Driving to the Sasquatch! Festival on Thursday I opted to skip out on I-90 from Seattle and instead drive way up north and take Route 2. It still gets you where you’re going, but the traffic-congested two-and-a-half hour trip you get with 90 becomes an isolated six-hour journey if you choose Rt. 2. It’s completely worth it considering what you get instead: over 100 miles of absolutely stunning forests. Bright spring weather shifts into snowy mountains, freight trains chug by, so long they seem to lack a beginning or end — the forest completely surrounds you. It’s a real experience (playing Mount Eerie and Agalloch records loud certainly helps, too) and it sort of sums up what makes Sasquatch! so special.
The big sell on a music festival beyond the lineup is the idea that it’s not just about seeing bands you like – it’s the environment, the community, it’s seeing bands you like in this setting. And that’s where Sasquatch! shines over many other festivals, and really delivers. There’s an indescribable feeling when you walk up the steep hill to the main stage, and look down the other side, like it’s the peak of a roller-coaster, for the first time. You get this view, as far as you can see, of mountains, rivers, and valleys — even the massive main stage where Macklemore would headline tonight (more on that soon) looked like a footnote to everything else you’re taking in. It must put everyone, artists and fans alike, in a unique frame of mind. There have already been a few killer shows after one day.
Erik Blood’s early set at the Yeti stage was the perfect way to start things off. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the man who is better known as the producer for hip-hop acts like Shabazz Palaces and THEESastisfaction, but Blood delivered a blast of melted jangle-pop. Weaved through his band’s textured web of electric and acoustic guitars — five total — his band somehow evokes Shabazz’s spacey productions with the straight up rock-god passion you’d expect from Guided By Voices. It was certainly preferable to the bigger draw in the time slot, Sea Wolf, who after three songs I dismissed in my notes with the words “Urban Outfitters.”
Over on the main stage Reignwolf were living up to their hype as a live act. Frontman Jordan Cook is a born showman, and even when the messy blues rock doesn’t grab you, he does. When he is playing drums, and using his mic to play slide guitar, AND singing into that same mic it occurred to me that it doesn’t matter if the song is really all that great because that visual completely makes up for it. And that’s when the van drove up…
As the set seemed to be dying down, a beat up black van (decked out in Reignwolf logos) drove up with a smaller stage on it; you could see almost every photographer turn a grin at each other, anticipating what was going to happen. Cook on the van, balancing on a fucking kick drum was one of the best sights to see that day. He went on, playing guitar and drumming at once like the bastard child of Meg and Jack White, until eventually the van drove him away backstage as people chased after.
Jherek Bishoff showed up around 6PM with an assortment of horns and strings to show off some of his glorious arrangements (like the ones he brought to a favorite of mine, Xiu Xiu’s Fabulous Muscles). That said, when you’re already over your set time, it’s really not cool to give a long (although very sincere) speech and then play one more song. C’mon man, Strand Of Oaks want to play too. Speaking of Strand Of Oaks, they killed it … eventually. They were the first band badly hit by the delays and sound problems that plagued the Yeti stage, but after 20 minutes of delay and two songs worth of buzzing sound problems, things finally clicked and everyone got to see what the fuss was about. Tim Showalter’s guitar and vocals are a towering thing, backed up by a drummer using only mallets to make a thick weighty foundation. I had to split early, but I got to stick around for “Daniel’s Blues,” which Showalter teasingly referred to as, “our hit song … it’s about killing John Belushi’s drug dealer.”
After leaving Sea Wolf on the Bigfoot stage earlier that morning, coming back for Japandroids was like coming back to your quiet house and finding a full-on rager happening. People were already going absolutely nuts, and this was before “House That Heaven Built” came on. I skipped out on the little press booth, because, well, it’s Japandroids, and if I want to do this right, then I’m going in the pit. It was absolutely surreal during the closer, “For The Love Of Ivy,” to see kids move from the most aggressive moshing of any act that day to complete stillness and back in seconds, matching the jerky start-stop of the song. I kept wondering if any of these kids knew the original version by the Gun Club, but then someone knocked my shoe off and it seemed like a good time to change things up. I needed hip-hop.
I excitedly wrote about him earlier this week, and the small bit of Nacho Picasso I saw was fantastic. He’s funny and has his pop culture references down so well. Anybody and everybody raps about Adventure Time these days, but what about when he brought up the lost ’90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-off, Street Sharks? That was impressive. Also, a choice line that I wish Showalter from Strand of Oaks could have heard: “I’m John Belushi meets Chris Farley when I party.”
Youth Lagoon got upstaged, for a lot of people, by the freaking sun setting over the main stage. Arctic Monkeys were playing during this, but it mostly felt like background music. At this point Youth Lagoon’s stage was really running late. There was some groaning and shouting, but after 40 minutes of waiting Trevor Powers thanked everyone for their patience, the lights hit, “Mute” exploded from the speakers and someone let a bag of puppy balloons fly. All was forgotten. I saw YL play maybe three weeks ago, and while they were very good, I wasn’t prepared for the lushness or heaviness of this set. On record, Powers’ fragile intimacy sounds like someone with their flashlight whispering to you under a blanket — personal and shy. The intimacy is still there, but it grew into something gigantic. They turned “Pelican Man,” (a song I didn’t even really like on Wondrous Bughouse) into the brutally heavy psych-rock stomper it felt like it was always meant to be, with bass pulses that shook my vision. A highlight, not just of the set, but of the entire day.
Macklemore’s big headlining performance brought the biggest crowd by a lot. It’s not just that he’s Macklemore, he’s Macklemore at his hometown festival. When I arrived he was making a very heartfelt speech about drug addiction and recovery, about him becoming a rapper. It was sincere, and thoughtful — but after a few songs a strange pattern emerged. Every single song was preceded by a five minute speech introducing it. These lengthy rants, while certainly passionate, left a lot of awkward silence among thousands and thousands, and were broken up by really thoughtful songs like “Same Love,” and dumb party anthems. It was uncomfortably uneven. Only a few songs into his set the cheese-factor was too high, and I needed to have a nice bass-heavy palate cleanser in the form of Baauer, before taking off for the night.
A little earlier was the big draw for many, myself included. Vampire Weekend, hot off the release of their new album, brought a massive crowd before they even started their sound check. I enjoy their albums for the most part, but the fact is these guys have been putting on incredible live shows for nearly half a decade. I saw VW first about five years ago at a festival. I didn’t really get all of the hype about them, but then I saw their live show and was made a convert. Now many years (and two more universally lauded albums) later it was clear from the start, as they entered with a horn fanfare, that this is a very different band from the one many fell in love with way back when. And for the better.
Time, success, and confidence have made Vampire Weekend stronger than they’ve ever been. As they burned through a massive 21 song set it occurred to me that there wasn’t a single song in the bunch that didn’t make me go “Yes,” as it began. It takes a very special band to do that. Even when the sound cut out during “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the band didn’t stop. In fact, Ezra Koenig jumped right into the chorus as the sound was restored so skillfully that he could have passed it off as some rehearsed stunt. The band’s set list is an a beautiful display of structure, build and release. They smartly waited until several songs into the set to dive into the new material (“Diane Young” and “Step,” back to back). Midway through they paid tribute to the oft-forgotten B-side of the Mansard Roof 7″ (their first release) with “Ladies of Cambridge,” and turned the 1-2-3 of “Giving Up The Gun,” “Obvious Bicycle,” and “Diplomat’s Son,” into slower, groovier finish. As they did when I first saw them, the band closed with “Walcott,” in all its explosive glory and as I was leaving I felt like I’d been made a fan all over again.