely captivating, and I’ll remember Berninger’s gut-churning performance of “Mr. November” for a long, long time.

Modest Mouse having been rendered inconsequential by our National glory haze, all that was left Saturday was R.E.M — and the pride of Athens, GA, amazingly, just picked up that momentum and kept it flowing. The rain was falling hard by the time they went on, but down in the front pit, the wind was mostly blowing it over our heads; on stage, a terrifically cheerful Michael Stipe just took off his shoes and socks and kept going. Here are songs they played that pushed things over the top for your devoted R.E.M. acolyte Aunt Whittlz: “Harborcoat.” “These Days.” “Ignoreland.” (!!) An intimate guitar-circle version of the Kurt Cobain elegy “Let Me In,” which Stipe sang softly, intently, with his back to the crowd. Plus all the hits, and most of Accelerate, which has grown on me like a pleasing fungus. I was not thrilled with this band after SXSW this year. I am back to being thrilled now.

The next two afternoons, we took things even slower. Rolled in late on Sunday to catch Rogue Wave’s almost-impeccable set (sorry about the blown amp before “Lake Michigan,” guys; let’s assume the waiting just made the crowd like you more). Stayed to hear Mates of State who were plagued by technical difficulties — and are suddenly sporting two new members on strings and horns — but charmed their way through as usual. We then inadvertently wandered into a mosh pit for Death Cab, the thrashing teens around us leading me to wonder 1) who moshes to “Soul Meets Body”? and 2) when did this band stop belonging to my 30-something generation and start belonging to the kids? Is it Seth Cohen? Really? That’s all it takes? Because I’ve never seen so many happy high school/college-age kids in one place in my life. They bounced, they hugged, they sang every.single.word. It made me miss my twenties something fierce. So Death Cab are yet another band for whom redemption was found at Sasquatch — I’d been underwhelmed (and a little bored) at Coachella, but ended up buying Narrow Stairs on site this weekend as a nod to their fine sunset accompaniment.

The night finished with us lying on a blanket, far from the sight of Robert Smith’s bloated corpse but well within earshot of the Cure’s nostalgic wonderland of songs, then taking a deep breath to steel ourselves for the Flaming Lips’ Christmas on Mars, a feature film that will be discussed in my upcoming Lips-centric post but which you’ve really got to see to believe. Lots of dead babies and vaginas. No, really. Sleepy and (somewhat) visually traumatized, today, my gosh, our leisurely pace darn near ground to a halt. We told ourselves we were taking it easy, saving up energy for the dancing to come, but really, we were just content to hear Built to Spill, RodGab, and the Flight of the Conchords (who tend to put me into a coma for some reason) from a distance, their music wafting in the steady breeze like that tent from Day 1 as we sipped our beers and stared out at the river. I was on vacation, after all, and the craziest thing is: When I’m not running myself ragged trying to capture every last moment of these things on paper and film, I really do love just sitting and listening to bands play. Maybe that does not always include the endless nightmare soundtrack of the Mars Volta, but I was so blissed out by the time their cacophony pulled in it barely even registered. My festival buddy Josh reports they kicked things off by throwing a guitar into the crowd and menacing a cameraman; I would just like them to chill. The world is beautiful and people are good. This may be the Flaming Lips experience talking, but I would like to hug the Mars Volta, and tell them everything is going to be all right, even in El Paso.

Conclusion time, PopWatchers! Is Sasquatch a “better” fest than Coachella or Bonnaroo?

From a musical perspective, probably not — there’s not the same diversity here (no dance tent, very little hip-hop or world music), and that magical feeling of discovery dims the farther one gets from the hype of the majors. Plus, the food is wretched, and nearby lodging is painfully sparse. But in terms of overall user-friendlyness, the yeti takes the cake: the crowd is kind and filled with music lovers, it takes no more than like 45 seconds to travel from stage to stage yet there’s very little sound bleed, the traffic and parking are exceedingly manageable and efficient, the bands seem happy, the security seems really happy, and if you don’t mind a few raindrops, the weather is spectacular. Frankly, I thought the rain clouds just made the view more dramatic. Bottom line: I expected different results… and I got them. Great. Now I’m never gonna learn. But I am in terrific festival shape for my Tennessee trip, which is nice.

Hey, were any of you there? Thoughts? Favorite moments? Care to add anything to my thesis and its resolution? And if you were elsewhere: did you listen to any particularly memorable music this Memorial Day?